*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The years between the World Wars could arguably be called the most romanticized in American history. An era of contrasts – intense optimism and Great Depression, burgeoning industry and organized crime – the booms and busts inspired people of the age to dare in a way many had not. One such man, a dashing American pilot named Wiley Post, cemented his legacy by becoming the first person to fly solo around the world on July 22, 1933.
The handsome flyer had been born in the plains of northeastern Texas before moving to Oklahoma with his farming family at the age of five. He spent much of his life in the fields, until he landed a job with Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers in 1924. Working as a parachutist, he was soon known on the barnstorming tours o the mid- and late-1920s – an era when the airplane moved from being the combat oddity it had been in World War I to a bona fide workhorse.
In 1926, while working in an oil field during the off-season, Post lost his left eye to a piece of faulty equipment. Using the compensation he received for the injury to purchase his first airplane, he often served as the personal pilot for entrepreneurs who had hit it big with “black gold” in central Oklahoma. While building his reputation at the controls of the airplane, he met and befriended Will Rogers, the celebrity cowboy who had skyrocketed to fame on stage and in film. Post’s success allowed him to move on to a larger single-engine aircraft in 1930, one of the fastest of the era – a Lockheed Vega nicknamed “Winnie Mae” by the plane’s owner and one of his clients, F.C. Hall.
The Winnie Mae would open the door to even greater accolades for Post. On August 27, he won the National Air Race Derby by flying from Los Angeles to Chicago in 9 hours and 8 minutes. He soon set his sights on making it all the way around the world. Teaming up with Harold Gatty, his long-time navigator, he took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York in late June 1931. Covering well over 15,000 miles in less than 9 days, Post and Gatty smashed the previous world record of 21 days set by the Graf Zeppelin airship in 1929.
Now able to afford the plane on his own, he bought the Winnie Mae from Hall and began planning to start an educational program for aspiring pilots. Unable to find funding, Post became determined to circle the globe on his own in order to prove his mettle. He spent much of 1932 making alterations to the plane, including the installation of an autopilot and a radio direction finder – an early precursor to radar.
On July 14th, the Winnie Mae lifted off the ground at Floyd Bennett Field in New York City, flying east to Berlin and then over Russia, Alaska and Canada on his way back to the same airport some 7 days and 19 hours later. Despite stopping for numerous repairs (and to replace maps he’d forgotten to bring along), Post bested his own record by 21 hours. Just as he had after his flight with Gatty, he was paraded through the streets showered with ticker-tape and revered as a hero.
Ever eager to achieve new feats of flying skill, Post would push the Winnie Mae to higher heights in 1934, inventing a pressurized suit with the help of Russell Colley at BF Goodrich and eventually pushing the aircraft to an altitude of 50,000 feet – where he discovered the jet stream. He soon attempted to make a flight from Los Angeles to New York using his custom pressure suit, failing four times.
In August of 1935, two months after his last attempt at a high-altitude transcontinental flight, Post and Rogers were flying around Alaska when an engine failure caused Post’s Lockheed Orion to go nose down near Point Barrow. The intrepid pilot and beloved author were killed instantly.