When one thinks about famous names in the history of aviation, the names of the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Eddie Rickenbacker and Chuck Yeager invariably come to mind. Wiley Post should probably be in there with them. He was the first person to fly around the world solo way back in July of 1933. It took a mere 7 days and 19 hours. What makes that even more remarkable was that he did it with only one eye.
Wiley Post was born in Texas on November 22, 1898. Never much for “book learnin”, Wiley liked the more mechanical things in life. When he was about 11, his family left Texas and settled in nearby Oklahoma. It was there that he got his first glimpse at an airplane and a life long love affair was about to begin.
Like many other youths of his day, his first job was courtesy of the United States Army. Upon his discharge, he returned to Oklahoma to work in the oil fields. I guess that the times were tough for everybody but Wiley made it tougher on himself when he got busted for stealing a car. Originally sentenced to 10 years in prison, he was paroled after only one.
He returned to the oil fields only to be greeted by an accident that cost him the use of his left eye. He would wear a patch over it for the rest of his all too short life. He took a settlement of about $1,800.00 and purchased his first plane. Aviation history would never be the same.
Wiley soon took a job as a personal pilot to a rich Oklahoma oil- man by the name of F.C. Hall. He also had the opportunity to meet and become friends with the most famous American humorist of his day, fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers.(More about that later.) Wiley’s job was to shuttle the oilman around his oil fields and was later given use of Hall’s personal plane, the Winnie Mae, named after Hall's daughter.
Wiley took the Winnie Mae> to new heights when he won something called the Derby of National Air Races which consisted of a flight between Los Angeles and Chicago. It took 9 hours, nine minutes and 4 seconds.
His next feat of aviation astounded the flying world. He and fellow co-pilot Harold Gatty (no slouch when it came to flying) took off from Roosevelt Field in New York on June 23 of 1931. They touched down some eight days and 15,474 miles later and were the first ones to fly around the world. Pit stops included Berlin, Moscow, Siberia, Alaska and Canada. They were greeted back in New York with a ticker tape parade and lunch at the White House. Wiley wasn’t done yet though…
The next year saw him making improvements to the plane. He added an auto pilot and a radio compass that allowed him to target radio stations to guide his way.
In 1933 it was time to go solo. He took off from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field on July 15th. His plan was to make it non-stop to Berlin. Despite battling bad weather over the Atlantic Ocean, he managed to make it in just under 26 hours, a new world record. From there, due to mechanical problems, refueling and other assorted complications, he made 11 more stops on his trip. By the time he touched down in front of a crowd of over 50,000 spectators on July 22nd,- he had managed to knock more than 21 hours off his previous record. The entire journey lasted 7 days and nineteen hours. Another ticker tape parade and another lunch at the White House awaited.
Pressure, What Pressure?
Considered a visionary in the world of aviation, Wiley had dreams of conducting high altitude flights. Back then, there was no such thing as a pressurized cabin and Wiley developed what came to be known as his Man from Mars flying suit. Working in tandem with such companies as Philips Petroleum and B.F. Goodrich the suit he developed took him to new heights. Unofficially, he is thought to be the first man to reach the stratosphere when he reached an estimated 50,000 feet in one of the early test flights. While he was up there, among many other aviation innovations he was pioneering, he discovered a little thing that came to be known as the jet stream. Among his many predications to come true were such things as supersonic flights and space travel.
By the time 1935 had rolled around, Wiley had found employment and funding from the fledgling airline industry to develop passenger an mail routes that stretched from the West Coast to Russia. Recognizing the need for a different kind of plane, he began experimenting with a hybrid that he built from two earlier wrecks.
Construction of the hybrid (colloquially known by such nicknames the Aurora Borealis, “Wiley’s Orphan” or Wiley’s Bastard”) took place at the Lockheed facility located in Burbank, California. The plane , even when empty, was considered extremely heavy by many experts to start with. Undeterred, Wiley took it for a test flight and deemed it airworthy.
In August of 1935, Wiley met up with his good buddy Will Rogers and decided to take a little trip to Alaska. Departing from Seattle, their itinerary included stop-overs in such popular destinations as Juneau, the Yukon Territory, Fairbanks and Point Barrow, Alaska.
They never made it back. An Inuit spotted the plane go down and reported the incident to the nearby Barrow authorities. They immediately contacted the War Department who conducted a search of the area and recovered the bodies. They made long journey home back to Oklahoma and a grateful nation mourned their passing.