By; JR Hafer, aviation writer
Wiley Hardeman Post was a famed American aviator who was the first pilot to fly solo around the world. He was known for his high altitude flying and worked to help develop the first pressure suit. Wiley Post was the one to discover the jet stream.
On August 15, 1935, Wiley Post and American humorist Will Rogers were killed when Post’s aircraft crashed near Point Barrow in the Territory of Alaska.
Post was born in Grand Saline, Texas November 22, 1898 to William Francis and Mae Quinlan Post to cotton farmer parents. His family moved to Oklahoma when he was five. He was an indifferent student, but managed to complete the seventh grade. By 1920, his family settled on a farm near Maysville, Oklahoma.
Young Wiley saw his first airplane at the Lawton Oklahoma county fair in 1913 it was a Curtiss-Wright “Pusher”. That event is when the seed of aviation passion was planted in the spirit of Wiley post and so inspired him that he immediately enrolled in the Sweeney Aviation School in Kansas City.
During World War I, Post wanted to become a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Service (USAS). Joining the training camp at the University of Oklahoma, he learned radio technology. Germany surrendered before he completed his training, the war ended, and he went to work as a “roughneck” in the Oklahoma oilfields. The work was unsteady and he turned briefly to stealing cars.
He was arrested in 1921 and sent to the Oklahoma State Reformatory where he served 14 months of a ten-year sentence, before being paroled.
Post’s aviation career began at age 26 as a parachutist for a flying circus, Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers, and he became well known on the barnstorming circuit.
On October 1, 1926, an oil field accident cost him his left eye, but he used the settlement money to buy his first aircraft. Around this time, he met fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers when he flew Rogers to a rodeo, and the two eventually became close friends. Post was the personal pilot of wealthy Oklahoma oilmen Powell Briscoe and F.C. Hall in 1930 when Hall bought a high-wing, single-engine Lockheed Vega, one of the most famous record-breaking aircraft of the early 1930s. The oilman nicknamed it the Winnie Mae after his daughter, and Post achieved his first national prominence in it by winning the National Air Race Derby, from Los Angeles to Chicago. The fuselage was inscribed, “Los Angeles to Chicago 9 hrs. 8 min. 2 sec. August 27, 1930.” Adam Charles Williams finished second with a time of 9 hrs. 9 min. 4 sec.
In 1930 the record for Flying around the world was not held by a fixed-wing aircraft, but by the Graf Zeppelin, piloted by Hugo Eckener in 1929 with a time of 21 days. On June 23, 1931, Post and his navigator, Harold Gatty, left Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York in the Winnie Mae with a flight plan that would take them around the world, stopping at Harbour Grace, Flintshire, Hanover twice, Berlin, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk, Nome where his propeller had to be repaired, Fairbanks where the propeller was replaced, Edmonton, and Cleveland before returning to Roosevelt Field.
On July 1 Post and Gatty returned to Roosevelt Field after traveling 15,474 miles in the record time of 8 days and 15 hours and 51 minutes.
On July 6 they had lunch at the White House and rode in a ticker-tape parade the next day in New York City, and were honored at a banquet given by the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America at the Hotel Astor. As a result of the flight, Post was able to acquired the Winnie Mae from F.C. Hall, and he and Gatty published an account of their journey titled, Around the World in Eight Days, with an introduction by Will Rogers.
After the record-setting flight, Wiley Post wanted to open his own aeronautical school, but could not fund it or raise enough financial support because of so many doubts due to his rural background and limited formal education.
Post decided to attempt a solo flight around the world and to break his previous speed record. Over the next year, Post improved his aircraft by installing an autopilot device and a radio direction finder that were in their final stages of development by the Sperry Gyroscope Company and the United States Army.
In 1933, he repeated his flight around the world, this time using the auto-pilot and compass in place of his navigator and becoming the first to accomplish the feat alone. He departed from Floyd Bennett Field and continued on to Berlin where repairs were attempted to his autopilot, stopped at Königsberg to replace some forgotten maps, Moscow for more repairs to his autopilot, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk for final repairs to the autopilot, Rukhlovo, Khabarovsk, Flat where his propeller had to be replaced, Fairbanks, Edmonton, and then on to Floyd Bennett Field. More than Fifty thousand people met Wiley at Floyd Bennett Field to greet him on his return on July 22 after 7 days, 18 hours, 49 minutes 21 hours less than his previous record, and he was given a second ticker-tape parade in New York.
In 1934, with financial support from Frank Phillips of the Phillips Petroleum Company, Post began exploring the limits of high-altitude long-distance flight. The Winnie Mae’s cabin could not be pressurized, so he worked with Russell S. Colley of the B.F. Goodrich Company to develop what became the world’s first practical pressure suit. Three pressure suits were fabricated for Wiley Post; only the final version proved successful. The first suit ruptured during a pressure test. The redesigned second suit used the same helmet as the first but when tested was too tight and they were unable to remove it from Post, so they had to cut him out thus destroying the suit. The third suit was redesigned from the previous two.
