Friday, October 20, 2023

St. Tammany Airways Makes Aviation History

Louisiana made some particularly important contributions to aviation history. Even St. Tammany played a part in the first major expansion of airmail services across the United States.

According to Vincent Caire, author of a book about early Louisiana aviation, civilian flying between 1910 and 1926 was primarily novelty flights and demonstrations, although there were primitive attempts to carry air mail. For years, it seemed aviation was of no "practical use" for the general public. 

Then, according to the Louisiana Dept. of Culture, Recreation and Tourism webpage, entomologist Dr. Bert R. Coad at the United States Department of Agriculture field laboratory at Tallulah, Louisiana, sought ways to eliminate the boll weevil, a tiny insect that annually destroyed large portions of the southern cotton crop. This was in the late 1910's. He soon realized the value of aerial crop-dusting.

"Through his work Coad came into contact with C. E. Woolman, a district supervisor for the Louisiana State University agricultural extension service. Woolman, an aviation enthusiast, had attended the world's first aviation meet in Rheims, France, in 1909. Coad and Woolman became acquainted with George B. Post, vice president of the Huff Daland Company, which created a crop-dusting division in 1924. The following year the company hired Woolman and shifted its operations from Macon, Georgia, to Monroe, Louisiana."

The "Arrows Across America" webpage noted that the very next year the Air Mail Act of 1925 (Kelly Act) authorized the postmaster general to "contract for domestic airmail service with commercial air carriers. By transferring airmail operations to private companies, the government effectively would help create the commercial aviation industry. Various routes were designated and contracts for carrying the mail over these routes were then awarded to many different private air service companies."

Among those companies would be one named "St. Tammany."

St. Tammany Airways Inc. was incorporated on June 23, 1927.  While it was incorporated with a New Orleans address and flew out of  Alvin Callendar Field in Belle Chasse, the organizers and owners of the airline had close contacts in St. Tammany Parish, even starting a pilot training school in Covington. It is unknown why they named the airline St. Tammany, but the name resonated across the nation as St. Tammany Airways received more and more government contracts for airmail for cities further and further outward. 

The first two years of St. Tammany Airways were an astounding success as more and more  towns and cities across the country clamored for airmail service, and St. Tammany Airways was there to give advice, encourage airmail service,  and run the routes. It eventually changed its name to St. Tammany Gulf Coast Airways, Inc. E. T. Watson was the founder of St. Tammany Gulf Coast Airways, according to a Times Picayune article that first year.

Historian Caire found that when airmail service expanded in 1928, the federal government selected St. Tammany Airways to provide delivery from New Orleans to Mobile, Birmingham, and Atlanta. It flew airmail across the southeastern United States and even up to Chicago, Illinois. 

Click on articles to make them larger. 

St. Tammany Airways started out using the Fokker Universal Airplane, a well-known workhorse of an aircraft, but switched to the Fokker Super Universal Airplane when passengers came on board. It had a enclosed cabin. 










Lunch served in the air 

Planes fly over Tulane football field at half-time

Mergers and takeovers began in 1929

In October 1928 A. P. Barrett, owner of the Texas-Louisiana Power Company and the St. Tammany Gulf Coast Air Ways, Inc., purchased Texas Air Transport. Not long afterwards, they both became part of a new company, Southern Air Transport, and within a year American Airways was born, absorbing them all. Four years later, it was renamed American Airlines. 

U.S. Secretary of Labor Prefers To Ride In St. Tammany Airways Cabin Airplane

US First Flight Cover St Tammany Gulf Coast Airways New Orleans 1928

This envelope was one of the first pieces of mail handled by St. Tammany Airways in its inaugural airmail route to Birmingham, AL, in 1928

Another envelope among the first letters carried by St. Tammany Airways, this time between New Orleans and Atlanta, and on to Chicago.

Airmail was a big deal for business owners and a profitable addition
to the original airline companies income stream

Early airmail plane

The St. Tammany Gulf Airways Corporation got tremendous newspaper coverage throughout 1927, 1928 and 1929, as the air mail service expanded from New Orleans to Mobile to Selma and to Birmingham. Then it continued to expand to Atlanta and Chicago. Moving west, Beaumont was one of the first recipients of air mail service. 

The first planes to arrive with a load of air mail were greeted with large celebrations, bands and welcomes by local public officials. 

Although making it happen was not always smooth (there were crashes), people across the country were eagar to join the air mail routes, and newspapers across the country talked highly of St. Tammany Gulf Airways. Personnel with St. Tammany Airways flew to a number of cities, promoting the building of better airports and expanding aviation in any way possible. 

Houston Demanded Airmail Service

The 1940 Air Terminal Museum's Facebook page says that on January 23, 1929,  St. Tammany Gulf Coast Airways began service to Houston from New Orleans via Beaumont. Six place Fokker Universal aircraft were used in the service.
"We must never forget how important getting Air Mail service was!" the Houston based museum spokesman said. "City business leaders opened the original Houston Airport in response to recommendations from the Post Office and the airlines: If you wanted Air Mail service you had to have an airport" that met Federal standards. The Houston Airport opened in the summer of 1927 to meet those demands. Prior to Air Mail, Houston had to send it's mail to Dallas, by train, twice a day. Simple letters took a week or more to be received beyond Texas. It wasn't exactly the Internet, but for its day the mail became blisteringly fast when you sent it via Air Mail!"

