Famous Aviators You’ve Never Heard Of: Wiley Post

Wiley Post and Lockheed Vega 5C "Winnie Mae", before embarking on the record-breaking solo circumnavigation, July 15th, 1933.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wiley Post and Lockheed Vega 5B "Winnie Mae of Oklahoma", before embarking on his record-breaking solo circumnavigation, July 15th, 1933. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wiley Hardeman Post saw his first airplane at the age of fifteen, at the 1913 Lawton County Fair.  From that day on his interest in aeronautics never flagged, although he could not pursue it immediately.  Although Post had quit school at the tender age of 11, he had a great deal of mechanical aptitude and became a first-class mechanic.  During the Great War he joined the US Army hoping to become a pilot, but ended up as a radio operator; the war ended while he was still in training.  In 1919 Post, a Texan, was working as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oil fields; in the same year he also got his first ride in an airplane.  Some time after he had a serious run-in with the law:  after stealing a car, Wiley was caught, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in the Granite Reformatory.  He got parole after only 13 months.

In 1924, fate provided Wiley Post with what is surely aviation history’s most hazardous entry-level job.  A barnstorming troupe—Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers—had arrived in Oklahoma, but their parachutist was injured.  Against all logic, Wiley persuaded owner Charles Burrell Tibbs to let him fill in; and despite a total lack of skydiving experience, Post did not kill himself in the attempt.  Wiley made a total of 99 jumps, earning $100-200 for each—good money for the time.  The show’s pilots (including Tibbs) gave him flying lessons.

In order to earn enough money to buy his own aircraft, Post returned to the oil fields in 1926 but was injured on his first day; a stray chip hit him in the left eye, and a massive infection threatened sight in both.  In order to save his sight, doctors removed his left eye.  Depth perception was a problem with only one eye, so Post taught himself to gauge distances; he used telephone poles and two-storey buildings to help judge altitudes and distances when landing.

Mae Post in Alaska

Mae Laine Post in Alaska

For his injury Wiley Post was awarded $1,800 by the Oklahoma Industrial Court, and with it he bought his first plane, a Curtis Canuck (the Canadian version of the Curtis JN-4 “Jenny”).  The Canuck cost him the grand sum of $240, and with it he began a career as a barnstormer, travelling throughout Oklahoma and northern Texas.  In Sweetwater, Texas, 28-year-old Post met and fell in love with pretty 17-year-old Mae Laine.  The two eloped and were later married in Oklahoma, on June 27th, 1927; over the year, the happy couple barnstormed across Oklahoma and Texas.  Post also took the time to get an official pilot’s license, with a waiver for his blind eye.

The ever-practical Post realised that barnstorming was not steady income, though, and sought to provide more stability for his wife.  In 1928 he heard from a friend in Oklahoma City that an oilman there, F.C. Hall, was looking for a personal pilot.  Post applied and got the job.

Hall’s aircraft was an open-cockpit biplane (Travelair 3000), and the oilman inevitably tired of the wind-in-your-face bug-smashing.  With Post’s advice, he picked out the fastest enclosed-cabin aircraft available, a Lockheed Vega (registry NC 7954) which Hall christened Winnie Mae after his daughter.  Wiley Post flew for Hall until the Great Depression forced Hall to sell the aircraft back to Lockheed, and in characteristic fashion he found an opportunity in this, too.  When Post returned the aircraft to Lockheed, the aircraft manufacturer hired him on as test pilot.

CIRCUMNAVIGATION AND RISE TO FAME

In 1930, F.C. Hall’s fortunes were once again on the rise, and he bought a later-model Lockheed Vega 5B (named Winnie Mae of Oklahoma, registry NC/NR 105W), with seating for seven passengers and 420hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine.  With Hall’s permission, Post entered the 1930 National Air Race Derby, a race from Los Angeles to Chicago.  On August 27th, 1930, Post and Winnie Mae won the $7,500 prize with a time of 9 hours, 8 minutes and 2 seconds. He beat second-place finisher Art Goebel (9 hrs, 9 min and 4 sec), who was flying NC 7954—the first Winnie Mae.  F.C. Hall had “Los Angeles to Chicago 9 hrs. 8 min. 2 sec. August 27, 1930.” inscribed on the airplane’s fuselage, and encouraged Post to enter himself and Winnie Mae into further aviation competitions.

