From Crop Dusting To Passenger Giant: The Story Of Delta Air Lines

Today, Delta Air Lines is one of the most recognizable carriers not only in the United States but in the world. It serves up to over 240 destinations in over 50 countries, across six continents. However, these feats may never have come to be if there wasn’t an early decision made to transform its foundation from a crop-dusting company to a passenger airline.

Huff Daland Dusters
Things could have been very different if Delta’s leadership did not take a leap within the industry. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Born out of necessity

Before transporting passengers, the Georgia outfit started as a crop-dusting company in the form of Huff Daland Dusters. In fact, it was the first commercial agricultural flying company in the United States.

According to the Delta Flight Museum, the firm was founded on March 2nd, 1925. Still, aircraft manufacturer Huff-Daland & Co spent a few years before this producing the Huff-Daland Duster, nicknamed the “Puffer”, which was the first farming airplane.

It was built to protect the cotton fields of the southern United States against the boll weevil insect, which was a notorious pest at the time. Altogether, Huff-Daland Dusters worked alongside other companies, the government, and the military to try and counter the financial threat that the creature imposed in the US.

The company’s initial general manager was George B. Post. He was also joined by operations manager Harold Harris. Just two weeks after its founding, the first of 18 planes arrived at its headquarters of Macon. One of its first tasks was to dust some of Georgia’s famous peach trees.

Huff Daland Dusters Plane
Crop-dusting operations were crucial in maintaining several industries across the US. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

A key arrival

It was the arrival of Collett Everman “C.E.” Woolman that would steer the operation in a whole new direction. He joined the folding in late spring of its first year during a one-year leave of absence from Louisiana State University’s agricultural extension department.

Following his arrival, Huff Daland Dusters relocated to Monroe, Louisiana. This move was made due to demand balancing out across the southern states. This required the company to handle its business from a more centralized area. Therefore, it chose the Mississippi Delta region, which would eventually inspire Delta’s name.

The unit gained contracts for work in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina. By 1927, teams had spread to Texas, California, and Mexico. This progress even led to jobs all the way in Perú during the first four months of 1927 and 1928.

A taste for more

It was in the South American country where the company would have its first taste of non-dusting services. Woolman successfully agreed on terms of an airmail contract in the Andean nation. On September 13th, 1928. A Huff Daland Dusters pilot Dan Tobin flew a Fairchild FC-2 on a passenger service from Lima to Talara, with stopovers in Chimbote, Trujillo, Pimentel, and Paita.

Subsequently, Woolman had grander visions for the company and bought it with other investors at the end of that year. With the new ownership, the outfit was incorporated as Delta Air Service.

Delta Monroe
Monroe played a vital part in Delta’s early days. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Therefore, he took on a Travel Air S-6000-B for the sole purpose of venturing into scheduled passenger services with his new operation. Delta’s first flight departed from Dallas, Texas, on June 17th, 1929, and headed to Jackson, Mississippi. Altogether, it took five hours to complete the 427-mile journey. The total time also includes a 30-minute layover in Monroe for lunch.

The launch was a success, with several businessmen keen to make use of the quick way to hop between cities. The company went through another name change on New Year’s Eve, 1930, when it was incorporated as Delta Air Corporation.

Not letting go of its roots

Despite the new passenger operations, it was the agricultural management that helped the carrier survive during the Great Depression. Additionally, it operated a flight school and provided aircraft maintenance services during this period.

With the immediate impact of the depression over, it chose July 4th, 1934, as the day to start its mail service with its Stinson Model T planes. Passenger services also resumed on August 5th that summer. These flights were the first to be performed with aircraft with livery showing the name of Delta Air Lines. Ultimately, this time would mark the beginning of the current incarnation of the historic airline.

Delta Air Lines Air Mail
Delta Air Lines’ first airmail flight cover. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Passionate approach

Woolman was integral to the growth of Delta in its earlier years. He prided himself on customer satisfaction and high-quality service. Ultimately, he asked his team to put themselves on the other side of the counter.

“One thing is unchanged; a concept of customer service expressed in our slogan, Service and Hospitality from the Heart. We’ve always tried to put ourselves on the other side of the counter and treat our passengers as we would like to be treated,” Woolman said in 1957, according to the Delta Flight Museum.

“We believe that an airline has a responsibility to the public over and above the price of the airline ticket. We’ve tried to live up to that responsibility. The airline industry is keenly competitive. All of us have good planes, the only way in which we can excel is in the quality of our service. And this is where the human factor enters.”

C.E Woolman
Woolman was proud of what his company achieved over the decades. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

A long journey

This proactive approach helped his airline become the force that it is today. If he did not have the ambition of turning a humble crop-dusting company into a passenger airline, there would be no sight of Delta’s livery on planes across the globe.

It wasn’t only the bright ideas of the businessman that catalyzed the firm’s rise. The drive that he also possessed continued to spread throughout the company.

What are your thoughts on Delta’s early days? Do you know of any other stories about Delta’s early history? Let us know what you think in the comment section.