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Frederick Maurice "Fred" Key

Death: September 15, 1971 (62)
Immediate Family:

Son of Elmore Benjamin Key and Mary Ola Love Key
Brother of Al Key

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About Fred Key

Fred and Al Key were brothers who performed barnstorming events and other activities during the early 20th century. They are best known for their flight endurance record, which they cemented at twenty-seven days. They also invented a valve for aerial refueling that became the industry standard for the United States military.

Early history and record attempt

Brothers Fred and Al Key became interested in aviation after World War I. They started doing some barnstorming in the 1920s and continued their interest as the managers of the Meridian Municipal Airport, in Meridian, Mississippi.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the city of Meridian began doing whatever it could to save money. The airport was considered unnecessary, given the economic conditions, and was slated to be closed.

The Key brothers had no desire to see this happen, so they came up with a plan to draw attention to Meridian and its airport by breaking the standing flight endurance record of 23 days. At that time, air-to-air refueling was a dangerous affair. If gasoline was spilled, which often happened, it could be ignited by the hot engine exhaust.

To solve this problem, the Key brothers, along with local inventor and mechanic A. D. Hunter, invented a spill-free fueling system that consisted of a valve on the end of the fuel nozzle which was opened by a probe in the neck of the fuel tank. The valve would not allow fuel to flow unless it was inserted into the fuel tank. During fueling, if the nozzle was removed from the tank, the fuel would automatically stop flowing. This nozzle was later adopted by the US Army Air Corps, and is still in use today with some modifications.

Refueling the plane wasn't their only concern. The engine needed regular maintenance during the flight in order to stay in good running order. To facilitate this, a catwalk was built so that Fred could walk out and work on the plane while it was airborne.

On June 4, 1935, The Flying Keys, as the brothers later became known, lifted off in a borrowed Curtiss Robin monoplane named Ole Miss from Meridian, Mississippi's airport. For the next twenty-seven days, they flew over the Meridian vicinity. Several times each day, the crew of a similar plane would lower food and supplies to the brothers on the end of a rope, as well as supply fuel via a long flexible tube. They landed on July 1 after traveling an estimated 52,320 miles and used more than 6,000 gallons of gasoline.

Their non-stop endurance flight lasted 653 hours, 34 minutes. The Ole Miss is permanently displayed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C..

After this historic flight, Meridian's public airport was renamed Key Field in the brothers' honor.

According to Owen, the brothers' flight boosted confidence in aviation nationally. People figured if the Key brothers made their flight safely in such a small plane, then the big commercial airplanes were definitely safe.

World War II

The Key brothers both served as bomber pilots during World War II. Fred was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (USA).

Al was the commanding officer of the 66th Squadron (part of the 44th Bombardment Group) flying Consolidated B-24 Liberators from England. By the time he was taken off combat missions in 1943 he had earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, an Air Medal, a Distinguished Service Cross from the British and seven Bronze Stars for participating in combat.

Postwar activities

Al remained in the Air Force until his retirement in 1960 at the rank of full Colonel, after which he was elected mayor of Meridian in 1965 and 1969; he was unseated in 1973 by a Republican, Tom Stuart.

Fred Key ran the Key Brothers Flying Service at Key Field until his death in 1971. The cutoff valve developed for the Keys by A.D. Hunter was an important innovation for national defense, being the precursor of those used by modern tanker airplanes, such as the KC-135 Stratotanker, that keep bombers and fighter aircraft in the air. Today, with only slight modifications, U.S. Air Force and Strategic Air Command airplanes use the valve that Hunter invented.


In the mid-1930s Meridian, Mississippi, like many midsized southern cities, began seeking funds to build a modern airport. The bumpy grass runway had little appeal to the new commercial airlines of the day, and Meridian’s boosters wanted their city to appear on the world’s air map. The airport’s operators, Algene Earl Key and Frederick Maurice Key, thought that publicity stunt would generate interest in the project, and they decided to establish a new world record for sustained flight. To do so, they had to overcome numerous obstacles, including finding safe ways to refuel and service their plane while in flight.

Securing the help of A. D. Hunter and James Keeton, the Key Brothers located a Curtis-Robbins high-wing monoplane powered by a 165-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine. They named the little plane the Ole Miss. The aircraft was modified with a one hundred fifty-gallon fuel tank and a catwalk from the enclosed cockpit out toward the propeller. The Key Brothers would take turns making the hazardous journey along the catwalk to service the engine and refuel the plane. They also designed a spill-free air-to-air refueling nozzle to keep fuel from splattering over the aircraft and starting a fire. During the record-setting flight, Hunter and Keeton would fly a similar plane above Ole Miss, lowering engine oil and food as well as refueling via the nozzle-hose contraption. The brothers’ wives, Louise and Evelyn, would provide meals for Hunter and Keeton to deliver.

The Key Brothers promoted their proposed adventure in the local media, and after two unsuccessful attempts in 1934, on 4 June 1935 a modest crowd watched as they lifted off the grass strip at 12:32 p.m. Their flight plan took them on looping patterns above the greater Meridian area. As the Keys remained aloft for first one week and then two and three, intrigued local citizens watched from the ground, joking that Louise and Evelyn would divorce their husbands for desertion.

For nearly four weeks, the brothers took turns flying and servicing the plane, enduring a lack of restful sleep, thunderstorms, and filthy conditions that inflamed their eyes. In addition, an electrical fire broke out on board, and the Curtis nearly collided with the refueling plane on several occasions.

At 6:06 p.m. on 1 July 1935 the Key brothers landed the Ole Miss in the middle of the grassy strip in front of more than thirty thousand onlookers. A few months later, the City of Meridian began building a new airport, Key Field.

During their twenty-seven-days aloft, the Key Brothers flew for 653 hours, 34 minutes, and covered 52,320 miles—enough to circle the earth twice. The Wright engine made more than sixty-one million revolutions, consumed six thousand gallons of fuel, and used three hundred gallons of oil while maintaining an average airspeed of eighty miles per hour. It received fuel and supplies from the other aircraft 432 times. The Keys’ record for sustained flight would not be broken until the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s.

In 1955 Fred Key had the Ole Miss restored and flew the plane to Washington, D.C., where it remains on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The Army Air Corps adopted the Keys’ style of in-flight refueling during World War II, and a modified version of the valve that Hunter invented for their flight remains in use by US military aircraft.

Both Al and Fred Key served as bomber pilots during World War II, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors. Al Key remained in the US Air Force until 1960, when he retired with the rank of colonel. He served as mayor of Meridian from 1965 until 1973. Fred Key ran Key Brothers Aviation Service at Key Field until his death.

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Fred Key's Timeline

April 28, 1909
September 15, 1971
Age 62