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Wiley PostWiley Post

record-breaking pilot

Wiley Hardeman Post was born on a farm near Grand Saline, Texas, on November 22, 1898. His family moved around a bit during his early years, but finally settled down in Garvin County, Oklahoma. Never a good student, Wiley dropped out of school in the eighth grade, but his lack of education did not lessen his mechanical aptitude.

Post saw his first airplane at an air show in Lawton County, Oklahoma, and from that point became determined to fly his own plane. Before he could fly, however, he had to make a living, so he went to work in the Oklahoma oil fields in 1919. In 1924, a barnstorming troupe came to Oklahoma. When Post learned that the troupe's skydiver was injured, he convinced the owner to let him fill in. He made 99 jumps over the next two years, but since he wanted to be a pilot, not a jumper, he decided to leave the troupe and return to the oil fields so he could make enough money to buy his own airplane. An oil field accident in December 1925 led to the loss of Post's left eye, and could have led to the end of his aviation career. Undaunted, however, he learned to compensate for his lack of depth perception, which would have otherwise made it virtually impossible for him to fly. He then used his $1,800 compensation check to buy a Curtiss Canuck (the Canadian version of a Jenny), and spent the next couple of years flying oilmen to their fields, teaching student pilots, and barnstorming. It was during this period that he first met humorist Will Rogers, who hired Post to fly him to a rodeo. On June 27, 1927, he married his sweetheart, Mae Laine.

the Winnie MaeIn 1928, Post became the personal pilot of oilman F.C. Hall. Impressed with Post's flying abilities, Hall allowed him to use his personal open cockpit Travel-Air biplane whenever it was otherwise unused. In 1930, Hall bought a Lockheed Vega 5-C, which he named Winnie Mae for his daughter, and it is this plane that appears in most photos with Post. Hall was just as generous with this plane, and encouraged Post to use it to set whatever record he wanted.

In 1930, Post won the National Air Race Derby, from Los Angeles to Chicago, and the side of the Winnie Mae fuselage was subsequently inscribed: "Los Angeles to Chicago 9 hrs. 9 min. 4 sec. Aug. 27, 1930."

Post next set his sights on the round-the-world record. On June 23, 1931, he and navigator Harold Gatty took off from Roosevelt Field, New York. After making several stops and dealing with minor mechanical problems along the way, the pair landed back at Roosevelt Field on July 1, setting a record of 8 days, 16 hours for the 15,474-mile trip.

Soon after setting this record, Post acquired the Winnie Mae for himself. Whether he purchased the plane from Hall or Hall gave to him outright is not known.

Not satisfied with the round-the-world record, Post determined to make a solo flight around the world. In order to make the flight without a navigator, he had an auto-pilot system and radio direction finder installed. He took off from Floyd Bennett Field, New York, on July 15, 1933, and landed back at New York on July 22. Despite struggling with mechancial problems and a minor crash along the way, Post had completed the trip in 7 days, 19 hours. Not only had he succeeded in becoming the first person to make an around-the-world solo flight, he did so by beating his previous round-the-world record by 21 hours.

Wiley Post testing his pressure suitPost next decided to work on developing a way to fly at stratospheric altitudes, believing (correctly) that the thinner air would allow for faster flight times. In 1934, with funding from Frank Phillips of the Phillips Petroleum Company and technical help from the B.F. Goodrich Company, he developed a pressure suit for high-altitude flight. The suit consisted of double-ply rubberized parachute cloth glued to a frame, with pigskin gloves, rubber boots and an aluminum and plastic diver's helmet. Arm and leg joints permitted easy operation of flight controls and walking to and from aircraft. The helmet a had removable faceplate that could be sealed once the plane reached 17,000 feet, and that could accomodate earphones and a throat microphone. The entire suit relied on a liquid oxygen system for pressurization and air breathing. Post made his first flight using the suit on September 5, 1934, and reached an unofficial altitude of 40,000 feet over Chicago. Although he made several flights using the suit, none of his altitude records were officially recorded because his recording equipment malfunctioned and he was therefore unable to prove his claims. His discovery of the jet stream during these flights is not disputed, however.

In March 1935, Post flew from Burbank to Cleveland using the jet stream, and completed the 2,035-mile trip in 7 hours, 19 minutes. He attempted four transcontinental stratospheric flights, but all four ended in mechanical failure. He subsequently retired his now well-travelled Winnie Mae, and began working on his next project. (Post's widow later donated the Winnie Mae to the National Air and Space Museum.)

Post's next project was a mail-and-passenger air route from the West Coast to Russia. With funding from various airlines, he assembled a hybrid plane from parts out of two wrecked planes -- a Lockheed Orion fuselage and long wings from a Lockheed Explorer. He added a 550 HP Wasp engine, oversize 260-gallon gas tanks, and pontoons that would allow him to land in any of the many lakes that dot Alaska and Siberia. Accompanied by his good friend Will Rogers, he took off from Seattle in early August 1935, bound for Siberia. Unfortunately, Post's hybrid plane proved ungainly and unstable, and, on August 15, 1935, both men were killed when the plane crashed soon after taking off from Point Barrow, Alaska.

Ace Pilots

Will Rogers

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This page was last updated on 03/20/2017.