The 1934 Pan-American Air Races

Stop 3 of 7 in the Lakefront Airport tour

On February 9, 1934, the first Mardi Gras after Prohibition was repealed, hundreds of people crowded around the airport to see the Pan-American Air Races. Abraham Shushan, the Henderson brothers (air race promoters), and Harry Williams planned these races, which included Central and South American flyers and dignitaries. The pilots represented all cities in Louisiana, including notable pilots Jimmy Haizlip, Roscoe Turner, and Jimmie Wedell. The 20th Attack Squadron from Barksdale Airfield (known today as Barksdale Air Force Base) also performed, demonstrating the importance of air defense while simultaneously entertaining the crowds.

The audience included Governor O.K. Allen, Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley, and Richard Leche. Franklin Roosevelt would have attended, but he was busy signing an executive order to cancel all civil airmail contracts. The unfolding “Air Mail Scandal,” in which smaller airlines complained of unfair treatment in attempts to obtain airmail contracts, forced Roosevelt to act.

Unfortunately, bad weather forced postponement of the dedication to February 14, but people enjoyed an exciting show with death-defying stunts when the races resumed. These stunts led to a few accidents, including the death of Captain Merle Nelson. Though he had survived the night flight crash, he burned alive after his plane exploded.

The races helped generate even more excitement for the airport, but it made aviation appear to be an extreme sport rather than a safe way to travel. Some airplane manufacturers thought that marketing airplanes the same way automobile executives advertised cars would help. They did not realize the dream of an “airplane in every garage,” but business executives used planes heavily even in the Great Depression, which helped to show people that passenger planes were safe. After the air races, New Orleanians and many high-powered visitors knew that the city had taken a great leap ahead with their new airport.

To learn about the beautiful art deco administration building, turn around and head back to the sidewalk. Stand on the end of the side walk and face the building.

Images

The February 1934 Dedication

The February 1934 Dedication

Extensive advertising generated great excitement for the races. If you had been standing in this spot in 1934, you would have been in the middle of a thick crowd trying to get a good view. Abe L. Shushan Collection, Earl K. Long Library View File Details Page

The Golden Ticket

The Golden Ticket

Tickets for the Pan-American Air Races went on sale on December 31, 1933. Item courtesy of the Abe L. Shushan Collection, Earl K. Long Library, Photo taken by author. View File Details Page

Jimmie Wedell's Record-Breaking #44

Jimmie Wedell's Record-Breaking #44

The #44 had dominated in previous air races. The only plane to surpass it was the #45, which debuted at the Pan-American Air Races and broke the 100km race record. Despite the #45's superiority, the #44 retained its association with Wedell. It currently resides at the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. Courtesy of the Collections of the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

Danger at the Races

Danger at the Races

As the clipping states, Harold Neuman of Kansas City, Missouri, narrowly escaped serious injury when his plane flipped over. In this photograph, his crew is righting the plane. Courtesy of The Times-Picayune. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Teresa Thessen, “The 1934 Pan-American Air Races,” New Orleans Historical, accessed March 28, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/605.
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