Wings over Acadiana

John B. Moisant et sa chatte Mademoiselle Fifi qui a assisté au premier vol avec passager au-dessus de la Manche le 23 août 1910.

Passing through New Orleans International Airport, named for one of its most famous resident, Louis Armstrong, our visitors arriving in Acadiana are entitled to be confused by its IATA code, those three letters which designate the airports, MSY as it happens. If fans of Louisiana trivia know that these initials represent Moisant Stock Yards, the identity of this gentleman remains unknown for the most part. One might think he was the owner of vast lands used to corral cattle, but John Moisant was one of the pioneers of aviation. In the early 20th century, he popularized the rise of the barnstormers, those aerial acrobats who captivated the imagination of the public with their exploits. He was the first airman with a passenger to fly over a city, Paris, and the English Channel in 1910, barely six years after the Wright brothers' flight. A little later that same year he was killed in a plane crash in a field not far from the current airport that honors his memory on the luggage tags. He set the bar high for those who would follow him in the wild history of south Louisiana aviation.

If you want to deepen your knowledge of the development of aviation in Acadiana, a stop in Patterson at a building with an odd name, the Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Mill Museum, is de rigueur. It seems that Louisiana has a knack for joining two things that at first sight are foreign to one other, but this mixture is easily explained. Jimmy Wedell was a young man in a hurry, in love with speed. First an automobile mechanic, he quickly learned to build and pilot his own aircraft. He wanted to be a pilot during the World War I, but was refused because of the loss of an eye in a motorcycle accident.

Nevertheless, he was able to acquire the necessary experience so that the Army could take him as an instructor. Being one-eyed was not a hindrance to his career. In 1933, he held the airspeed record with a flight at over 300 miles per hour. He caught the attention of millionaire Harry P. Williams, whose family had made a fortune in oil, sugar and, you may have guessed it, harvesting cypress. With Wedell’s expertise and Williams’ money, they formed the Wedell-Williams Air Service which was a great success. Unfortunately, tragedy struck again when they were killed in separate accidents, in 1934 and 1936, putting an end to this enterprise.

Recently Lafayette voters approved a temporary tax to finance the construction of a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport, confirming the importance they give to aviation. Before the World War II, its current site was an open field that allowed take-offs and landings in any direction. During the war, it was used to train pilots in the Army Air Corps using PT19 Fairchilds. One of these young trainers was a certain Roger Larrivee. He was not a native of Acadiana, but he married a Mouton girl after seeing her photo in the window of a photography studio. The couple lived all over the place because of his pilot career. He was even the pilot of two U.S. presidents, Kennedy and Nixon, on Air Force One. Once the war ended, the airport returned to civilian life and its transformation to the present began.

When talking about aviation in Lafayette, the name of Paul Fournet is inevitable. Like Moisant, Wedell and Williams, he had a plane crash, but he survived it. Nevertheless, he never walked again. Like Wedell and his one eye, this obstacle did not prevent him from founding his own company, whose logo was a pilot sitting in a winged wheelchair. Fournet Air Services was responsible for airport operations, especially serving the oil industry in the Gulf. At its peak, it employed 132 people. In 2014, a plaque was placed at the entrance to the airport, designating it "Paul Fournet Field." Like the other aviators who preceded him, he overcame his trials to go higher and farther.