The body of the suit had three layers: long underwear, an inner black rubber air pressure bladder, and an outer layer made of rubberized parachute fabric. The outer layer was glued to a frame with arm and leg joints that allowed him to operate the flight controls and to walk to and from the aircraft. Attached to the frame were pigskin gloves, rubber boots, and an aluminum-and-plastic diver’s helmet. The helmet had a removable faceplate that could be sealed at a height of 17,000 ft, and could accommodate earphones and a throat microphone. The helmet was cylinder-shaped with a circular window.
The first flight using the new pressurized suit on September 5, 1934, Post reached an altitude of 40,000 ft above Chicago. Eventually flying as high as a record altitude of 50,000 ft, that is when Post discovered the jet stream and made the first major practical advances in pressurized flight. As of 2011 that suit is currently being restored.
Post made four unsuccessful attempts between February 22 and June 15, 1935, to complete the first high altitude non-stop flight from Los Angeles to New York, all of which failed for various mechanical reasons.
The first attempt on February 22 ended just 57.5 miles North of Los Angeles at Muroc, CA, Now Edwards AFB. This was followed by attempts on March 15, Cleveland, Ohio; 2,035 miles, April 14 Lafayette, Indiana; 1,760 miles, and June 15, Wichita, KS; 1,188 miles.
As the attempts were also meant to be the “First Air Mail Stratosphere Flight” over U.S. Air Mail Route #2, AM-2 from Los Angeles to New York, Post also carried a quantity of ‘cacheted’ covers sponsored by Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc on all four flights.
When Post was killed on August 15, 1935, thus ending the possibility of any more attempts to complete the AM-2 stratosphere flight, the covers were finally cancelled in Los Angeles on August 20, 1935, and forwarded to their addressees.
In 1935 Post became interested in surveying a mail-and-passenger air route from the West Coast of the United States to Russia. Short on cash, he built a hybrid using parts salvaged from two different aircraft: the fuselage of an airworthy Lockheed Orion and the wings of a wrecked experimental Lockheed Explorer.
The Explorer wing was six feet longer in span than the Orion’s original wing, an advantage which extended the range of the hybrid aircraft. As the Explorer wing did not have retractable landing gear, it also lent itself to the fitting of floats for landing in the lakes of Alaska and Siberia. Lockheed flatly refused to make the modifications Post requested on the grounds that the two designs were incompatible and potentially a dangerous mix, leaving him no alternative but to make the changes himself.
Post’s friend Will Rogers visited him often at the airport in Burbank, California while Pacific Airmotive Ltd. was modifying the aircraft, and asked Post to fly him through Alaska in search of new material for his newspaper column.
When the floats Post had ordered did not arrive at Seattle in time, he used a set that was designed for a larger type, making the already nose-heavy hybrid aircraft still more nose-heavy. However, according to the research of Bryan Sterling, the floats were the correct type for the aircraft.
After making a test flight in July, Post and Rogers left Lake Washington, near Seattle in early August and made several stops in Alaska. While Post piloted the aircraft, Rogers wrote his columns on his typewriter. Before they left Fairbanks they signed and mailed a yacht club burgee belonging to South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club.
The signed Burgee is on display at South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club in Marina del Rey, California. On August 15, they left Fairbanks, Alaska for Point Barrow. They were a few miles from Point Barrow when they became uncertain of their position in bad weather and landed in a lagoon to ask directions. On takeoff, the engine failed at low altitude, and the aircraft, uncontrollably nose-heavy at low speed, plunged into the lagoon, shearing off the right wing and ended inverted in the shallow water of the lagoon. Both men died instantly.
In 1936, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Winnie Mae from Post’s widow for $25,000. The United States Congress authorized the purchase on August 24, 1935, just nine days after Post’s death in Alaska. Two monuments at the crash site commemorate the death of the two men and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The nearby Wiley Post / Will Rogers Memorial Airport located in Barrow, Alaska bears their names.
Wiley Post Airport, a large FAA designated reliever airport in Oklahoma City, is named after Post. Oklahoma City’s major commercial airport is named after Will Rogers, so that both victims of the crash are honored by airports in Oklahoma City. The Will Rogers / Wiley Post Memorial Seaplane Base is a seaplane base located on Lake Washington, at the north end of the Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Washington.
Post received the Distinguished Flying Cross (1932), the Gold Medal of Belgium (1934), and the International Harmon Trophy (1934). He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1969. Post was inducted into the First Flight Society’s First Flight Shrine, located at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, on December 17, 1970.
In 1979, the United States Postal Service honored Post with two airmail stamps. Post was inducted posthumously to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2004.
Post’s Lockheed Vega aircraft, the Winnie Mae, was on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center from 2003 to 2011. It is now featured in the “Time and Navigation” gallery on the second floor of the National Air and Space Museum.