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Panel talks local aviation history

August 27, 2010

Dr. Ernest Russell, right, talks about the state's first airport.

Many Starkville residents may not that the city’s first airport was not located where the modern George M. Bryan Field is currently situated.
But more than 150 residents attending Thursday’s Aviation History Roundtable at the Sportsplex soon learned that the city’s first airport was established by Mason Sumter Camp — who had been taught to fly by the famed Charles Lindbergh — when he was looking for a place to land his Great Lakes biplane in 1931.
“He found a field he liked and landed in it,” said Camp’s son, Terry, who noted that most planes the people of Starkville and Oktibbeha County had ever seen at the time were barnstormers.
The airfield where his father landed is near where today’s Lindbergh Boulevard is located, running from what was formerly known as the Lockport Felt plant to where the Bulldog Lanes bowling center is currently located, Camp said.
At the time, the field was owned by Peoples Bank — the predecessor to today’s Cadence Bank — and Mason Camp wanted to rent it, but bank officials were more keen on selling the property, Terry Camp said.
“My father said, ‘I don’t have much money,’” Camp said.
The bank officials were not overly concerned with that fact and made an agreement for Camp to purchase the property.
Eventually, Starkville city officials noted the flight activity at Camp’s airfield and “started to make preparations for something better,” Terry Camp said.
City leaders made arrangements with Hunter Scales to buy 90 acres of land further west, and that land would soon become today’s George M. Bryan Field Airport.
The first hangar there was a Quonset hangar built by WPA labor during the Depression, and his father, in 1939, began training pilots at Bryan Field as part of the Civilian Pilot Training program, which after World War II erupted became the War Training Services program, Camp said.
His father was told to vacate Bryan Field and could not establish
another airfield within 10 miles of the airport or within a certain distance of Columbus Air Force Base, said Terry Camp.
So he found another field near Old West Point Road and Muldrow Road and established what would eventually come to be known as Camp’s Airport.

Tie-in to MSU

Retired MSU vice president Chester McKee remembered Camp training pilots as part of then-Mississippi State College’s early aeronautical engineering program — the brainchild of Mitchell Robinson, an official initially brought in to clean up “irregularities” the college’s fiscal affairs office.
“He got to know Sumter Camp, and more important, he had a vision. He knew aviation was going to be important for Mississippi,” McKee said.
“Mitchell Robinson managed to get the program in aeronautical engineering and commercial aviation. Both were put together because the dean of business felt aviation would be important to the state. In 1933, the college Bulletin contained a notice that the aviation courses would be offered for the first time.”
The students came, McKee said, and many of them would go on to work for companies that would produce combat airplanes and fighter planes for World War II.
When Fred Tom Mitchell became president of Mississippi State in 1945, he was “dumbfounded by the lack of library facilities and the incredible lack of research” at the institution. Working with the Rockefeller Foundation, Mitchell managed to secure research fellowship funds.
Subsequently, August Raspet was convinced to join the MSU faculty, and he would go on to establish what is today known as the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory. Raspet was responsible for bringing the first outside research contract to Mississippi — a $32,000 contract from the Office of Naval Research.
Raspet’s work over the years would go on to lead to innovations in aviation research, but he also mentored individuals who would become pioneers nationally in the aviation industry.
“Not only did he do fantastic research in the flow dynamics of aircraft and other areas, he also mentored a number of people who went on to have distinguished careers in aeronautics,” McKee said. “Dr. Raspet’s work is known all over the world.”
Raspet’s son, David, was one of the panelists at Thursday’s Roundtable, and he noted the importance of those in the World War II generation for their willingness to take risks in research that would ultimately pay off big.
“I count it was one of the great blessings of my life that I worked in an environment with World War II veterans,” David Raspet said.
“If you worked with someone who got shot at, their acceptance of risk was unique. Society was more of accepting of risks at that time, and we did a wide range of activities looking for big breakthroughs, all with the probability of failure.”
Over the years, the Raspet Lab continued to grow and expand, with research contracts from such firms as Westinghouse Electronics and Honda helping to put the innovations developed there on the map, said George Bennett, who succeed August Raspet as director of the laboratory. Today’s Raspet Lab boasts a 35,000-square-foot flight testing center and a 55-square-foot prototype facility, both located at Bryan Field Airport.
The Raspet Lab has helped incubate multiple aerospace businesses in the Golden Triangle, including American Eurocopter, Aurora Flight Sciences and Stark Aerospace, all of which have gone on to establish significant product facilities at nearby Golden Triangle Regional Airport, noted Greg Stewart, Aurora’s director of development.
These firms are constructing state of the art helicopters and unmanned aircraft with a variety of applications, particularly for the U.S. military, Stewart said.

The state’s first airport

Another fact many may not know is that Mississippi’s first airport was actually located northwest of West Point. Payne Field, named for a military aviator killed in an aircraft accident in Texas, was built 15 years after the Wright Brothers conducted their first airplane flight in North Carolina, said Dr. Ernest Russell.
“You mention Payne Field and many have an immediate response,” Russell said. “According to his wife, Sumter Camp became fascinated with the cloth airplanes that flew there,” Russell said, thus leading to Camp’s role in local aviation history.
Established in 1918 to train pilots for World War I, which would soon end, there would be countless stories told of daredevil pilots, Russell said.
His mother-in-law, Rebecca Hardy, once told a story of a Payne Field pilot who was flying too closely to her family’s home in Lowdes County and flew right into a sweet gum tree near the house, Russell said. The pilot climbed out of the tree unscathed, he said.
“There are the inimitable accidents, and not all crashes were benign,” Russell said.
Thursday’s Aviation History Roundtable was sponsored by the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum and the Greater Starkville Development Partnership.
Others on Thursday’s program included Stuart Vance, Mel Swartzberg, Estel Wilson and Tom Hardy, who all shared anecdotal stories about local aviation history including about individuals responsible for major advancements and the creation of today’s GTR Airport.

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