Arctic Aerial Exploration
Antarctic Exploration
Australian record flights
equal flying rights for women!
Calbraith Rogers
Cobham and Hinkler
Byrd and Bennett
Wiley Post
Amelia Earhart
Howard Hughes
Kingsford Smith
Amy Johnson
Beryl Markham
Italo Balbo
Jimmy Doolittle

Wiley Post

Wiley Post and the Vega

Because of the records set by Wiley Post in the Lockheed Vega, the plane became a favourite of distance fliers and record breakers, and for the most part these planes were available to any enthusiast. Wiley Post was born in Texas, but his family moved to Oklahoma when he was five and he was considered an Oklahoman his entire life.

He began his aviation career in 1924 at the age of twenty-six as a parachutist for a flying circus, Burell Tobbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers, and was soon a well-known performer on the barnstorming circuit. Post injured his left eye in an oil field accident, and when it seemed that an infection might spread to both eyes and deprive him of vision entirely, he had a surgeon remove his left eye. The gamble worked and he recovered normal sight in his right eye, but wore a patch over his false eye.

He took the money he received from the workman’s compensation for the accident and bought an old Canuck and repaired it himself. In 1927, Post became the personal pilot of oilman F.C. Hall. In 1928 Hall, desiring a closed-cockpit plane, sent Post to the Lockheed factory in Burbank, California, to buy the best one the company produced.

Wiley Post with the Vega

Post selected the Vega, and Hall named the plane the Winnie Mae, after his daughter. After Hall suddenly sold the plane back to Lockheed during a downturn in business, Post went to work for Lockheed as a salesman and test pilot. When Hall was again able to purchase a plane and hire a pilot, in 1930, he bought a new Vega (again calling it the Winnie Mae) and rehired Post, this time with the intention of letting Post carry out his plans for long-distance flights. Post won the 1930 Men’s Air Derby, a race from Los Angeles to Chicago that kicked off the National Air races. 

For the race, Post had Lockheed install a new Wasp engine capable of producing 500 horsepower. He used the Derby to test the plane and some modifications that he had made to raise its top speed to nearly two hundred miles per hour (322kph). He was ready to tackle the record for a round-the-world flight. Like most aviators, he was irked by the fact that the record for flying around the world was not held by an airplane, but by the Graf Zeppelin, which had been piloted by Hugo Eckener in a 1929 record-setting global circumnavigation of twenty-one days. Post engaged a marine navigator, Harold Gatty, for the flight. Gatty had developed several new navigational devices, including a combined ground-speed and wind-drift indicator. This was particularly important for Post because having only one seeing eye meant he lacked depth perception, which made it difficult for him to gauge distances and speed.

Post and Gatty took off from Roosevelt Field on June 23, 1931, and circled the globe west to east in just eight days, fifteen hours, and fifty-one minutes. (Naturally, they titled their memoir of the flight Around the World in Eight Days). They would have done better, but several times the Winnie Mae became stuck in soft sand or mud and the plane had to be moved to a new surface for takeoff. In Edmonton, the plane was moved to a main street where it took off with a clearance of only inches for the wings. This was an astounding feat, and in appreciation Hall made a present of the plane to Post.

The reception  Post and Gatty received after their record flight rivalled Lindbergh’s everywhere they went. With other fliers attempting to break his record, Post immediately planned a new flight that he believed was well beyond the capabilities of any other flier: a solo flight around the world. On the face of it, this should not be more difficult than flying with a navigator since in neither case is anyone other than the pilot flying the plane. But not having a navigator puts an enormous strain on the pilot, who has to take readings and determine position while flying the plane.

In an odd way, Post’s injury actually helped him because he was accustomed to making calculations in his head all the time while flying, to compensate for his lack of depth perception. (He would often say that he would have to give up flying if they ever changed the height of two- story buildings.) As he had for his flight with Gatty, Post trained like an athlete for the flight, becoming accustomed to taking short naps instead of sleeping through the night, and learning to focus his mind exclusively on flying. Post also had two new devices that would help him immeasurably: the automatic pilot and a homing radio receiver, both used for the first time on this record-setting flight.

