19 November 2015

C.E. Woolman and the Founding of Delta Air Lines

C.E. Woolman (Minnesota Public Radio)
Collett Everman Woolman was born in Indiana in 1889 and was raised in the academic environment of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where his father taught physics at the University of Illinois. Woolman's interest in aviation began at an early age when he and his friends appropriated every clothesline in his neighborhood to build a giant passenger-carrying kite which fortunately for history, crashed before anyone tried to take flight in it. As a freshman, he even built a crude airplane which had to make a forced landing on his university campus. In his sophomore year of collge at the University of Illinois, he learned of the first aviation world meet to be held in Reims, France, and the ambitious Woolman managed to get a job tending a herd of 800 travelling calves to get to France. On his return, he helped pioneer aviator Claude Grahame-White overhaul a rotary engine in the passenger steamer's cargo hold in preparation for an airshow in Boston. 

He graduated in 1912 from the University of Illinois with a bachelor's degree in agriculture. That's right, farming. The legendary founder and head of Delta Airlines studied agriculture in college, hardly the field to propel him into aviation, but in those days, aviation as a business and industry hardly existed and was more the realm of half-cocked mad scientist types to be shunned by the general population. In fact, if you wanted to look up Glenn Martin's aircraft company in Los Angeles in those days in the phone book, it was listed under "Amusements"! With a fresh degree in agriculture, Woolman moved south to farm various locales in Mississippi before becoming the manager of a 7000 acre plantation in northern Louisiana. 

In 1913 he joined the extension department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge as an agricultural sciences instructor who travelled out to farmers to pass on the latest techniques. In 1914 the US Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act which formalized the extension cooperative system in which universities would reach out to farmers to formally educate them on the latest developments in agriculture. With this new law, the young C.E. Woolman became LSU's first extension agent in Lousiana and based his operation in Monroe, Louisiana. 

Travelling throughout Louisiana, he not only met with farmers and plantation owners but also consulted with financial institutions on investing in agriculture as well as liasing with the agricultural scientists back at the LSU campus. It was during this time that the boll weevil infestation was ravaging the US cotton crop. A chemical had been developed which was effective against the boll weevil; calcium arsenate was a dry powder which worked well, but was cumbersome and inefficient when applied from the ground. 

The federal government had experimented with US Army planes in rudimentary crop dusting efforts, but a grant was given to an entomologist by the name of Dr. Bert Coad at the US Department of Agriculture's Delta Laboratory in Tallulah, Louisiana. Coad had difficulty finding an airplane that possessed a good load carrying capacity to carry enough calcium arsenate powder to dust an entire cotton field. Coad hooked up with a small company called Huff-Daland which was trying to market a military training biplane. Struggling for cash, Huff-Daland eagerly cooperated with Bert Coad in his crop dusting trials.

Huff-Daland Duster at the National Air & Space Museum
(Smithsonian Air & Space Museum)
Given Woolman's job with LSU's agricultural extension, he observed many of Coad's trials with interest. Encouraged by Woolman's favorable assessments of the effectiveness of aerial crop dusting against the boll weevil, Coad tried to get more federal grant money to expand the enterprise. Woolman had enthusiastically spread the word to area farmers that there was a new weapon against the boll weevil and soon Coad found he didn't have the resources to meet the demand. But the US Department of Agriculture saw Coad's trials as only an experiment and failed to provide more resources. 

