January 5, 2013 8:23:35 PM
A small group of explorers led by aviation historian and archaeologist Dave Trojan of Columbus recently revisited Payne Field, the site of a World War I pilot training base near West Point, and undertook a day-long search for artifacts related to the historic aviation site.
Payne Field was one of 14 primary flight training fields in America in use by the end of World War I. Aviation cadets spent six to eight weeks there to learn how to fly JN-4 "Jenny" bi-planes. They also left behind a number of artifacts waiting to be discovered 95 years after they left.
With land owner permission, Trojan and the group set out with metal detectors to try to uncover artifacts from the nearly-forgotten airfield. The place is now either completely overgrown or used as a farm pasture, with little to suggest it was Mississippi's first airfield. With weather conditions near perfect and some of the ground recently plowed, the time was right to search a small section of the original 500-plus acre site.
On a mission to rediscover lost American aviation history, the team spent a day digging and scouring the woods, searching for hidden traces of the once-great airfield. They uncovered a substantial number of artifacts that offered a window into the past.
When Jennys flew
Several JN-4 "Jenny" biplane parts were discovered, along with some everyday items and a very rare uniform collar insignia. Each artifact provided a new history lesson and a glimpse at life on the airfield during WWI.
A number of artifacts were identified as parts from the 125 Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" aircraft assigned to the airfield. The Jenny flew at 75 miles per hour, had an endurance of 2.5 hours and climbed to 2,000 feet in 10 minutes. The aircraft had a 43-feet, 7-inch wingspan and weighed 1,430 pounds. Flyable aircraft were always in short supply at the field due to maintenance and accidents, and the artifacts that were discovered represented the routine maintenance that was done "on the line" to the aircraft.
The very rare enlisted reserve collar disc discovered was used on service uniforms between approximately December 1917 and May 1918. They were sometimes issued rather than the more standard block letter "USR" collar device. The disc was held in place by a screw in the back to attach it to the collar.
A cadet who graduated pilot training at Payne Field was certified as a Reserve Military Aviator in the Army Signal Corps and received his commission. As many as 300 cadets at one time took the primary flight training course at Payne Field, and the collar device may have come from one of the more than 1,500 pilots who graduated from Payne Field.
Trojan said, "It made me wonder if some cadet pilot got in trouble for missing the insignia during uniform inspection."
A number of artifacts were also found from the more than 50 buildings that once stood at the site. Building materials such as nails, cast iron water pipe fragments, nuts, bolts and washers were found scattered throughout the area. Many rail road spikes from the rail line that came into the airfield were also found.
"Overall, it was a very productive day with many discoveries made," said Trojan. "All these items may not be financially valuable, but they are historically valuable. Each item has a story to tell about the life and times of Payne Field from almost 100 years ago.
From past to present
The future of the site looks bright, with a newly refurbished sign reinstalled nearby along Hazelwood Road. Future planned exhibits include an information kiosk near the site and an exhibit at the West Point Transportation Museum showcasing the artifacts, along with original photos of the training base.
Until then, those interested can visit West Point's Bryan Public Library to read newly digitized airfield newspapers from 1918 and view a substantial digitized collection of rare original photographs from Payne Field.
Also at the library are a number of interesting stories written by Trojan about Payne Field.
"I'm sure that there is much more to be discovered at the site," the aviation historian said. "The memory of Jennys over West Point has faded into the past; however, I hope that by rediscovering the past, the life and times of Payne Field will be brought back to the living memory of the people of Mississippi to appreciate and honor."