The Covington Connection

In the June 2, 1928, edition of the St. Tammany Farmer newspaper, a Mr. Boggs was identified as one of the early organizers of the St. Tammany-Gulf Coast Airways, "which company is now carrying the U.S. Mail from New Orleans to Atlanta." Boggs was attending a meeting where proposals to finance the building of a golf course between Covington and Mandeville were being discussed.

Ellis E. Boggs was with the Southern Aeronautical Service (a flight training school) and once visited the St. Tammany Farmer office in Covington to discuss students enrolled in the local pilot training program. 

In a November 3, 1929, article in the Times Picayune E.T. Watson was one of the businessmen in attendance at an awards banquet at the Jung Hotel following an Air Show by Army and Navy Fliers. At that meeting Major Bennett A. Molter spoke on the development of airports in Louisiana since 1916. "New Orleans was one of the first cities in the United States to have aviation," he told the group. "Louisiana is no longer a state of cow pasture airports," he said, predicting that New Orleans would become a major terminal for Latin American air travel. 

Not long after, St. Tammany and Gulf Coast Airways was made a part of Southern Air Transport under its president C.R. Smith.

The Patterson Connection

Meanwhile, over in Patterson, Louisiana, (near Lafayette) according to the Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum there, aviation pioneers Jimmie Wedell and Harry P. Williams, both of Louisiana, formed an early air service together in 1928 in Patterson. Both men became nationally prominent during the Golden Age of Aviation, and their legacy lives on in the memorabilia and planes on display at the museum.

The Tourist Commission On Airmail Firsts

The Louisiana state tourism agency picks up the narrative at this point, explaining on its webpage that early "promoters of air travel hoped to establish the industry through a demonstration of its practical uses. They found a likely target in the mail system. 

"In 1912, more than a dozen years before airmail became a regular service, French aviator George Mestach delivered mail from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in 1 hour and 32 minutes, marking the second airmail delivery in the United States. Although he ran into a fence and broke the plane’s propeller upon landing on the Louisiana State University campus, the jostled Mestach managed to deliver a letter to Governor J. Y. Sanders."

The tourism website goes on to say that businessmen also began to view aviation as a tool for securing trade and commerce with countries abroad, especially in Central and South America. In the 1920s such boosters as the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and the Young Men’s Business Club (YMBC) campaigned for federal airmail service and promoted aviation activities. In 1925 the YMBC constructed Alvin Callender Field, named after the only New Orleans pilot to be killed in World War I.

In 1923 New Orleans became one of two cities in the United States to test the effectiveness of incorporating air delivery for foreign mail. The government awarded the contract to World War I veteran Arthur Cambas, who hired former naval aviators and formed New Orleans Air Line.

Departing from a hangar at the end of Poland Avenue, seaplanes brought mail from New Orleans to Pilot Town at the mouth of the Mississippi River, allowing mail bound for South America to reach steamers twelve hours after they left New Orleans. The service also brought mail from incoming ships into the city.

Louisiana entrepreneurs and pilots were among the first to advance the idea of air travel, improve aircraft design, and usher in the Golden Age of Aviation, according to Caire, the author of the book on Louisiana aviation history. "They developed aerial crop dusting, initiated airmail routes, pushed the limits of stunt flying, and entertained spectators with air races," he was quoted as saying. Barn-storming was an aviation staple in the early days of flying.

First Airship and First Helicopter

According to an article last year in the Alexandria Daily Town Talktwo figures from Central Louisiana were among the first to help mankind get their feet off the ground in the early 1900s. Those men were Charles Page of Pineville, who built the first airship, and Leo Ortego of Alexandria, who built the first working manned helicopter.

According to Mike Wynne, a local historian, "Leo Ortego, in 1922, created the first working helicopter. He took off at the corner of Bolton Avenue and Rapides Avenue which is across from the old Acme Glass Plant." Ortego flew about 15 feet in the air.

Delta Airlines Begins

Returning to the efforts by Delta Airlines founder C. E. Woolman, that company evolved from a crop-dusting operation called Huff Daland Dusters.

The Delta Airlines website states that "Huff Daland Dusters, the world’s first aerial crop-dusting company, incorporated on March 2, 1925. Stated purposes for the new company included using aircraft for "the carrying of passengers, goods, wares and merchandise, for all kinds of commercial purposes..." With a few months of its incorporation, the crop-dusting firm moved to Monroe, Louisiana, because of a larger market there for crop-dusting. It became a huge crop-dusting service across several states, with the largest fleet of private planes in the nation.

In June of 1928 Woolman negotiated a successful bid in Huff Daland Dusters’ name for an airline concession and airmail contract in the country of Peru. On Dec. 3, 1928, Delta Air Service incorporated after local investors, led by C.E. Woolman and Monroe banker Travis Oliver, purchased the assets of Huff Daland Dusters.

