The world’s first crop-dusting company, which became one of the world’s foremost passenger airlines.
As an official incorporated entity, Delta Air Lines dates from 1945, when what was then the Delta Air Corporation changed its name. The organization actually dates back some twenty years earlier to the first aerial crop-dusting company. In the early years of the twentieth century, boll weevil depredations on cotton crops forced the Bureau of Entomology of the United States Department of Agriculture to establish its Delta Laboratory in Tallulah, Louisiana, to research methods of controlling the pest. Dr. Bert R. Coad directed the research, often assisted by Collett Everman Woolman, a district agent of the extension department of the Louisiana State University. Powdered arsenates were effective against the pest but an efficient, broad-scale delivery method was required. Coad decided to try aerial dusting from airplanes. With surplus Curtiss Jenny airplanes acquired from the Army, he and Woolman began to perfect aerial crop-dusting procedures.
In 1923, mechanical problems with his airplane forced George Post, an executive of the airplane maker Huff Daland Manufacturing Company, to land in Tallulah. Excited by the prospects for crop dusting, Post convinced his company to form a new division, the Huff Daland Dusters. Huff Daland then began building the first airplanes specifically designed for crop dusting.
The forerunner of Delta Air Lines, Huff Daland Dusters began operations in Macon, Georgia, in 1924 but cotton farming in the area was insufficient to support activities and, at Dr. Coad’s suggestion, operations were shifted to Monroe, Louisiana, for the next year.
Woolman then joined the company as vice president and field manager. Because crop dusting is seasonal, the company soon sought ways of generating off-season revenues. Their first effort was to continue crop dusting through the winter, shifting operations to Peru, where the seasons are the reverse of those in the northern hemisphere. Additionally, Woolman acquired airmail service rights for a 1,500-mile route between Peru and Ecuador.
The company’s operational base at the time was the Mississippi Delta. Accordingly, the word “delta” appeared in the company name for the first time when ownership changed in 1928. Huff Daland sold the division to a group of Monroe businessmen. Woolman remained as vice president and general manager of Delta Air Service. The new company continued crop-dusting operations under that name until 1966.
A political revolution in Peru forced the closing of crop dusting and airmail operations there in 1928. The planes were sold to what later became Peruvian Airlines; the airmail route went to Pan American Grace. Delta Air Service used the money to purchase three five-passenger TravelAir monoplanes and, on June 17, 1929, began 90-mile-per-hour passenger service on a route from Dallas, Texas, to Jackson, Mississippi, with stops in Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana. Strictly a passenger operation without any associated airmail contracts or revenue, this was an ambitious step into what was to be an increasingly important service.
The election of President Herbert Hoover brought important changes to the air industry. Hoover’s postmaster general, Walter Folger Brown, was determined to use the awarding of airmail contracts to improve and streamline what he saw as a chaotic air carrier structure. On April 29, 1930, Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1930, also known as the McNary-Watres Act, empowering Brown to do just that. Lacking night flying experience, Delta did not fit Brown’s requirements and consequently lost its mail contracts in 1930. Delta was back to being merely a crop-dusting operation. In response, Dr. Coad was brought on as chief entomologist and dusting operations expanded. Passenger planes and routes went to Aviation Corporation (AVCO), a holding company whose most important asset was American Airlines, but crop-dusting rights and equipment were retained by Delta Air Services, which was then reincarnated as Delta Air Corporation.
Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1933 presidential election, sweeping Hoover and his postmaster general out of office. Within months, the new administration cancelled all airmail contracts. After a disastrous attempt to use the Army Air Corps to fly the mail, a call was placed for new bids. In the bidding, Delta acquired the mail route from Charleston, South Carolina, to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, with stops along the way in Atlanta and Birmingham. Delta purchased trimotor Stinson-T planes, which could carry seven passengers and mail at 100 miles per hour, and resumed airmail operations on July 4, 1934.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a time of often painfully slow development and consolidation for the American airline industry. Airlines made little or no profit. The Civil Aeronautics Authority was created to regulate and control the airlines and airline routes. Despite recurring difficulties, Delta gradually improved its routes and position. Delta also experienced its first passenger fatalities in 1935 when the propeller of a Delta Stinson-A broke in flight. The resulting crash in a cotton field near Gilmer, Texas, killed two passengers and the crew of two. In the next year, mechanical failure of another Delta Stinson-A seriously injured a veteran Delta test pilot. The pilot, Charles H. Dolson, eventually recovered and returned to work. He was a key figure in unionizing Delta pilots, bringing them into the Air Line Pilots Association in 1935, and he later replaced C. E. Woolman as president of Delta.
The Delta complex of routes increasingly passed through Atlanta, making it a natural home for the organization. Accordingly, when leases in Monroe came due for renewal in 1941, the Board of Directors moved Delta headquarters from Monroe to Atlanta.
With the entry of the United States into World War II, key personnel were lost to the war effort and vital matériel and supplies were in short supply. Nevertheless, the airline forged ahead. Air routes were added and the workforce increased. Assets, working capital, and passenger totals climbed. Delta undertook a major aircraft modification program for the military. Under a two-year contract, Delta personnel prepared bombers for conditions in the Pacific and European theaters and installed long-range fuel tanks on P-51 Mustangs.
