Wiley Post – Aviator and Adventurer
By Neil Taylor
Wiley Post was born on November 22, 1898 in a farmhouse near Grand Saline, Texas. The fourth son of a farming couple, William and Mae Post, young Wiley despised farm work and school, and yearned for something more exciting.
In 1913 he saw his first airplane at an Oklahoma county fair, an occurrence that left an indelible mark on the young man. Handy with machinery, Wiley took a course to be an automobile mechanic, but he was more interested in flying. When the United States entered the First World War, Wiley began hanging around the airfield at Fort Sill hoping to get into flight training. He eventually enrolled in the Students Army Training Corps where he learned the basics of electronics, but did not get overseas.
After the war, Wiley Post took a job in the Oklahoma oilfields, but his fascination with aviation continued. Barnstormers were common sights in the area, and Post befriended one of the troupes. He learned that their parachute jumper had been injured so he volunteered to take his place. Soon Post was making $200 a jump, and over the next two years he made 99 jumps. He also took some flight lessons and in 1926 did his first solo in a Curtiss JN-4 Canuck.
Wiley continued to work as a roughneck, and in October 1926 he sustained a serious injury. A worker using a sledgehammer split a bolt, and an iron chip lodged in Post’s left eye. When it became infected the eye had to be removed.
While the loss of an eye threatened his aviation career, Wiley was determined to carry on. His workmen’s compensation award enabled him to purchase and repair his first airplane – another Canuck. He began to carry paying passengers and even gave some flight instruction.
In 1927 he eloped with his sweetheart, Miss Mae Laine, while continuing to barnstorm at county fairs. As winter approached, barnstorming opportunities decreased but luck was with Post as he met two Oklahoma oilmen, Powell Briscoe and F. C. Hall, who desired a quick means of getting to prospective oil lease sites. Post was hired as their personal pilot, and he flew their Travel Air open cockpit biplane. Post also managed to obtain one of the new pilot’s licenses required in the United States despite his loss of one eye, because of the high number of hours he had flown.
Post’s employer, F. C. Hall, decided to purchase a new, sleek cabin airplane, the Lockheed Vega, and Hall named it Winnie Mae, after his daughter. Post flew the Vega until the stock market crash of 1929 when Hall was forced to sell the aircraft. Left without an aircraft to fly, Post took a sales job with Lockheed.
When economic conditions stabilized somewhat in 1930, F. C. Hall purchased another Vega and rehired Wiley Post as his pilot. This second Vega was also called Winnie Mae. Post flew it in a non-stop air derby between Los Angeles and Chicago, utilizing the services of Harold Gatty, an Australian-born navigator, to plot his flying course. He won the $7,500 prize, leading him and Hall to begin talk about an around-the-world flight.
Post turned to Harold Gatty in February 1931 to help him plan the route and the ground support needed for an around-the-world speed record attempt. They decided to depart from New York, cross the Atlantic, fly across Europe then Russia, reach Alaska and then angle across Canada and the United States back to New York City. They hoped to accomplish the feat in ten days.
The flight was a logistical nightmare considering that the United States did not recognize Russia in 1931 and the majority of the airfields along the route lacked most basic services, but the two aviators showed dogged determination and eventually ironed out all the details.
After waiting a month in New York for favourable weather conditions, Wiley Post, Harold Gatty and Winnie Mae finally took to the air on June 23, 1931. Their first stop was Harbour Grace, Newfoundland where the fliers stopped only long enough to refuel. Much of the Atlantic crossing was shrouded in cloud, and after 16+ hours of flying Winnie Mae descended through broken cloud landing at the Royal Air Force’s Sealand Aerodrome near Liverpool. Post and Gatty had completed the 28th transatlantic flight.
Pressing on, the aviators flew across Holland, landing at Hanover, Germany to request directions to Berlin. A massive crowd was on hand at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to watch Winnie Mae’s arrival, but the pilots were only interested in a good night’s rest.
Next morning, Post and Gatty were off to Moscow. Unlike Berlin, there were few people on hand to greet them when they landed, but that night they were treated to a gala state banquet – one which they left largely untouched. The aviators insisted on only light meals to ease the impact on their bodies during the long hours of flight.
Early the next day they were off to Novo-Sibirsk in Siberia, 1,579 miles from Moscow. The flight was uneventful but their overnight stay less so, due to a bedbug infestation in their hotel rooms. After three hours of fitful sleep, Post and Gatty returned to the Winnie Mae and took off before sunrise.
Irkutsk was their next refueling stop before a long hop to Blagoveschchensk – a lonely outpost in Siberia. An all-day rain had soaked the airfield, and it was lined with flaming pots of oil to assist the aviators with their landing. The Winnie Mae became mired in the mud, and a tractor was called to pull it out. While waiting, Post and Gatty caught a quick two hours sleep. The tractor never did arrive, and it took a team of heavy horses to finally free Winnie Mae. A two and a half hour flight brought Post and Gatty to Khabarovsk, the launching point for a 2,441 mile flight to Solomon, Alaska over hazardous mountains and ice covered waterways. Most of this leg was flown in heavy cloud, and when the two men did manage to find Solomon there was barely any fuel left in the tanks.
