Collett “C.E.” Woolman
Woolman was famous for his tough-minded leadership and strong personal loyalties to his employees. As his business grew Woolman was genuinely upset that he no longer was able to know each employee by name. His employees were equally loyal to him and presented him with a new Cadillac on his 25th anniversary with Delta. Although he had other cars he kept the Cadillac until his death.
- Woolman and Dr. Bert Coad borrowed two Army aircraft and proved the effectiveness of crop dusting, and by 1925, he ran Huff Daland Dusters, the world’s first aerial dusting company.
- During 1928, Woolman and a group of associates purchased Huff Daland and renamed it Delta Air Service after its investors in the Mississippi delta country.
- On June 17th, 1929, Delta operated its first passenger flight from Dallas, Texas to Jackson, Mississippi.
- Was in charge of Delta’s operations for more than four decades and was named chairman and CEO in 1956.
Collett Everman “C.E.” Woolman was born in Bloomington, Indiana on October 8th, 1889 and he grew up in the Champaign-Urbana Illinois area where he attended high school. After graduating he entered the University of Illinois where his father was a professor of physics. Woolman was a member of the Agricultural Glee Club and the played on the football team, but in the summer of 1909, while on vacation in Reims, France, Woolman found his true love: flying. Soon after this vacation he learned to fly an OX5 Jenny, but his dreams of flying would be postponed until after college.
Woolman graduated in 1912 from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Engineering. After college he found a job in northern Mississippi, where he managed a 7,000 acre plantation. After a few years at the plantation, Woolman moved on and became district supervisor of the recently established Agricultural Extension Service in northwestern and north-central Louisiana in 1916.
Witnessing the effect that the boll weevil had on the cotton-based economy of the South, Woolman teamed up with Dr. Bert Coad to fight the boll weevil using calcium arsenate as their weapon. Borrowing two Jennys from the Army, the two men began conducting experiments dusting crops by air. The success of aerial dusting so amazed a witness to the experiments, George Post, and he convinced the Huff Daland Manufacturing Company to form a separate Dusting Division in Macon, Georgia in 1924. Henceforth, the first aerial crop dusting company came into being. Its name was Huff Daland Dusters, and in May of 1924, Woolman became Vice President and Field Manager. By 1925, Woolman boasted that they had the “largest unsubsidized air fleet in the world those days,” with just 18 planes.
Since crop dusting is only a seasonal job, Woolman moved south of the Equator during the winter months to capitalize on the reversal of seasons in South America. During this time Woolman secured South American airmail rights on June 8th, 1928. But Woolman didn’t remain in the airmail business for long. “The South American operation was getting pretty big by the following year, when we found ourselves right in the middle of a red-hot local revolution,” he said. “Both sides tried to get a hold or our planes for their armies. We sold our dusters to a local company and our airmail routes to Pan-American Grace.”
When Woolman discovered that Huff Daland was planning to sell the dusting company in 1928, he collected a group of Monroe businessmen to buy the company. Renamed the Delta Air Service for the region it served, the company, which began as a crop dusting operation, would be transporting passengers within a year. Woolman became Vice President and General Manager of Operations, and in 1930 he was elected to the Board of Directors.
Delta’s first passenger flight in 1929 held a mere six passengers in the J-6 Travelaire and only reached the speed of 90 m.p.h., leaving from Dallas, Texas and landing in Jackson, Mississippi. Within the year, the route would expand to include Atlanta, Georgia and later, Charleston, South Carolina.
As the Great Depression descended upon the country, Woolman had to suspend passenger service in 1930. Delta made a momentous internal change becoming the Delta Air Corporation with it general offices in Monroe, Louisiana. The change gave Woolman a new title, General Manager, but he remained a great influence on the decisions made within the company, mainly the quest for an airmail contract with the U.S. government. In June 1934, Woolman and Delta earned the contract and were now transporting mail for the Postmaster General from Charleston, SC to Fort Worth, TX. As Woolman had anticipated, the air mail contract brought with it stability and Delta continued to expand both airmail and passenger service. Purchasing a Stinson-A, Delta was able to offer night service in 1935 and a year later, Delta flew a Lockheed Electra-10, the first Delta plane with two pilots. By 1940, the once failing airline introduced the DC-2 and the legendary DC-3 into service, adding flight attendants to the crew.
In January 1941, Delta acquired an entirely new route from Atlanta to Cincinnati and obtained a foothold in the highly populated Midwest region. Soon after this, Woolman persuaded the Board of Directors to move Delta’s national headquarters to Atlanta, foreseeing that the location, population, and financial resources of that city were all pointing to a prosperous future.
During World War II, Delta, under Woolman’s leadership, contributed to the war effort by establishing a separate area in the Atlanta airport to modify warplanes. Delta modified over 1,000 aircraft, overhauled engines and instruments and trained Army pilots and mechanics. After World War II ended, in 1945, Woolman became President and General Manager of Delta, and continued to invest in the future of Delta Air Lines. Delta received the National Safety Council Award for over 300 million passenger miles and 10 years of service without a single passenger or crew fatality. In 1947, the record continued and Delta received the National Safety Award for transporting a half-billion passengers miles without a fatality.
Believing, as Woolman put it: “If you put three cows in a pasture where there is only grass enough for two, they all get thin,” he favored mergers between competing airlines. Delta merged with Chicago and Southern Air Lines, May 1st, 1953, all while expanding their service area, flight schedules and aircraft fleet. In 1960, Delta again would be the first airline to accomplish a major feat. It was the first to use jet airplanes for service. Delta Airlines again received the National Safety Award for 11 billion passenger miles without a fatality.
Under the leadership of C.E. Woolman, a small enterprise that started as an idea to kill boll weevils became a successful passenger airline with an impeccable safety record. The most important character trait that C.E. Woolman possessed was his empathy for passengers. C.E. Woolman contended his passengers were the most valuable asset to his company. He would often say at sales meetings, “Let’s put ourselves on the other side of the counter. We have a responsibility over and above the price of a ticket.” Woolman was also renowned for leaving the isolated confines of his office several times a month and taking a ride in his planes. Sitting in his preferred seat, second row on the right side of the plane, Woolman would roam the plane, speaking with passengers to personally assess how the airline was performing. Woolman died in 1966 but his legacy lives on in Delta Airlines and the airline industry as a whole.
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