In 1902, one year before
the Wright Brothers proved that powered flight was more than
a dream, Fermon A. Stone was born on a farm near Wilsonville
in Shelby County, Alabama. After receiving his education in
nearby Columbiana, he became attracted to a career in aviation,
an attraction that would last for the remainder of his life.
In 1921, at the age
of 19, Fermon Stone joined the 106th Observation Squadron in
Birmingham, Alabama. He received his commission in 1925 and
served as an active observer until 1926. Later that year, he
requested, and received, an opportunity to qualify as an Army
Air Corps pilot. He departed for Brooks Field in San Antonio,
Texas where he later graduated from the Army Air Corps Flight
Training Program. He then returned to the 106th Observation
Squadron in Birmingham, this time as a pilot.
Fermon A. Stone, 1927-28
photos courtesy Luther M. Stone
In early 1927, Fermon
Stone accepted a position with the Douglas Davis Flying Service
in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Stone's new responsibilities included
traveling with the Davis Flying Carnival, giving aeroplane rides
and performing breath-taking exhibitions of stunt flying and
aerial acrobatics throughout the southeast.
Searching for more
secure employment, Fermon Stone joined fledging Pitcairn Aviation
in 1928 as a flight instructor and assistant field manager of
Candler Field, present day Atlanta Hartsfield International
Airport. As the Pitcarin organization expanded its services
to include the transportation of mail, Fermon Stone became one
of that company's, and the nation's, original airmail pilots.
His fellow pilots at Pitcarin included the flamboyant Dick Merrill
and the soft-spoken Sid Malloy. In later years, historians would
remember these men as the first of a long line of pilots that
wore the uniform of Eastern Air Lines.
In 1928, a pilot employed
by Pitcairn Aviation earned five cents per mile flown during
daylight flights and ten cents per mile for night flights. Fur-lined
flight suits, leather helmets, and goggles were the standard
attire for airmail pilots during those years. Postal regulations
also required pilots to wear a sidearm as a means
of protecting the mail, much like their predecessors in the
days of the pony express.
Re-enactment of Atlanta-Miami
On December 1, 1928,
Commercial Airmail Route 10, inaugural service between Atlanta,
Georgia and Miami, Florida departed Candler Field at 6:55 a.m.
, with 26 year-old Fermon Stone at the controls. The first leg
of the flight would take the young pilot to an intermediate
stop in Jacksonville, Florida. After connecting with the northbound
service from Miami, Pilot Stone would then make the return trip
to Atlanta, arriving in time to transfer the mail to the north-bound
flight departing for New York City and points in between.
The Atlanta Constitution
provided front-page coverage of the event on the following day.
Paraphrasing Murphy's Law, if anything can go wrong on an inaugural
day, it will. Low hanging clouds and poor visibility forced
Pilot Stone to fly at an average height of not more than 150
feet over the entire route. During the trip, he encountered
such violent storms that he was forced to land in a wheat field
near Cochran, Georgia. A farmer gave Pilot Stone a ride into
the local post office where a local sheriff immediately arrested
him for carrying a gun. A
hasty phone call to Jacksonville, where
a crowd of more than 1,000 spectators were waiting, got him
released. He eventually arrived in Jacksonville later that afternoon,
almost five hours late. Barely taking time to eat, Fermon Stone
departed Jacksonville 25 minutes later for the return trip to
Atlanta. The ten pouches of mail were jammed into the cockpit
so that the pilot barely had room to manage the controls. Upon
arrival in Atlanta, fully five minutes ahead of schedule, the
pilot's face was red and raw from the continuous pounding of
wind and rain, and he was so stiff that he could barely climb
out of the cockpit.
During the early years,
the life of an airmail pilot was both difficult and dangerous.
The average life expectancy of a Pitcairn pilot was approximately
twenty-four months from the day he began his flying duties.
Shortly after his inaugural flight to Jacksonville, Fermon Stone
was critically injured in an accident after becoming disorientated
in fog and low visibility near Waycross, Georgia. Although
badly injured, he made sure that the mail was delivered to the
local post office before agreeing to receive medical attention.
After the Pitcairn
organization was merged into the company that became known as
Eastern Air Transport, Fermon Stone's talent as an operational
manager became apparent. He was promoted to Manager of Flying
Operations at the company's Tampa base. His responsibilities
included managing the operation of, and flying, the company's
Ford Trimotor fleet on airmail flights between Tampa, St. Petersburg,
and Jacksonville, Florida.
As a management pilot,
Fermon Stone was asked to relocate to Cuba to assist in the
organization of an airmail operation that would operate under
the supervision of Eastern Air Transport. While in Cuba, he
helped the new company inaugurate the transportation of passengers
using Ford Trimotor aircraft. He also assisted in the instruction
of Cuban pilots at the flight school the company established
During the next twenty
years, Fermon Stone's career with Eastern Air Lines provided
him with a variety of responsibilities and challenges. During
World War II, he was recruited by the Army Air Corps to establish
and operate a flight school to train military pilots destined
for service in China.
After the conflict
ended, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, President and General Manager
of Eastern Air Lines announced the promotion of Fermon Stone
to the position of Chief Check Pilot as well as receiving an
appointment to the advisory Board of Directors.
In 1953, as part of
the celebration of Eastern's 25th anniversary, Fermon Stone
was asked to recreate his inaugural airmail flight into the
State of Florida. For the first time in twenty-five years, Captain
Stone piloted a Pitcairn Mailwing in airmail service. This time,
however, the cargo was a special cachet for stamp collectors.
At the anniversary celebration in Miami, Eastern's Chairman,
Eddie Rickenbacker honored Captain Stone and 14 other pilots,
for their twenty five years of service.
In 1954, Captain Stone,
now Director of Flight Operations, estimated that during his
flying career, he had been asked by 10,000 different passengers
just how far they could see from various altitudes. He decided
that a question asked that many times deserved an answer. The
veteran flier went to work with a slide rule and flight navigation
computer. In an article later published by Reader's Digest,
Captain Stone answered the question for that publication's many
According to Captain
Stone's computations, a person of average height has a visual
range at sea level of 2.9 miles on a clear day. Elevate the
observer to 1,000 feet and the visual range is 42 miles. Captain
Stone further calculated that at 25,000 feet, which was the
maximum cruising altitude for conventional aircraft of that
day, a passenger's visual range exceeded 180 miles.
Prior to his retirement
in 1964, Fermon Stone was promoted to Vice President of Flight
Operations for Eastern Air Lines. By this time, he had logged
over 3 million miles in revenue service beginning with the Pitcairn
Mailwing and ending with the McDonnell-Douglas DC-8. During
his career, he flew every type of aircraft operated by Eastern
Air Lines. Following his retirement, Captain Stone maintained
an active role in the operation of the company by continuing
to serve on various operational committees and boards.
At the time of his
death in 1978, Captain Stone was one of the last of a rare breed
of airmen whose career spanned the entire history of commercial
aviation. He was a man of many talents who made numerous contributions
to a fledging air transportation industry. More important, however,
Fermon Stone was a pilot and aviation was his life. In a letter
written prior to his death, Captain Stone stated, "It has been
a wonderful life. If I could relive it, I would do it all over