The automatic pilot, developed by the Sperry Gyroscope Company, had expanded the technology developed by Jimmy Doolittle’s “blind flights” of 1929 to include a servo-mechanism that adjusted the controls whenever the aircraft was out of trim or was rotating around any axis. Its main use was to allow the aircraft to cruise automatically while the pilot attended to the navigational chores.

Natives of Flat, Alaska, helping right Wiley Post's plane, the Winnie Mae, after Post had nosed over in a cross wind July 20 after being in the air 22 hours and 32 minutes on his flight from Khabarovsk, Siberia. The only damage was a broken propeller, and a new one was brought to Flat by Joe Crosson, pioneer Alaska flier. The new propeller installed, Post continued his flight to Fairbanks.

Although only an early prototype of the device existed, Post convinced Sperry to test it on the Winnie Mae. The other device allowed a pilot to determine the direction a radio signal was coming from. This device was developed by the U.S. Army, which was eager to test it; Post was happy to oblige. By the time Post took off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, on July 15, 1933, his main challenges Jimmy Mattern, had dropped out. But in spite of his rigorous training and the technological improvements, Post, who had seemed none the worse for wear after his earlier flight with Gatty, looked weary and exhausted when he landed at Floyd Bennett Field on July 22, to the cheers of the 50,000 New Yorkers there to greet him.

Post had circled  the globe in an astounding seven days, eighteen hours, and forty-nine minutes, more than twenty-one hours faster than his record pace in the flight with Gatty. Post credited the automatic pilot, but the fact was that the device did not work through much of the flight and had to be repaired several times. Post encountered more difficulties on this flight than on the first one, but he made up for lost time by cutting down on his sleep—he slept all of twenty hours during the entire flight.

It was a feat that fliers to this day find unbelievable. Post then considered entering the MacRobertson Race between England and Australia held in 1934. He believed the race could be won by flying very high, say above thirty thousand feet (9,144m), and for extended periods, to take advantage of one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds in the upper  atmosphere.

Wiley Post's pressure suit allowed him to cruise for long distances at high altitude in the jet stream, and was a precursor to modern pressure and space suits

Post designed a pressurized suit that would allow him to fly at forty thousand feet (12,192m) for long periods, but the  Winnie Mae was now obsolete and Post decided not to enter the MacRobertson Race. Instead, he worked with Lockheed designers to produce a hybrid plane that combined the wings of an Orion with the fuselage of an Electra. He hoped to set new altitude and speed records with the craft. In 1932 Post met the famous humorist (and fellow Oklahoman) Will Rogers and the two became close friends. Rogers often flew with Post as a passenger and he contributed an introduction to the book Post had done with Gatty about their flight. In 1935, looking for new material for his newspaper column, Rogers asked Post if they could fly to Alaska.

This is the Lockheed-Orion Model 9E Special, NC122823, formerly owned by TWA, that was modified by Wiley Post for his trip to Alaska. Among other modifications, Post replaced the engine with a 550 horsepower type, installed a three-bladed variable pitch propeller, swapped out the wing with one that was six feet longer from a Lockheed-Explorer Model 7 Special, NR101W, that had fixed landing gear, and then replaced the landing gear with floats

Wiley Post and Will Rogers during their fateful trip to Alaska. Post never wore a hat

Post went to Lockheed and asked the engineers to add pontoons to the Orion-Electra - aircraft, but they refused, telling him that pontoons would upset the aerodynamic of the plane. Post (believing -Rogers’ weight would compensate) had pontoons placed on the plane himself and flew Rogers up to Alaska. On August 15, the fears of the Lockheed engineers were realized and the plane stalled while taking off from a lake near Point Barrow. Post and Rogers died in the crash sending the nation into mourning for two of its most popular cultural heroes.

The last photo taken on August 15, 1935

Will Rogers

last farewell

The wreckage of Will Rogers' and Wiley Post's Lockheed Orion-Explorer, after it crashed at Point Barrow, Alaska in fog due to engine failure. Both men were killed instantly