As the war ended in 1945, Delta renamed itself Delta Air Lines. At this point, Delta had flown more than 300 million passenger miles in ten years without a passenger or crew fatality. In a major victory for Delta that year, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), instituted in 1940, awarded it the lucrative Chicago-to-Miami route. Company fortunes continued to rise. By 1946, Delta had carried more than one million passengers.
Delta lost a number of key personnel in a horrifying and bizarre accident in 1947. On April 22 of that year, a Delta C-47 carrying seven major Delta executives and piloted by Delta’s operations chief was approaching the runway at Muscogee County Airport in Columbus, Georgia, when a BT-13 flown by an experienced Civil Air Patrol pilot landed on the C-47. No one survived the ensuing crash and fire.
Another benefactor of the 1934 bidding was Carleton Putnam’s Pacific Seaboard Air Lines. Flying passenger routes in California without airmail contracts, the line was struggling until, like Delta, it captured an airmail contract. The new route, from Chicago to New Orleans, shifted its operations to the Mississippi Valley and inspired a change of name to Chicago and Southern Air Lines (C&S). With Delta’s newly acquired Chicago-to-Miami route, C&S came quickly into Delta’s purview and, in 1953, the two airlines merged. The new company went by the name Delta-C&S for about two years before reverting to Delta. The move significantly expanded Delta’s range of routes and enhanced its competitive position.
A month after the merger, a Delta DC-3 flying from Dallas to Shreveport encountered a thunderstorm near Marshall, Texas. Unaccountably breaking Delta regulations, the pilot attempted to pass through the storm. Seventeen passengers and the crew of three perished when the plane went down. One passenger survived when her seat detached and landed upright.
Important improvements to company operations were made in the 1950’s. In 1955, Delta pioneered the hub-and-spoke system. Shortly thereafter, weather-avoidance radar was installed in the noses of all Delta aircraft. Delta entered the jet age in 1959, becoming the first airline to introduce the new passenger jet aircraft, the DC-8. The greater maintenance needs of jet aircraft thrust Delta into a vast effort to upgrade training, inspection, and maintenance procedures. Air traffic control improvements were also introduced at this time, when Congress created a new safety regulatory agency, the Federal Aviation Agency, later called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency was to develop and manage an air traffic control system to maintain safe separation distances between all commercial aircraft through all phases of flight.
Tragedy struck again when one of Delta’s new Convair-880 jets crashed and burned during a 1960 training flight. It seemed to take off normally but almost immediately rose steeply, then banked left and right and crashed, killing the four crew members. The cause of the accident was never determined.
The 1960’s were a time of intense competition for new routes and milestone changes. Bert Coad, still managing the crop-dusting division, died in 1966 and the division was soon closed down. Then, in September of that year, C. E. Woolman died following surgery for an aneurysm. He had only recently given up his position as president and general manager in order to become the chief executive officer.
Throughout the decade, Delta lost many route wrangles with the CAB. Although these efforts were a drain on energies and resources, company assets, revenues, and net income rose impressively. Delta’s market share also rose steadily. The CAB did award Delta a few lucrative routes, such as the Dallas-Fort Worth-to-Phoenix route. Delta also gained access to the major North Carolina airports.
The route system continued to expand in the 1970’s, both through CAB awards and also through the 1972 merger with long-ailing Northeast Airlines. The Atlanta-to-London route was established in 1978. Together with its New England and Northeast routes, Delta’s route system now encompassed the entire eastern United States, with side routes to western cities as well as to the Caribbean and London. However, the merger with Northeast also brought equipment problems. In the 1970’s, Delta had a dozen different types of planes in service, creating enormous maintenance headaches. The Northeast planes had not been made to Delta’s specifications. A five-member crew and eighty-three passengers were all killed when one of the DC-9-31’s obtained from Northeast hit a seawall while attempting to land in Boston in a thick fog on July 31, 1973. No single cause was identified, but a number of errors and failures of both the crew and ground control apparently combined to create the disaster. This accident followed the May 30, 1972 loss of the four crew members during the takeoff of a DC-9 training flight in Fort Worth caused by turbulence from the previous landing.
Deregulation of the air industry in 1978 created a host of opportunities and risks. Delta greatly extended its western routes in a merger with ailing Western Airlines in 1987. Then, in the greatest transfer of flights in airline history, Delta gained many additional transatlantic routes with the 1991 purchase of the routes of bankrupt Pan American. The former crop-dusting outfit had become a giant of global passenger flight. By 1998, Delta was the most-flown airline in the world, with 105 million passengers that year.
Delta suffered its most deadly accident on August 2, 1985. A Lockheed Tri-Star attempting to land at Dallas in a thunderstorm was caught in a microburst downdraft and landed more than a mile short of the runway, striking a car and killing the occupant. On board, 8 crew members and 126 passengers were killed.
Almost exactly three years later, on August 11, 1988, a Delta Boeing 727 crashed trying to take off from Dallas, killing two crew members and twelve passengers. Improper procedures and failures of discipline were cited as causes.
Davies, Ronald E. G. Delta: An Airline and Its Aircraft. Miami: Paladwr Press, 1990. A short but nicely illustrated history by a major airline historian. Davis, Sidney F. Delta Air Lines: Debunking the Myth. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1988. A critical but constructive personal account of Delta during deregulation by a former Delta vice president. Newton, Wesley Phillips, and W. David Lewis. Delta: The History of an Airline. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979. A major history of Delta up to deregulation by two technology historians.
Airline Deregulation Act
Airline industry, U.S.