After their eventful refueling in Solomon where Winnie Mae pitched on her nose necessitating emergency repairs to her propeller and Gatty was struck by a blade due to an engine misfire, the two aviators made it to Fairbanks where they took a well-deserved three hour nap.
The next stop was Edmonton where rainy field conditions hampered the Winnie Mae’s takeoff after refueling. Post had the aircraft moved to Portage Avenue where it successfully managed to takeoff. After a quick refueling stop in Cleveland, Post and Gatty landed at Roosevelt Field, New York at 8:47 pm local time on July 1. They had set a new record of 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes for the fastest around-the-world flight, demolishing by more than twelve days the old record held by the Graf Zeppelin.
The flight made Wiley Post and Harold Gatty celebrities, and they used Winnie Mae to fly to a number of special events held in their honour. F. C. Hall, still Winnie Mae’s owner, objected to its use for Post’s personal appearances so he agreed to sell it to Post. Almost immediately Post began entertaining thoughts of flying a solo around-the-world trip to beat his own record.
By 1933, Post’s plans were coming to fruition. He had modified Winnie Mae to hold more fuel in its wings and in special tanks in the cabin, but he was having difficulty attracting sponsors at the height of the Great Depression. It was only when many Oklahomans put up their own personal funds and several aviation companies donated equipment that Post was finally able to make his dream a reality.
With everything in place Post moved Winnie Mae to Floyd Bennett Airfield on Long Island, New York. After a lengthy wait for good weather, Post took off on July 15, 1933 headed north-east along the Atlantic coast. Tuning into a St. John’s, Newfoundland broadcasting station, he was able to chart his course across the Atlantic. Some twenty-five plus hours after takeoff, Post touched down in Berlin completing the first nonstop airplane flight from New York to Berlin (3,942 miles).
The next leg of the flight from Berlin to Moscow was aborted when Post discovered he was missing some critical maps. He put down at Koenigsberg in East Prussia but equipment problems forced him to stay the night. The next day he made it to Moscow in rainy conditions, oversaw more repairs then hurriedly departed for Novo-Sibirsk. This leg was very stressful for Post as he had to navigate several mountain passes cloaked in cloud. Refueling in Novo-Sibirsk, Post soldiered on to Irkutsk then put down at Rukhlovo on account of darkness and a lack of fuel. From there it was a relatively short flight to Khabarovsk, before commencing a long leg to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Fatigued after a trying flight across the Bering Sea, Post landed at the small mining settlement of Flat, about 300 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Although the runway was short, Post landed Winnie Mae successfully but couldn’t brake in time to avoid a ditch. The right landing gear buckled and the aircraft pitched on her nose bending the propeller, but miners and a two-man mechanical crew from Pacific Alaska Airways worked feverishly to repair the damage. Post grabbed some badly needed sleep and eight hours later bounded back into the air headed to Edmonton.
Although the route was often shrouded in cloud, Post managed an uneventful flight to Edmonton where a quick refueling soon had him airborne for his final non-stop leg to New York. When he touched down on the evening of July 22, Wiley Post became the first person to twice circle the earth by aircraft. His time of just under seven days and 19 hours broke the record he and Harold Gatty had set two years earlier. For his accomplishment, Wiley Post received the Gold Medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale and the Harmon International Trophy.
Buoyed by his circumnavigation of the world twice, Post looked for other challenges. He successfully designed and fabricated the first pressure suit for high altitude flight, and he wore it on September 5, 1934 when he flew over Chicago at 40,000 feet.
Wiley Post sold Winnie Mae to the U. S. Government in 1935, and the aircraft is now exhibited in the National Air and Space Museum. Post then proceeded to create a new hybrid aircraft using the fuselage of a Lockheed Orion and the wings of a Lockheed Explorer. He first flew his new airplane on July 25, 1935 accompanied by his wife, Mae, and good friend, Will Rogers, an accomplished actor and humourist.
The two men decided to fly to Alaska, and in August 1935, Post flew the Orion-Explorer to Seattle to have floats installed. Rogers joined him there, and the two men flew out of Seattle on August 6. On their route north, they stopped in Juneau, Dawson (in the Yukon Territory) and Fairbanks.
Rogers wanted to fly on to Point Barrow, on the north coast of Alaska, to interview an elderly trapper, Charlie Brower, who was called the “King of the Arctic”. On August 15, Post and Rogers departed for Point Barrow. They began getting low on fuel and decided to land on a small lagoon 16 miles out of Barrow. Eskimos gave them some food and directions, and Post taxied out for takeoff.
Just after lifting off from the lagoon’s surface, the Orion-Explorer’s engine quit and the airplane dove straight into shallow water. The plane flipped onto its back, the fuselage broken. Post was killed on impact, and Rogers was thrown into the water where he too died. Post-crash analysis of the aircraft determined that the airplane’s pontoons had made it nose heavy, and when the engine cut out control of the aircraft was no longer possible.
Wiley Post’s tragic death deprived the world of a great aviator, someone who had shown his courage, daring and aptitude during two around-the-world flights, the creation and testing of the first pressurized flight suit and his stratospheric flight attempts. His record for solo circumnavigation of the world stood until July 1938, when Howard Hughes, another larger-than-life individual, accomplished the feat in three days and nineteen hours.