Wiley Post

Text by Divan Muller
When looking at the extraordinary tale of Wiley Post’s life, one has to ask, “Was there anything normal or average about his life?”
An unlikely hero

Wiley Hardeman Post was born more than a century ago, on 22 November 1898, in Texas in the USA. He grew up on a cotton farm and showed very little promise as a student whilst attending elementary school. During Wiley’s early teenage years, his family moved to Oklahoma. At the age of fifteen, Wiley attended a county fair, where he saw an aircraft for the first time. He instantly decided that one day he would be a pilot. Wiley received some technical training before being employed at a construction company. He then received further training with the US Army during the First World War 1914 to 1918.

In 1919, Post began working at an oilfield, hoping to save up money to buy an aircraft. Two years later, he was caught stealing a car and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released on parole one year later and returned to his job at the oilfield. Meanwhile, during the mid-1920s, Post’s career in aviation finally began, but not the way he had imagined. He stood in for an injured parachutist during a barnstormer’s show. Post subsequently completed a number of jumps, but he still hoped to become a pilot, rather than a parachutist. Soon enough, Post’s dream of becoming a pilot did come true, but again, not in the way he had expected. Post lost his left eye in an accident at the oilfield. Rather than mourn the loss of sight in his left eye, not to mention depth perception, Post used the money from his workers’ compensation cheque to buy a Curtiss Canuck light aircraft. He earned his pilot’s licence and became the personal pilot of oil tycoon F.C. Hall, who bought a Lockheed Vega and named it ‘Winnie Mae.’ He encouraged Post to fly the aircraft in his spare time.

Designed by legendary designers Gerrard Vultee and John Northrop, the Lockheed Vega was the most prominent record-breaking aircraft of the early 1930s. It was the aircraft of choice for aviation pioneers, such as Amelia Earhart.
Breaking records

In 1930, Wiley Post used the Vega to enter and win the National Air Race Derby from Los Angeles to Chicago. This inspired him to use ‘Winnie Mae’ to complete even more ambitious flights.

One year later, Post and renowned navigator Harold Gatty used the Vega to circumnavigate the world in eight days, 15 hours and 51 minutes. In doing so, they broke the world record, which until then had been held by the Graf Zeppelin airship. Upon completing the journey of almost 25 000 km, Post and Gatty had lunch at the White House and were given a ticker tape parade. Over the next year, Post improved the Vega and installed an auto-pilot and radio direction finder. In 1933, he circumnavigated the world again, but this time he flew solo. Post completed the epic flight in seven days, 18 hours and 49 minutes, breaking his previous record by 21 hours. During this journey around the world, he also broke another record, by flying from New York to Berlin in 26 hours. In addition to breaking these records, Post had become the first pilot to fly solo around the world, earning another ticker tape parade upon his return to the USA.

During the following year, Post helped develop pressure suits for high altitude flying. These early pressure suits were primitive, but at the same time quite complex. Even so, they enabled Post to set unofficial altitude records above 40 000 ft. In the process, Post discovered the existence of jet streams.

In 1935 Wiley Post modified a Lockheed Orion by fitting wings from a Lockheed Explorer, installing a 550 hp engine and replacing the fuel tanks with larger ones. The aircraft's purpose was to explore a potential passenger and mail route between the USA's west coast and Russia. For that reason, Post wanted to replace the landing gear with floats for landing on lakes. Delivery on the floats that were ordered was delayed, so an impatient Post installed floats which were designed for a much larger aircraft. The aircraft was called 'Wiley's Orphan' or 'Wiley's Bastard' by some, but it was never officially named.

During the early 1930s, Post often flew with Will Rogers, who was an actor, humourist and one of the best known celebrities of that era. During their many flights, the two celebrities became great friends. In 1935, Rogers asked Post to fly him to various destinations in Alaska, as he had to find new material for his newspaper column. The two men flew to Alaska in Post's new aircraft, making several stops in the remote American state. During one of the flights, they became lost and landed on a lake to ask for directions. After taking off, the heavily laden aircraft with oversized floats experienced an engine failure. To make matters worse, the aircraft's large aft fuel tanks were full, whilst the fore ones were empty, making the aircraft tail-heavy. Not surprisingly, Post lost control of the aircraft, which crashed into the lake, killing both occupants on impact. Wiley Post and Will Rogers were 36 and 55 years old respectively.

In 1936, the Smithsonian Institute bought 'Winnie Mae' from Post's widow. The aircraft is currently on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre in Virginia, USA.