(WVUE) - Since it opened more than 70 years ago, Armstrong International Airport has kept a strong tie with one of America's early aviation pioneers. It's a connection that began with a tragedy on a makeshift landing strip.
For today's travelers, the airport code for Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans can seem a bit odd: MSY. But those three letters hold the key to a fascinating history that goes back to the earliest days of aviation. The letter "M" stands for Moisant - John Moisant. The airport was originally named Moisant Field.
"The Wright brothers were in 1903. And Moisant, his whole flying career was basically 1910," said Vincent Caire, the airport director for the Port of South Louisiana. Caire has written a book on the history of Louisiana aviation, which includes the story of Moisant. "He wanted to set some kind of record, so he became the first person to fly a passenger across the English Channel."
John Moisant formed a company with his brother and sister called Moisant International Flyers, and they began touring the U.S.
"In 1910, there really wasn't an aviation industry. It was more of a circus environment where people were fascinated by the idea that a human being would get in the air," Caire said.
Moisant won a contest flying around the Statue of Liberty. Then he set his sights on winning the 1910 Michelin Cup, which had a $4,000 prize for the aviator who made the longest flight that year. Moisant planned to set that record in New Orleans.
"And he mapped out a little trip of an oval-shaped route between New Orleans and Harahan, and he was just going to circle continuously. He had to do it for 8 hours in order to break the record. The previous record was 7 hours and 48 minutes," Caire continued.
To stay in the air that long, Moisant added extra tanks, and was attempting to land in Harahan to get fuel before starting his record-breaking flight. A photo was taken moments before tragedy struck.
"As he was attempting to land, uh, a gust wind caught the airplane and flipped it over in the air, and it hit the ground, and he was thrown from the plane and his neck was broken," said Caire.
Moisant died on the way to the hospital
"They really hadn't figured out seat belts yet for airplanes," Caire explained
As Moisant tumbled to the ground, his airplane crashed nearby.
John Moisant's 1910 airplane crash did not happen at the airport, and its exact location is unknown.
"The airport was named in his honor by Mayor Robert Maistri, who remembered the visit from when he was a child," said Caire.
And there was also a stockyard near the airport site. MSY equals Moisant Stock Yard. A name, and a bit of flying history, that still sticks to all of the baggage that moves through this international airport.
John Moisant was born in Illinois, and he and his family owned plantations in El Salvador. His only connection to New Orleans is that he crashed his airplane and died near the site of the city's airport.