Air Transport World

Diamond Delta: from a blue-collar aviation outfit to a premier global airline in 75 years.(Special section: Delta anniversary)

Delta Air Lines may be the only major carrier in the world that owes its existence to an insect. The creepy critter that provided the impetus for its corporate creation was the boll weevil, the scourge of cotton planters in the southern US in the early 20th century.

Although Delta has been based in and identified closely with Atlanta for most of its history, in a tradition that lasted into the 1990s it held its annual shareholders' meeting in the unlikely venue of Monroe, La. That's because the company's roots are in Monroe and it always has had a high regard for its heritage and tradition.

Delta's most notable founding father and longtime leader was C.E. Woolman, whose early career had nothing to do with aviation. He received a degree in agriculture from the University of Illinois in 1912 and became a plantation manager and a county agricultural extension agent in northern Louisiana, based in Monroe. It was in this role that he became aware of the boll weevil's huge potential for damage to the cotton crop and started looking for a way to control the insect.

Pesticides were available, but distributing them effectively on the extensive acreage of the typical cotton plantation was a labor-intensive and expensive proposition. However, a new method of pesticide attack--aerial spraying--was being tested by a US Dept. of Agriculture scientist named Bert Coad at a USDA facility in nearby Tallulah, La. In 1922 Coad was using a pair of Curtiss Jennies obtained from the US Army to evaluate this new crop spraying method and Woolman sometimes stopped by to watch.

The chance meeting that led to Delta's birth came a year later when an executive of the Huff Daland Company, a New York-based manufacturer of military training planes, happened to stop in Tallulah on his way to Texas. He met Coad, who convinced him there was a market for a specialized aircraft to use in spraying crops; as a result, the company started a new unit called Huff Daland Dusters. Coad also told the executive that if he wanted a good salesman for the new operation he should hire a local fellow named C.E. Woolman. And he did.

In 1925, Huff Daland Dusters established a base of operations in Monroe and within two years its little planes, known as Huff Daland Puffers, were spraying crops all over the southeastern states and as far away as California. By the late 1920s it had a fleet of 20 aircraft. Woolman even traveled to Peru to help set up an affiliated company there.

When Huff Daland Dusters' parent company decided in 1928 to spin off the cropdusting business, Woolman and his associates led an effort to acquire it. Combining their own assets with funds put up by local Monroe businessmen, they took over the operation for $40,000. A company secretary named Catherine FitzGerald came up with a new name for the enterprise: Delta Air Service, since the Mississippi Delta region was the firm's home.

Woolman had his eye on more than just cropdusting contracts, however. In early 1929 Delta bought a passenger plane--a single-engine, six-passenger Travel Air--from local businessman John Fox, who became the company's largest stockholder. On June 17, 1929, it operated its first passenger flight, from Monroe to Dallas. By the end of the summer, Delta was carrying passengers between Birmingham and Fort Worth via Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Meridian, Miss.; Monroe, La.; Shreveport, La., and Dallas. It acquired a second Travel Air and by 1930 was flying twice a day on the route. In June 1930 it extended its service east to Atlanta.

But Delta didn't have the one thing that might have made the route profitable: An airmail contract from the federal government. A law passed in early 1930 empowered the Postmaster General to award airmail contracts and the person holding that office at the time, Walter Brown, awarded the prize on the Atlanta-Texas route to Aviation Corp. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.