On June 17, 1929 Delta began passenger flights over a route stretching from Dallas, Texas to Jackson, Mississippi, via Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana. The planes carried five passengers and a pilot. On Dec. 31, 1930 Delta Air Corporation incorporated in Louisiana. Its headquarters remained at Selman Field in Monroe.

During the Great Depression it was forced to suspend passenger airline operations but survived by crop dusting, aerial survey services, managing Selman Field, operating a flight school, and providing "top-quality, extensive services for the repair and overhaul of aircraft." Delta eventually grew into one of the world's largest airlines.

So Louisiana as a whole has many solid connections to the development of early aviation, and St. Tammany was the namesake for a pioneering airmail delivery airline.

Abita Springs Airport

With an impressive pedigree in aviation history for the entire state, that brings us to St. Tammany Airport east of Abita Springs, which is in the center of the parish. The airport was built fifty something years ago to serve a need, a home base for St. Tammany's many aircraft owners. 

 The Greater St. Tammany Regional Airport, at one time called the Richard Privette Sr. Airport, is located on La. 36 about three miles outside of Abita Springs. Richard Privette Sr. was one of St. Tammany Parish's early pioneers in flying. According to a newspaper article at the time, Privette was the first man in the parish to build and fly his own airplane.

According to the parish webpage, the airport is back in operation with Abita Skies Aviation as the new FBO manager, reopening after a $1 million upgrade to the airport. It had been temporarily closed for construction. 

The Grand opening for Abita Skies was on May 11, 2024, and included a festive event with barbecue sandwiches, live music, bi-plane flights and facility tours. Abita Skies Aviation serves a variety of civil aviation enthusiasts and their aviation assets. Services include fuel sales, T-hangar rentals, Tie-downs, a Gulf Coast Aviation Flight School, a Pilot lounge, transient parking, office and meeting space. 

Its runway is 75 feet wide and just under 3000 feet long. An article on Wikipedia stated that St. Tammany Regional Airport covers an area of 42 acres at an elevation of 39 feet above sea level.

"For the 12-month period ending April 15, 2009, the airport had 25,600 aircraft operations, an average of 70 per day: 98 per cent of which were for general aviation and two percent for air taxi. At that time there were 18 aircraft based at the airport: 13 single-engine, 3 multi-engine, 1 helicopter and 1 ultralight," the Wikipedia article said, quoting FAA reports.

The FBO (Fixed Base Operator) Office at St. Tammany Regional Airport

I remember the days when the Soaring Center flew sailplanes out of the airport, I remember arrival of corporate jets (if they could land on the short runway.) The parish should consider turning it into a business airport, or an executive airport. The nearby acreage has been designated an industrial park so there's an additional incentive.

Airports in the area

See also:

Aviation in St. Tammany Over The Years

Longtime Pilot Recalls Aviation Milestones

St. Tammany Sailplane Activity

Wings and Wheels Show at St. Tammany Airport

Jack Frost, Retired Airline Pilot

Fox8Live John Moisant

From the webpage of the Louisiana Commission on Recreation and Tourism comes this interesting tidbit: 

Brigadier General Claire L. Chennault

"Born in Commerce, Texas, in 1890, Chennault was reared on a farm near Waterproof, Louisiana. As a youth he was encouraged to be self-reliant, and he grew to be combative, defiant, quick to take offense, and determined to rank first.

"He entered Louisiana State University at the age of fourteen and later became a teacher. He joined the United States Army in April 1917 as America entered World War I. Chennault became a student of military aviation and developed a reputation as a maverick due to his unconventional views regarding tactical deployment of wartime airpower. He retired as a captain in 1937, ostensibly due to a hearing loss he suffered as a result of many years in open cockpits.

"Chennault’s writings on combat airpower drew the attention of General Chiang Kai-shek, whose Chinese forces had been ravaged by four years of Japanese conflict. The general invited Chennault to China to advise him in the rebuilding of the Chinese air force. Through 1940, Chennault busily trained pilots, but they were no match against the superior numbers and equipment of the invaders.

"Chennault enlisted support for the Chinese government and was able to procure 100 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks originally intended for the Royal Air Force. A small group of volunteers, about 110 pilots and 150 support personnel, were recruited from the United States services. This fledgling force, an American volunteer group known as the Flying Tigers, initially operated in China under the guise of a commercial air transport company, but soon confronted the Japanese in open battle. The group flew its first offensive mission on December 10, 1941. During the next eight months, the Flying Tigers achieved the remarkable combat record of 299 Japanese aircraft destroyed at the expense of only 4 American pilots.

"Chennault was recalled to active duty in 1942 with the rank of brigadier general and placed at the head of the China Air Task Force, later the Fourteenth Air Force. He retired as a major general in 1945. In 1958 Chennault met an enemy he could not defeat—cancer. He died July 27, 1958, in New Orleans shortly after receiving his third star. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.