They Flew & Flew & Flew | History | Smithsonian
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They Flew & Flew & Flew

How two brothers in an old Curtiss Robin set a record that's stood for 62 years

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It was the heart of the Great Depression, and in Meridian, Mississippi, the future of the new airport seemed uncertain. The Key brothers, Al, 30, and Fred, 26, were co-managers of the field. They were also crazy about flying and had learned their business first as barnstormers, then instructors. So to earn the airport some valuable publicity, they decided to make aviation history by setting a record for endurance. They didn't own a plane, but they borrowed a Curtiss Robin, a high-winged monoplane, with a 165-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine. Aided by friends, they fitted it with a 150-gallon gas tank and a catwalk that Fred climbed around on to service the Whirlwind in midair. They also pioneered a spill-free air-to-air refueling nozzle that would be the forerunner of those used by U.S. bombers in World War II. Four times a day, fellow pilot James Keeton flew up in another Curtiss Robin to refuel the plane and transfer down meals, cooked at the airport by the Key brothers' wives, Louise and Evelyn. As the flight hours wore on into days, then weeks, people in Meridian joked that the wives were going to divorce Fred and Al for desertion.

When they came down, at last, on July 1, 1935, they were filthy and exhausted, their eyes covered with sties. During their 27 days (653 hours, 34 minutes) aloft they had repeated brushes with death and disaster, including a fire aboard and a near midair collision. They had flown 52,320 miles, more than twice the distance around the earth. Writer Edwards Park, who flew fighter planes in World War II, tells the story of their ordeal — and of their eventual triumph — step by step, almost hour by hour, taking you right along with them.

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