Why MSY?

The daredevil aviation pioneer after whom New Orleans’ airport was named once thrilled the city with his daredevil stunts. Until …

It was cold in New Orleans on the fateful morning of December 31, 1910. But John Moisant wasn’t put off by the cold. He wasn’t put off by many things, in fact. Maybe gravity, on some level, but even then not as much as others.

“The King of Aviators” was how The Daily Picayune described him in a headline on Jan. 1, 1910, but Moisant was also a daredevil by default. All pilots of the time were.

After all, by 1910 it had been only seven years since the Wright brothers were credited with having invented the first successful airplane. The ensuing years had seen advances in flight, but it was still an exceedingly dangerous game.

“I have been asked to tell why I ‘defy death to conquer over the air,’” Moisant contemporary Ralph Johnstone wrote in a newspaper column in 1910. “I fly to live. If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t. It’s going to get me some day. Sooner or later it’s going to get us all.”

By the time Johnstone’s column was published in The New Orleans Item on December 4, 1910, it had already gotten him. Plummeting 900 feet to his death in an exhibition flight over Denver, he became the 29th prominent “birdman” to die in a two-year span.

The big question was who the 30th would inevitably be. And the 31st. And the 32nd …

Which brings us back to John Moisant, the man whose legacy lives on – to the befuddlement of many a modern traveler – in New Orleans’ three-letter airport code, MSY. As the city prepares to open its new, $1 billion airport, it’s only fitting to revisit his story and to explain those letters.

Although one of the better-known pilots of his day, Moisant wasn’t an incredibly experienced flyer. An Illinois native who grew up in northern California, he had been flying for only about a year before coming to New Orleans for a multi-day, multi-event competition in December 1910.

What he lacked in cockpit time, however, he more than made up for in zeal.

Not only was he as daring as any other flyer of his day, but he once designed and built his own aircraft. Crafted of an aluminum alloy, it is recognized as the first all-metal airplane. He called it “L’Écrevisse,” which is French for “The Crawfish.”

Against all odds, it actually flew. And then it crashed.

Remarkably, Moisant survived. Just as remarkably, he returned to the air.

He was so undeterred, in fact, he set out to improve upon his original “Crawfish” design. In the meantime, he flew an open-cockpit, wood-and-cloth Blériot monoplane. It was described, ominously, as resembling a coffin with wings.

But if flying in 1910 was a dangerous game, it was also a lucrative one. Hefty purses were awarded for those willing to risk it all. Just two months before his December flight in New Orleans, Moisant won a $10,000 race to the Statue of Liberty in New York. (He was later disqualified on a technicality; the prize money went to another flyer.)

That combination of big danger and big-money prizes transformed such airshows into compelling spectator events. It also transformed pilots into celebrities.

Moisant, who was known to fly with a grey kitten named Mademoiselle Fifi, regularly thrilled crowds with his attempts at airspeed records, at endurance records, at flights over major cities (a decidedly novel thing at the time).

His exploits, and those of other early aviators were covered breathlessly by newspapers, running under such headings as “Stories of Stirring Sport” and “Sports of Speed and Skill.”

One popular competition: aerial “bomb-throwing,” in which flyers tossed fire bombs onto targets below. Crowds loved it. Firefighters, not so much — especially after a tent serving as an airplane hangar in New Orleans’ City Park caught fire after being accidentally hit in an international aerial competition in 1910.

By the time he traveled to New Orleans in December that same year, Moisant’s myriad accomplishments — the first passenger flight over a city (Paris,) the first passenger flight across the English Channel, the first compass-guided flight in an airplane, that revoked victory in the Statue of Liberty race — had already made him a star.

It had also earned him a deal worth a reported $104,000 a year to showcase his aerial derring-do around the country. That’s well more than the equivalent of $2.5 million in 2019 currency, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There was money to be made in New Orleans, too, in the form of the $4,000 Michelin Cup prize — the equivalent of more than $100,000 today — to be awarded to the flyer who logged the longest sustained single flight of the year.