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Wiley Post (left) and Harold Gatty (right)

What Wiley Post really wanted was to fly around the world; to reclaim for fixed-wing aircraft a record that was at the time held by the Graf Zeppelin, having circumnavigated the globe in 1929 with a time of 21 days.  Post became acquainted with Australian Harold Gatty, an extremely skilled navigator who pioneered the use of many new instruments and techniques.  On June 23, 1931, Post and Gatty left Roosevelt Field in Winnie Mae, following a 15,000 mile itinerary that would take them through Harbor Grace, Newfoundland; then Chester, England; Hanover and Berlin, Germany; Moscow, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk, all in Russia; Nome, Alaska; Edmonton, Canada; Cleveland and then New York again.  The duo landed on July 1st, 1931, having set a world record for traversing 15,474 miles in only 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes.  Post and Gatty were fêted in style upon their return; they lunched at the White House on July 6th, rode in a New York City ticker-tape parade the next day, and were guests of honour at a banquet in the Hotel Astor.  F.C. Hall later sold the record-setting Winnie Mae to its now-famous pilot.  At an appearance in Claremore, Oklahoma, Post first met fellow Oklahoman and famed Vaudeville humourist Will Rogers; their mutual interest in aviation would make them friends for life.  Gatty and Post also wrote a book, Around the World in Eight Days: The Flight of the Winnie Mae; Will Rogers contributed the foreword. A year after their record-setting flight, the US Congress passed a law allowing civilians to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross; Post and Gatty had their medals pinned on by President Herbert Hoover.

Some pundits and potential financiers soured on Wiley because of his rural roots and lack of formal education, and this torpedoed his plans to open an aeronautical school.  The true genius must be Harold Gatty, the skeptics reasoned, even though both men readily acknowledged it had been a team effort.  No doubt these criticisms stung, and Wiley soon made plans for a solo circumnavigation.  He spent a year preparing Winnie Mae, upgrading its avionics with a brand new autopilot and radio direction finder being jointly developed by the Sperry Gyroscope Company and the US Army Air Corps.  (Those of you with some aviation knowledge will ask how Post tuned his ADF to non-directional beacons [NDBs] before such ground-based navaids were widely adopted for use.  The answer is that the ADFs of yesterday and today can also tune/receive signals from ordinary AM radio stations.)  Post also trained his body to endure the rigours of his ambitious flight; he practiced taking short naps instead of sleeping through the night.  In 1933, he repeated his circumnavigation—alone this time—and beat his old record, arriving in 7 days and 19 hours.  Being the first person to fly around the world solo earned Wiley Post his second ticker-tape parade in New York City.

HIGH ALTITUDE PIONEER

By 1934 Wiley had his eye on another goal, the £10,000 Robertson Prize to be awarded to the winner of an air race from England to Australia.  Post was eager to compete, but realised that recent advancements in engine and airframe technology would relegate Winnie Mae to also-ran status.  Post knew that fast-moving streams of air (what we would now call jet streams) were supposed to exist in the higher altitudes—between 30,000 and 50,000 feet—but he also knew that the human body could not long survive up there without adequate oxygen.  Since Winnie Mae’s plywood shell could not be safely pressurised, he decided to try and build a wearable pressure suit instead.  With that he hoped to utilise the thin air and fast winds of the stratosphere to beat the other Robertson competitors to Australia.

Post wanted to keep the true purpose of his plan under wraps, but he did mention the pressure suit idea to friend Jimmy Doolittle, who referred him to the B.F. Goodrich Company.  Wiley requested a rubber suit that would maintain 5,500 feet pressure equivalent up to altitudes of 27,000 feet; air pressure would be provided by a new engine supercharger he planned to install in Winnie Mae.  The U.S. Army Air Service graciously let Post use its low-pressure chamber at Wright Field, Ohio (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base), and he also received technical assistance from the base’s medical and engineering staffs.  Wiley Post and B.F. Goodrich would end up manufacturing three suits of rubberised parachute fabric, as various technical hurdles were encountered and overcome.  The first pressure suit was designed to fit a man standing up, and when pressurised, the limbs became inflexible.  This same suit later failed a static pressure test at Wright Field, which ended its use.  The second suit had flexible ring joints at the knees and elbows, solving the flexibility issue.  Unfortunately Wiley gained a little weight during these months of testing and became stuck in the second suit; he had to be cut out, which ruined it.

Writing in the October 1934 edition of Popular Mechanics, Wiley offered this remarkable prophecy on the future of airline transport:

I believe that, in the future, all flying will be done at 50,000 feet or so when the distance is great enough to warrant climbing to that height.  Transcontinental and transoceanic hauling of passengers and freight can be done in one half the present normal time, simply by use of suitable supercharging of engine, pilot and passenger cabin.  No radical changes in plane or engine are necessary, but of course, further refinements of plane and engine design and improved methods of streamlining will reduce the time even further.

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Wiley Post's third pressure suit.

The third suit passed manned and unmanned tests, plus compatibility and fit checks within Winnie Mae.  Wiley flew several test flights up to 40,000 feet in the latter half of 1934; earning him yet another place in history—the first person to fly in a pressure suit.  On December 7, 1934, he flew up to 50,000 feet and actually rode the jet stream; but what should have been a world altitude record was foiled when one of two NACA barographs failed during the ascent, so his record remained unofficial.  Post actually made about eight flights up to or near 50,000 feet, but without dual barograph verification, no record could be verified by the government.  In preparation for future flights, Wiley successfully attained an instrument rating from the Department of Commerce in January of 1935.