In 1923, the vice president of Huff-Daland happend to stop by Tallulah, Louisiana, on his way to Texas to demonstrate a Huff-Daland trainer to the US Army. There he ran into Coad and Woolman at the airport and found their work intriguing and thought it would make for a great commercial opportunity with the right amount of investment. He convinced Huff-Daland to set up a crop dusting division in northern Louisiana and he put Coad in charge. But Coad wasn't the best of salesmen and he asked Huff-Daland to hire C.E. Woolman as it's head of sales. Huff-Daland Dusters was originally based in Macon, Georgia, with the bulk of their original business being the spraying of peach orchards. However, by 1925 the company moved to Monroe, Louisiana, with the promise of local investment that Woodman had secured. Coad's former laboratory in Tallulah was close by and Woolman's work with the farmers there brought them a ready-made clientele. Woolman, in that classic Southern genteel style he would become famous for, convinced local business leaders in Monroe to invest in Huff-Daland Dusting Company and by the mid 1920s, Woolman had expanded the dusting operation to include Texas, Arakansas, California, North Carolina and even a contract to do crop dusting for the Peruvian government. In a few short years, Huff Daland Dusters would have one of the largest private fleets of aircraft in the United States, even more than some of the airlines of the day.

Delta's first logo (Delta Flight Museum)
Within a few years, Woolman himself would buy the entire dusting operation from Huff-Daland while Huff-Daland Aircraft itself moved to Pennsylvania and was renamed Keystone Aircraft, one of the pioneering aircraft companies of the day. Woodman wanted a simple name preferably with five letters and it was his long time administrative assistant Catherine Fitzgerald, who suggested the name "Delta". Given its long time service area of the Mississippi Delta region, the name was perfect and the triangle was not too dissimilar to the Huff-Daland Dusting Company logo. One of Delta's first non-dusting contract came from the Army Corps of Engineers who wanted aerial surveys done of the levees along the Mississippi River after some disastrous floods in 1927. Woodman likely was considering starting an airline around that time, a federal airmail survey passed through Monroe and he had been looking at a proposed air mail route that connected Shreveport, Monroe, Jackson, Meridian, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham. In 1929, he even went as far as got advice from a Minneapolis-based airline (Northwest) who offered him suggestions on operating a passenger-carrying airline. However, Delta's finances at the time weren't in a position to get the Ford or Fokker trimotor airliners used by the major airlines of the day. As luck would have it, in a small town not far from Monroe was a businessman named John Fox who had just started a local air service that concentrated on taking people up for joyrides in Travel Air biplanes. Fox had ordered a larger aircraft, a high-wing monoplane with a six-seat enclosed cabin Travel Air S6000. Fox and Woodman met in 1929 and hit it off well given their mutual aspirations of starting an airline. Delta purchased the assets of Fox Flying Service in exchange for Delta stock which made John Fox the biggest Delta shareholder. Fox was named an officer of the company by Woodman and moved to Monroe to help Woodman get their airline off the ground.  Delta Air Service carried its first passenger from Dallas, Texas, to Monroe, Louisiana in on 17 June 1929. Though Delta's agricultural operations would dominate for a while longer, it was a humble beginning for a Southern farmer and his airline.........

Historical Tangent: Thomas Huff and Elliot Daland started their company in 1920 as Ogdensburg Aeroway Company in 1920 in Ogdensburg, New York. They soon became the Huff Daland Aero Company and in 1924 their chief designer was James S. McDonnell (yes, *that* McDonnell that would go on to establish McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis during the Second  World War). Thomas Huff sold his share of the company in 1926 and it was acquired by a securities firm who invested a significant amount in Huff Daland and moved the operation from New York to Bristol, Pennsylvania and renamed it Keystone Aircraft. Keystone merged with Loening Aircraft in 1928 and the following year Keystone-Loening was taken over by Curtiss Wright. The Loening plant on the East River in New York City was closed by Curtiss and operations transferred to Bristol. A handful of Loening workers and management, though, all New Yorkers, elected to stay and form their own company to stay in New York. The leader of the group was none other than Leroy Grumman. Yes, *that* Grumman!

Sources: Delta: The History of an Airline by W. David Lewis and Wesley Phillips Newton. University of Georgia Press, 1979, pp 1-24. Delta: An Airline and Its Aircraft by R.E.G. Davies. Palawdr Press, 1990, pp 8-13. 

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