The clock was ticking for the 1910 title, though. When Moisant set out on December 31, 1910, there were mere hours before the New Year dawned. If he was to claim the prize, he would have to fly more than the 363 miles logged a day earlier during a nearly eight-hour flight by French aviator Maurice Tabuteau.

That was by design, though. Moisant wanted to wait until the last minute so he’d know exactly what mark he’d have to beat to claim the prize. He also didn’t want to leave anyone else any time to better his mark.

“Moisant was a man of indomitable character,” fellow flyer Roland Barros said at the time. “He seemed to be absolutely without fear, and we other aviators have often marveled at his daring. The world has lost a remarkable man.”

It’s not that he needed the money. Moisant and his brothers had made a mint in the sugar trade in El Salvador. (They were also known for making revolution in El Salvador, but that’s another story.)

It was glory he was apparently after, and the thrill of dancing on the edge.

On December 24, 1910, a week before his year-end flight, he delighted New Orleanians with an unannounced sojourn over the city — the first time many locals had likely seen an airplane in flight. Taking off from City Park, he buzzed Canal Street, he circled the Central Business District, he flew across the Mississippi River and soared over Gretna before returning to City Park.

A week later, when Moisant climbed into the cockpit of a borrowed 50-horsepower Blériot monoplane on that last, chilly day of 1931, he was dressed warmly: flannels, two sweaters, wool socks. He wrapped newspapers around his legs and feet. Then came his overalls, another layer of newspaper, followed by a second pair of overalls.

Suitably guarded against the high-altitude chill, he then started the plane’s engine. Newspaper accounts don’t say whether he shrugged when he did it, but he probably shrugged.

At 9:35 a.m., he was airborne, taking off from the city for the 10-minute flight to a 4-mile course staked out on a stockyard near Harahan. The plan was for him to circle the course a few times, a sort of test flight, before landing and fueling up for what would be eight more hours of circling.

He made it only two laps.

The Picayune’s front-page account of what happened next:

“Coming around on this third lap, (he) prepared to descend from a height of 200 feet. He dipped at a sharp angle, and when about twenty-five feet from the ground his machine suddenly became vertical and he was pitched forward. He shot through the air as though hurled from a catapult, going head first, and landed on the soft earth just thirty-six feet from his machine.”

Spectators rushed to help. He was still alive. Although his eyes were glassy, his lips were moving as if he was trying to speak.

Seeing no bruises or other obvious injuries, his would-be rescuers thought he might have just been stunned, so they picked him up, loaded him onto a train standing by and rushed him to the city. “Several prominent physicians” were summoned to meet the train at the depot.

Moisant was declared dead on arrival. He hadn’t been merely stunned. His neck had been broken.

“Moisant was a man of indomitable character,” fellow flyer Roland Barros said at the time. “He seemed to be absolutely without fear, and we other aviators have often marveled at his daring. The world has lost a remarkable man.”

A funeral was held at McMahon & Sons funeral home on Dryades Street, and Moisant was buried temporarily in Metairie before being moved to a grave in California.

A movement was soon started to erect a monument on the site of the stockyards in Moisant’s memory.

It wasn’t until 1941 that New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri announced the city’s then-new airport, built just 10 miles from the Harahan stockyards where Moisant crashed would be named in his honor: Moisant Airport.

Decades later, the name would be changed to Louis Armstrong International Airport, but the land is still dubbed Moisant Field and the airport’s location code is still MSY, for Moisant Stock Yards.

As for Mademoiselle Fifi, she either wasn’t on board for that final flight or used up one of her nine lives by surviving the crash.

At any rate, Moisant’s sisters took custody of the orphaned feline, who, presumably, lived a long life – on the ground.


Why MSY?
A plane piloted by John Moisant sits overturned in a photo dated October 1910, which would have placed it just two months before the flight that claimed his life in Harahan. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.


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