Wiley Post wanted to be a pilot.
Every since catching a glimpse of a rickety Curtiss biplane taking to the skies at a county fair exhibition, Post had his passion. But achieving that passion wasn’t easy.
He joined the fledgeling U.S. Army Air Service, the aeronautical branch of the U.S. Army, but never completing training due to World War I ending.
He spent his time after his army service working temporary jobs on oil rigs around his home state of Oklahoma.
After a great deal of unsatisfying labor Post made the worst decision of his life by stealing a car. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in a state penitentiary with little hope for any kind of good future ahead.
Lucky Breaks and Fortunate Accidents
With luck and good behavior, Post managed to get paroled after serving only a year of his sentence. But now a felon, he found his future prospects relating to aviation even further diminished.
With no chance in the military or in the growing U.S. Air Mail service, Post eventually found aviation-related work in the private sector. But not as a pilot.
Instead, he became one of the daring parachutists who thrilled the American public in the growing “barnstorming” industry. Leaping from slow-moving biplanes, these parachutists would briefly plummet to the Earth before pulling the cord on their chutes. An incredibly dangerous job, the papers of the time were filled with stories of malfunctioning parachutes ending in gruesome death.
Eventually Post moved up at the air circus, from parachutist to pilot, where he gained valuable experience maneuvering a plane.
But his career took another hit just 2 years later. Because, to make the majority of his living, Post was still working part-time on oil rigs. In 1926, a piece of metal shrapnel flew into Post’s left eye, blinding him on that side for the rest of his life.
As Post recuperated, the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh made headlines around the country for completing the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, flying from New York to Paris is his custom-built plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.
Things changed when Post received an insurance payment for his lost eye. The amount, $1,800, translated into about $25,000 in today’s money and was enough for Post to purchase his first plane.
Post was finally in a position to fly as he wanted, for whoever he wanted.
With his trademark white eyepatch and his stories of daring barnstorming feats, Post soon attracted a number of wealthy clients. One of people he met was humorist Will Rogers, who originally contracted Post to transport him between performances but soon the two had developed a close friendship.
Around the World in 8 Days
Things really changed when Post was hired to be the personal pilot of a wealthy oilman named F.C. Hall.
Hall was immediately impressed with Post’s outgoing personality, as well as his amazing confidence and flying ability. Hall offered Post the use of a plane he had purchased, named “Winnie Mae” after Hall’s daughter, expressly for the purpose of testing the limits of aviation.
The Winnie Mae was a brand new Lockeed Vega, certainly one of the fastest models of aircraft available in 1930. And a prime contender to break all sorts of records, provided the right pilot was behind the controls.
The first challenge was the 1930 Air Race Derby. The race began in Los Angles and ended in Chicago. When it ended, Post was in first place, breaking a world speed record in the process. Post made the flight in only 9 hours and 8 minutes. Of the first four finishers in the race, all had used a version of the Lockeed Vega. But Post’s Vega, the Winnie Mae, was the one that came out on top.
In 1931, Post set off to break the speed record for around the world travel. Up to Post’s attempt, the current record holder wasn’t even an airplane, but instead a lighter-than-air dirigible, the Graf Zeppelin. This rigid helium-filled craft had gone around the world in 21 days, which included plenty of stops for refueling and repair.
Post, flying the Winnie Mae with navigator Harold Gatty, managed to make the trip in only 8 days, 15 hours.
In 1933, Post decided to complete the same trip, only this time solo. Instead of a human navigator, Post installed 2 new devices loaned to him from the U.S. Army Air Service. The first was a “radio direction finder,” or RDF, which is technology still in use today to allow pilots to calculate their exact location based on radio signals sent from ground stations. The second was an early automatic pilot system to help Post over the long distance.
The first leg of the trip, across the Atlantic Ocean, Post officially became the second pilot to cross solo, after Linberg’s famous crossing 6 years previous. In Post’s case, using a more advanced airplane and equipment, he was able to continue past Paris and eventually making the first landing in Berlin.
The second leg of the trip offered up new difficulties as the Winnie Mae began to cross the vast wilderness of the Eastern Soviet Union. Starting with a stop in Moscow to conduct repairs to his autopilot system, the Winnie Mae had to touch down again and again for repairs.
When he had made it to Alaska, the sensitive RDF equipment finally failed and Post found himself completely lost before eventually landing on a small airstrip outside the mining town of Flat, Alaska. In landing, the Post smashed the Winnie Mae’s landing gear, forcing even more repairs.
Once in Canada, Post had enough gas and a straight enough route to fly without stopping for over 2,000 miles all the way back to New York. His final time solo was 7 days and 19 hours, beating the old record he had just set flying with Gatty in the navigator position.
Taking the Human Body above 50,000 feet
After having exploring limitations of speed and distance, Post took as his next challenge the exploration of high altitude.
Unfortunately, any human who had tried to get higher than around 8,000 feet reported a vast array of debilitating symptoms: headache, hallucinations, loss of judgement, even loss of consciousness. Post became obsessed with breaking this human limitation, and looked for ways to maintain air pressure as altitude was raised.
Wooden aircraft of the time were unable to hold any pressure. Instead, Post went to work designing a special suit that could hold air pressure around the human body. He was designing what would eventually become the Pressure Suit.
After 3 failed suits, Post successfully created a working prototype that he personally used for exploration of high altitudes above the United States. Air pressure was maintained around his body, and temperature could be managed by adjusting a valve which could either bring in air from outside the plane, or from around the engine compartment.
Despite 4 attempts at transcontinental high-altitude crossings, none of them were considered successful due to mechanical difficulties the engine of his plane encountered. Post was able to protect himself, but the technology of the time could not keep planes flying.
During these tests, Post managed to reach elevations of around 50,000 feet, and recorded increased air speed consistent with jet stream effects.
The Early Death of an American Aviation Pioneer
All of Post’s accomplishments, from parachuting in an air circus to exploring the upper atmosphere, took place within a span of about 10 years. No matter how much skill and bravery he possessed, it must be remembered that the life of a test pilot was and still is a very dangerous profession.
In 1935, Post was testing a new aircraft design for use in intercontinental air mail service. The test plane had shown promising results, and for testing in the skies above Barrow, Alaska, he had been joined in the cockpit by his friend Will Rogers. Unfortunately during takeoff from an isolated Alaskan lake the airplane lost control and crashed, killing both occupants instantly.
The world was forced to morn both the loss of a famous aviator and legendary humorist on the same day.
Today the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum displays both the iconic Winnie Mae airplane, as well as Post’s amazing pressure suit.