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Ask Rufus: 100 Years of Military Aviation in the Golden Triangle


Shown is a 1918 view of Payne Field once owned by the late Curtis

Shown is a 1918 view of Payne Field once owned by the late Curtis "Pop" Friday of West Point. He had served in the Army Air Service as an instructor at Payne Field.


Rufus Ward



Payne Field, four miles north of West Point near the community of White's Station, is a little-known, but very historic air field that has been called Mississippi's first airport. It was 100 years ago on March 10, 1918, that the first squadron of JN-4 "Jennys" arrived and the field became active training Army Air Service pilots. 


Just 10 years after the Wright brothers had delivered the first airplane to the newly formed U.S. Army Air Service, World War I brought aviation to the forefront. With the need to rapidly increase the number of pilots, the Air Service, which was a part of the Army Signal Corps, began establishing pilot training bases around the country. 


In 1917 West Point was selected as the site for one of those pilot training bases. The field was constructed on 533 acres of open prairie about four miles north of town. The field was named in honor of Capt. Dewitt Payne. As commander of the 182nd Aero Squadron at Kelly Field, Texas, Payne was flying to the aid of a pilot who had crashed into the top of a tree when his plane crashed. He died on Feb. 1, 1918, from his injuries.  


The pilots at Payne Field trained in Curtiss JN-4 airplanes which were called "Jennys." The Jenny had a top speed of 75 miles per hour and a ceiling of 11,000 feet. The first squadron arrived on March 10, 1918. By May 1, the field was fully operational with 125 Jennys in the air. Most people around West Point had never seen an aircraft before and called the Jennys "buzz wagons." The aviators were called "birdmen." 


In all, some 1,500 pilots trained at Payne field during its operation. There were about 1,000 military personnel stationed at the field under the command of Col. Jack Heard, who came to Payne Field from Kelly Field in Texas where he had commanded flying operations.  


Payne Field ended pilot training early in 1919 and closed in March 1920. Shortly after, the Inter-State Airplane Co. of Dallas, Texas, purchased much of the field. Their plan was to develop a "municipal flying field" with passenger service from the east to Shreveport, Dallas, Fort Worth and Wichita Falls. Apparently it was a plan that never materialized and the former air field is now agricultural land and thickets with no readily visible sign that it had once been a busy military base. 


Accidents were frequent, and in the first four months of operation there were four fatal plane crashes. Airplane crashes, however, were not the primary health concern. In June 1918, the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service stated that Payne Field "was located in one of the worst malaria belts of the United States." Physicians there reported that 20 percent of their practice consisted of malaria cases.  


Payne Field played a role in one of the milestones of aviation. The first North American transcontinental round trip flight occurred in 1919. The flight by Major Theodore Macauley and his mechanic, Pvt. Staley, began in January 1919. He departed Taliaferra Field in a De Haviland DH-4 airplane. Flying with Macauley was not a co-pilot or an observer, but a mechanic. 


Near Montgomery, Alabama, Macauley was flying through a rain storm when his propeller was damaged. He detoured to the Army Air Service's Payne Field as it had a propeller shop that could provide a replacement for the De Haviland's damaged propeller. There a new propeller was made for the airplane so that it could complete its historic flight. 


Payne Field had what was considered to be a top-notch sports program that competed with colleges in the area and had some practice games with local high school teams. In the fall of 1918, the football team was considered one of the best teams in the South and defeated both Ole Miss and Mississippi A&M (Mississippi State) in games. In November, the football team played a practice game with Tupelo High School shortly before a scheduled game with Tulane. The Payne Field team flew to Tupelo High School and landed there in their Jennys. It was probably the first time a football team had ever flown to a high school football game.  


Another unusual use of aircraft from the field made news in the fall of 1918. In what must have been one of the earliest law enforcement uses of aircraft, base intelligence officers and the Columbus police used Payne Field aircraft to search for stills and moonshine operations in west Alabama and east Mississippi. 


Others uses of aircraft were not authorized. My grandmother, Lenore Hardy Billups, lived at Billups Gate (on the railroad just south of GTR Airport) during World War I. She told me stories about how she and my grandfather would go to parties at Payne Field and pilots would fly down to Billups Gate for dove hunts and barbecues. They would land in a pasture beside the house. The dove hunts were always followed by a party with plenty of libations. After the party was over, the pilots would fly back to the base. 


Col. Heard left Payne Field after pilot training ended and in the spring of 1919 helped organize "The Victory Bond Flying Circus" for the Army Air Service. That flying circus consisted of three groups of aircraft that toured the U.S. putting on exciting air shows to promote the sale of Liberty Bonds to help pay off the nation debt incurred during World War I. That flying circus has been called the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.  


That brings to mind the Wings Over Columbus air show at Columbus Air Force Base on April 21 and 22. The Thunderbirds will be a highlight of the show, which will be free and open to the public.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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