A famous and colorful aviator of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
During the 1920’s, Wiley Post worked in the Oklahoma oil fields. After losing his left eye in an oil-field accident, which led him to adopt his signature eye patch, he used money from an insurance settlement to buy his first airplane. He then performed as a parachute jumper and barnstormer. In 1925, the American humorist Will Rogers hired Post to fly to a rodeo, and the two became lifelong friends. During the late 1920’s, Post, flying a TravelAir biplane, was the personal pilot for wealthy Oklahoma oilmen F. C. Hall and Powell Briscoe. Hall bought for Post’s personal use a Lockheed Vega 5-C, which Post named Winnie Mae, after his daughter.
In the Vega, a streamlined, single-engine plane known for its ruggedness and airworthiness, Post won the 1930 National Air Derby, a Los Angeles-to-Chicago race that made him a national figure. Although the plane’s cruise speed was 140 miles per hour, Post’s winning time approached 200 miles per hour.
In 1931, Post flew around the world in the Winnie Mae with Australian-American aviator Harold Gatty. Traveling a northern route of some 15,000 miles, they set a world record of eight days and sixteen hours, breaking the speed record of twenty-one days set in 1929 by the German airship the Graf Zeppelin. Post received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1932. In July, 1933, Post, flying alone with navigational instruments and an automatic pilot, reduced the time to seven days and eighteen hours, an achievement that earned him the solo record for around-the-world flight and the Harmon International Trophy.
Post took up the challenge of high-altitude flight in 1934, funded by Frank Phillips of the Phillips Petroleum Company. The Winnie Mae could not be pressurized, so Post asked the B. F. Goodrich Company to help him devise a pressurized flying suit made of rubberized parachute material, with pigskin gloves, a helmet made of plastic and aluminum, and a liquid-oxygen breathing system. Post first used the suit in a September, 1934, flight over Chicago, in which he also used a supercharger on Winnie Mae’s engine to set an unofficial height record of 50,000 feet.
In his high-altitude test flights, Post was the first flier to encounter the jet stream, which he used to his advantage in a May, 1935, flight from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. At times, the ground speed on this flight approached 250 miles per hour, and the average ground speed was about 179 miles per hour. However, he failed in four attempts at making a stratospheric flight across the entire continental United States.
Ever the visionary innovator, Post predicted the development of supersonic transports and even space travel. He conducted secret experiments in a high-altitude chamber owned by the U.S. Army and researched the biological rhythms related to pilot fatigue.
In 1935, Post explored flight routes from the West Coast of the United States to Russia. With funding from U.S. airlines, he combined the parts of two planes: the wings of a Lockheed Explorer and the fuselage of a Lockheed Orion. Pontoons were necessary to land in Alaskan and Siberian lakes, and when the desired pontoons did not arrive, Post used a heavier set from a much larger plane.
In July, 1935, Post and Rogers left Seattle, Washington, in this heavy plane, further weighted down with fishing and hunting equipment. Lost in bad weather, they landed in a lagoon near Point Barrow, Alaska. When they tried to take off, the engine failed, and the plane plunged back into the lagoon, killing both men. Post’s famous Winnie Mae was subsequently sold by his widow to the Smithsonian Institution.
Mohler, Stanley R., and Bobby H. Johnson. Wiley Post, His Winnie Mae, and the World’s First Pressure Suit. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971. Contains a considerable amount of detail, photos, and drawings of flight instruments, the pressurized flight suit, and Post’s airplanes. Post, Wiley, and Harold Gatty. Around the World in Eight Days. Reprint. New York: Orion Books, 1989. A ghost-written account of Post’s first around-the-world trip, with an introduction by Rogers. Taylor, Richard L. The First Solo Flight Around the World: The Story of Wiley Post and His Airplane, the Winnie Mae. New York: F. Watts, 1993. A brief volume intended for younger readers, thoroughly illustrated with photographs of Post and diagrams of the Winnie Mae.
Wiley Post poses with theWinnie Mae, in which he and navigator Harold Gatty completed their around-the-world flight in 1933.