As it turned out the third suit and modifications to Winnie Mae would not be made in time for the Robertson Prize race; Wiley was nonetheless still interested in high-altitude research and continued to work on it into 1935.  An attempt at a transcontinental speed record was foiled by when a jealous pilot sabotaged Winnie Mae‘s engine (Wiley was able to land unharmed).  A subsequent transcontinental flight was aborted when Post ran out of oxygen over the Midwest, but he did manage to fly from Burbank, California to Cleveland, Ohio in a record time of 7 hours and 19 minutes.  Winnie Mae’s average speed on that flight was 279 miles per hour (242 knots) or a full 100 mph faster than her normal maximum airspeed; her groundspeed peaked at 340 miles per hour.  Post and his eight-year-old, semi-obsolescent aircraft had undoubtedly ridden the jetstream, and it attracted national attention.

Winnie Mae‘s engine, however, was starting to show the strain and became increasingly breakdown-prone.  Will Rogers suggested to his friend (and the newspapers) that the valiant aircraft ought to be retired to the Smithsonian.  House Resolution 8622 did just that, authorising the Smithsonian to purchase Winnie Mae for not more than $25,000 (with a further $25,000 authorised to carry out the provisions of the resolution).

A PREMATURE END

With Winnie Mae‘s retirement provided for, Wiley Post sought to purchase another aircraft.  He couldn’t afford a brand-new high-performance machine, but instead he cobbled together the salvaged parts of two damaged airplanes.  This composite aircraft was comprised of the fuselage and engine from an ex-TWA Lockheed Orion, and the wing of a Lockheed Explorer.  Although the Lockheed Company did not sanction nor encourage this amalgamation of parts, it was rebuilt anyway and received registry number NC 12283 from the U.S. Bureau of Aeronautics.  Its official type classification was Orion 9E Special (although it has also been referred to as an Orion-Explorer).  Wiley’s original intentions for this aircraft are not fully known.  It was suggested that he, Mae Post and a friend would vacation for six weeks in Siberia, as a way of scouting out a new air mail route between Russia and Alaska that would bypass the dangerous transpacific route.

On August 1st, 1935, Wiley and his wife took off from San Francisco for Seattle; while there the Orion 9E would be fitted with pontoons as a seaplane.  There were several changes in plan, too.  Will Rogers wanted to go hunting and fishing in Alaska with Wiley, and felt camping in the bush might be too much to ask of Mae Post.  She flew home from Seattle.  Critically, the pontoons Wiley had arranged to borrow were not in Seattle; and since Rogers was both paying the bills and anxious to be on his way north, Wiley looked for another set.  He settled on a set of pontoons meant for a much larger and heavier aircraft, and had them installed.  They changed the Orion-Explorer’s centre of gravity to the point where power had to be carried to keep a nose-up attitude in landing.

After loading two cases of chili, Post and Rogers boarded NC 12283 and departed for Alaska at approximately 9:20am on August 6th, 1935.  They arrived at Juneau on the 7th, visisted with friends, and were forced to remain a few extra days due to inclement weather.  They then flew on to Dawson in the Yukon Territory, followed by Fairbanks, Alaska.  Rogers wanted to visit Point Barrow in order to secure an interview with an elderly whaler and trader for his newspaper column.  The pair refuelled their craft at Lake Harding, and then again at Walapka Lagoon, 16 miles from Barrow.  They chatted with Clair Okpeaha, proprietor of a hearby sealing camp, ate some food, and then climbed back into the aircraft.

NC_12283_crash

NC 12283 after the crash.

The aircraft had barely lifted off the water on her takeoff run when the engine quit.  Owing to its nose-heavy centre of gravity, NC 12283 dove into the shallow water, ruptured its fuselage and flipped over onto its back.  Okpeaha immediately took off at a run for Barrow; the 16 mile trip took him five hours.  A UPI correspondent in Barrow got a group of men together and they trekked out to the crash site.  The rescue party located the bodies, noting that Post’s watch had stopped at 8:18pm, August 15th.

Post’s body was transported back to Oklahoma, where it lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol; some 15,000 visitors came to pay their respects.  His remains were interred into the Memorial Park Cemetery in Edmond, Oklahoma.

TODAY

Wiley Post and Will Rogers are both memorialised by aerodromes in Oklahoma City (Wiley Post Airport [KPWA] and Will Rogers World Airport [KOKC], respectively).  The airfield in Barrow, Alaska is also named for them—Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport (PABR).  Wiley Post was further immortalised in two US Postal Service stamps in 1979.

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Mae Laine Post beside her husband's memorial.

A concrete memorial was erected near the crash site, paid for by public subscription.

Wiley’s 26-year-old widow, Mae Laine Post, never remarried.  She is buried beside her husband in Memorial Park Cemetery.

The indomitable Winnie Mae of Oklahoma , now 79 years old, remains on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

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