By Rufus Ward
Originally published in The Commercial Dispatch on May 15, 2010
This weekend [was] the spectacular air show at Columbus Air Force Base. Several people have asked about how long an air base has been here. The answer surprised most people, as Columbus Air Force Base was not the first pilot training base in the area. The first was Payne Field out from West Point near the community of White’s Station. Payne Field is a little known, but very historic air field and has been called Mississippi’s first airport.
World War I brought aviation to the forefront and the Army needed bases to train pilots. In 1917 West Point was selected as the site for one of those training bases. The field was constructed on 533 acres of open prairie about four miles north of town.
The field was named in honor of Capt. Dewitt Payne. Cap. Payne, the commander of the 182nd Aero Squadron at Kelly Field, Texas, was flying to the aid of a pilot who had crashed into the top of a tree when his plane crashed. He died on Feb. 1, 1918, from injuries suffered in the crash.
The pilots at Payne Field trained in Curtiss JN-4 airplanes which were called “Jennys.” The Jenny had a top speed of 75 miles per hour and a ceiling of 11,000 feet. The first squadron arrived on March 10, 1918. By May 1 the field was fully operational with 125 Jennys soon in the air. People in West Point, not being accustomed to airplanes, called them “buzz wagons.”
Accidents were frequent and in the first four months of operation there were four fatal plane crashes. Airplane crashes, however, were not the primary health concern. In June 1918, the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service stated that Payne Field; “was located in one of the worst malaria belts of the United States.” Physicians there reported that 20 percent of their practice consisted of malaria cases.
Payne Field played a role in one of the milestones of aviation. The first North American transcontinental round trip flight occurred in 1919. The flight by Major Theodore Macauley and his mechanic, Pvt. Staley, began in January 1919. Macauley was flying west from Montgomery, Ala., in a DH (de Havilland) – 4 when its propeller was damaged during a rain storm. He was able to land at Payne Field for repairs and then continued on to complete his historic trip. There was, though, a delay of over a week at Payne Field as all of the rain had made the runway too muddy for the de Hailland to take off.
In all some 1,500 pilots trained at the field during its operation. The base closed in March 1920. Shortly after it closed the Inter-State Airplane Co. of Dallas, Texas, purchased much of the field. Their plan was to develop a “municipal flying field” with passenger service from the east to Shreveport, Dallas, Ft. Worth and Wichita Falls. Apparently it was a plan that never materialized and the former air field is now agricultural land and thickets with no readily visible sign that it had once been a busy military base.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.