Louis Armstrong International is the current, official name of New Orleans’ airport. However, anyone passing through said airport gets a hint as to the airport’s original name, or more accurately the story behind it, by way of the three-letter code attached to their luggage, MSY.
The M in MSY stands for Moisant, specifically John Moisant, who along with his brother Alfred is credited with introducing the most Americans to the airplane. The Moisants came from L’Erable, Illinois, a rural enclave of French-Canadians southwest of Chicago. After the death of father and farm laborer Medore Moisant, the role of family head fell to the eldest brother, Charles Alfred Moisant, who shortly began taking a greater variety of jobs than his father. In 1888, Charles Alfred changed his name to Alfred J., and relocated the family to Alameda, California. After their arrival in Alameda, the Moisant family began to do quite well, and while it appears that Alfred Moisant bragged of owning vast acreages in Central America before 1893, it is in that year that he embarked on his first recorded trip and made his first recorded purchase of 6,000 acres in El Salvador. In 1894 Alfred enlisted his younger brothers, John, George, and Edward, to help develop the cocoa and sugar plantation he named Santa Emilia.
Santa Emilia was enormously successful, the third largest sugar producer in the country, and the Moisant brothers exerted a large influence in El Salvador as part of that success. A bitter rivalry developed between President Ferdinand Figueroa and the Moisant family, who felt that El Salvador’s interests, as well as their own, would be better served by a more democratic (and more business friendly) candidate. John Moisant took this rivalry to an extreme by befriending José Santos Zelaya, the president of Nicaragua. Zelaya had plans to unite the countries of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in the United States of Central America with himself as president, and John Moisant was eager to help. Word of John’s friendship with Zelaya prompted Figueroa to briefly imprison George and Edward in 1907, but John went ahead with his alliance, participating as a leader in two invasions of El Salvador by armies composed of Nicaraguan, Honduran, and Salvadorian troops. Neither was successful.
After the failure of the second attempted invasion in 1908, John fled Central America for the United States, arriving in New York. When Alfred visited him there, the brothers decided that the time was right for John to pursue an interest of his, and that Alfred (and the Santa Emilia fortune) would foot the bill; in 1909 John Moisant arrived in Paris with the goal of beginning a career in aviation. At the time Paris was seen as the hub of innovation in flight, and John was particularly interested in Louis Blériot’s work with single-wing aircraft, then called monoplanes. By February of 1910, John had assembled the world’s first all-metal aircraft, a single winged aluminum and steel plane that he crashed on its first test flight: in all of his excitement to become an aviation pioneer John had neglected to take a single flying lesson.
John Moisant was able to complete his studies at Louis Blériot’s flying academy after only a few lessons that February. After graduation, Moisant purchased a Blériot XI, a single fixed-wing aircraft on the leading edge of the current technology (students received a refund of their tuition if they purchased their first plane from Blériot). Moisant immediately began pursuing flight records to break. On August 17, John Moisant became the first person to cross the English Channel with a passenger, two passengers if one counts Moisant’s cat. The channel crossing was Moisant’s sixth flight.
John Moisant returned to the United States to compete in the Belmont International Aviation Tournament in New York in October, 1910, where he won the first race, damaged his plane while taxiing, and had it repaired in time to win the second race (a win that was revoked on a technicality). After Belmont, Alfred and John assembled a flying circus of talented pilots, one of the very first barnstorming tours, to travel through the United States, Mexico, and Cuba. On December 24, 1910, John Moisant arrived in New Orleans to prepare the way for the rest of the Moisant International Aviators, and did so by flying in a broad circle over the city to attract attention to the special holiday performance on Christmas Day. Moisant’s flight on the 24th was the first over New Orleans. The following day, 5,000 people attended the Moisant flying circus at City Park, and several shows followed. On December 30th, Moisant raced a Packard automobile around City Park’s racetrack for five miles, but lost.
The timing of Moisant’s visit to New Orleans was important. John Moisant wished to win the Michelin Cup, which was to be awarded (along with a $4,000 prize) to the pilot who completed the longest timed flight in 1910. The current contender for the prize was Maurice Tabuteau of France with 362.7 miles in 7 hours and 48 minutes, a record set on December 29th. Moisant planed on beating Tabuteau’s time and distance on New Year’s Eve, conveniently leaving no time for any other challenger to surprise Moisant. A four-mile elliptical course was marked with flags on railroad property near Kenner (many sources incorrectly give the location as Harahan), which Moisant would circle until he beat Tabuteau’s record. On the morning of the 31st, near-freezing temperatures prompted Moisant to stuff newspaper between the layers of his clothing for added insulation. Moisant first needed to make the quick hop from City Park to the elliptical course, where a temporary landing strip had been prepared to fuel the Blériot XI before Moisant’s attempt for the cup. As Moisant approached the landing site, he decided to land with a tailwind, an extremely dangerous maneuver. A gust of wind lifted the tail, forcing Moisant’s plane into a dive just over the runway. The plane hit the ground with such force that, according to one observer, Moisant was ejected as if fired from a gun. John Moisant did not survive.
John Moisant was temporarily interred at Metairie Cemetery, and in the true fashion of the travelling circus, Alfred barley paused before continuing on to Mexico without his brother, where Moisant fliers may have been the first to apply aircraft to military use in Mexico’s ongoing revolution. Alfred’s continuation of the traveling circus in the years after John’s death is credited with exposing the widest segment of Americans to flight, and the Moisant flying school on Long Island trained a host of early leaders in flight. Mathilde Moisant, sister to John and Alfred, graduated from the Moisant flight academy to become the second woman world-wide, and the first American woman, to be licensed to fly. She also flew with the Moisant International Aviators.
The area where John Moisant’s Michelin Cup course was marked, and where John Moisant had crashed, turned from a pasture to a stock yard, nicknamed Moisant Stock Yards. During World War II an airfield, named Moisant Field, was constructed, and in 1946 the area was selected as home to New Orleans’ second commercial airport, initially named Moisant International Airport. The airport was greatly expanded and renamed the New Orleans International Airport, and again rededicated as Louis Armstrong International, but the old moniker remains in the form of the three letter airport code MSY.
Further reading: The Magnificent Moisants: Champions of Early Flight, by Doris L. Rich, Smithsonian, 1998.