On this day in 1933, American aviator Wiley Post returns to Floyd Bennett Field in New York, having flown solo around the world in 7 days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes. He was the first aviator to accomplish the feat; two years later Post was attempting to fly across the North Pole to the USSR with American humorist and best pal Will Rogers when both men were killed in a crash near Point Barrow, Alaska.
Post was born in Texas in 1898 to cotton farmer parents, William Francis and Mae Quinlan Post. His family moved to Oklahoma when he was five. He was an indifferent student, but managed to complete the sixth grade. Young Wiley’s first view of an aircraft in flight came in 1913 at the county fair in Lawton, Oklahoma; the visage of the Curtis-Wright “Pusher-type” so inspired him that he immediately enrolled in the Sweeney Automobile and Aviation School in Kansas City.
Hoping to serve in WWI as a pilot, Germany surrendered before Post completed his training, and he went to work as a “roughneck” in the Oklahoma oilfields. The work was dangerous and spotty, and he turned briefly to armed robbery; arrested in 1921, he served more than a year in the Oklahoma State Reformatory.
Post’s aviation career began at age 26 as a parachutist for a flying circus, Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers, and he became well known on the barnstorming circuit. Still roughnecking in 1926, an oil field accident cost him his left eye, and he used the settlement money to buy his first aircraft. Around this time, he met fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers when he flew Rogers to a rodeo, and the two eventually became best friends.
In 1930 Post became the personal pilot for oilman F.C. Hall, who bought a high-wing, single-engine Lockheed Vega, one of the most famous record-breaking aircraft of the early 1930’s. The oilman nicknamed it the Winnie Mae after his daughter, and Post achieved his first national prominence in it by winning the National Air Race Derby, from Los Angeles to Chicago.
In 1930, the record for flying around the world was not held by a fixed-wing aircraft, but by the Graf Zeppelin, piloted by Hugo Eckener in 1929 with a time of 21 days. On June 23, 1931, Post and his navigator, Harold Gatty, left Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, in the Winnie Mae with a flight plan that would take them around the world, stopping at Harbour Grace, Flintshire, Hanover (twice), Berlin, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk, Nome, where his propeller had to be repaired, Fairbanks where the propeller was replaced, Edmonton, and Cleveland,Ohio before returning to Roosevelt Field.
Post and Gatty arrived back in New York on July 1, after traveling 15,474 miles in the record time of 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes, in the first successful aerial circumnavigation by a single-engined monoplane. The reception they received rivaled Charles Lindbergh’s everywhere they went, they lunched at the White House, rode in a ticker-tape parade the next day in New York City, and were honored as heroes at every turn. After the flight, Post acquired the Winnie Mae from F.C. Hall, and he and Gatty published an account of their journey titled, Around the World in Eight Days, with an introduction by Will Rogers.
In 1933, with technical assistance from the Sperry Gyroscope Company and the U.S. Army, he bested his own flight around the world, this time using an auto-pilot and compass in place of his navigator and becoming the first to accomplish the feat alone. He departed from Floyd Bennett Field and continued on to Berlin where repairs were attempted to his autopilot, stopped at Königsberg to replace some forgotten maps, Moscow for more repairs to his autopilot, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk for final repairs to the autopilot, Rukhlovo, Khabarovsk, Flat, where his propeller had to be replaced, Fairbanks, Edmonton, and back to Floyd Bennett Field. Fifty thousand people greeted him on his return on July 22 after 7 days, 18 hours, 49 minutes.
In 1935 Post grew interested in surveying a mail-and-passenger air route from the West Coast of the United States to Russia. Short on cash, he built a hybrid using parts salvaged from two different aircraft: the fuselage of an airworthy Lockheed Orion and the wings of a wrecked experimental Lockheed Explorer. Post’s friend Will Rogers visited him often at the airport in Burbank, California, while Pacific Airmotive Ltd. was modifying the aircraft, and asked to join Post to fly him through Alaska in search of new material for Roger’s newspaper column.
After making a test flight with the highly modified Orion in July, Post and Rogers left Lake Washington, near Seattle, in early August and made several stops in Alaska. While Post piloted the aircraft, Rogers wrote his columns on his typewriter. On August 15, they left Fairbanks, Alaska, for Point Barrow, and were a few miles from there when they became uncertain of their position in bad weather and landed in a lagoon to ask for directions.
On takeoff, the engine failed at low altitude, and the aircraft, uncontrollably nose-heavy at low speed, plunged into the lagoon, shearing off the right wing, and ended up inverted in the shallow part; both men died instantly.
A fitting summation for the lives two Oklahomans, neither of whom had any formal schooling, lies in one of Roger’s more memorable quotations: “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”