This Day in History: Forgotten Aviation Pioneer Wiley Post
On this day in 1898, a future aviation entrepreneur is born in a small farming community in Texas. Wiley Post would rise above poverty, prison, and even losing an eye to become one of our nation’s most accomplished aviators. Indeed, aviator Howard Hughes would say that Post completed “the most remarkable flight in history.”
How surprising that so few today know Post’s name.
He started humbly enough. He dropped out of school in 8th grade and was working for a construction company in Oklahoma when World War I began. He wanted to fly for the Army, but it didn’t work out. After the war, he was struggling financially and landed in prison for armed robbery.
Afterwards, he began getting gigs as a parachuter, earning as much as $200 per jump. He’d long loved flying and had even taking flying lessons at one point. He also began working as a “roughneck” in the Oklahoma oil fields. An accident on an oil rig caused him to lose an eye, but he used the accident settlement to buy himself a plane.
Learning to fly without one eye was no small trick. His depth perception was affected, but he used telephone poles and two-story buildings to help him figure out how close he was to the ground when landing. Soon, he was hired to be a private pilot for oilman F.C. Hall.
Post flew the oilman’s Lockheed Vega, the Winnie Mae, in a 1930 air derby—and he won. Hall was impressed and let Post use his plane in a 1931 attempt to circle the world with navigator Harold Gatty.
The two men completed their flight in less than 9 days, smashing the previous world record of just under 3 weeks.
Post was getting frustrated, though, because people thought Gatty had done most of the legwork. He bought Winnie Mae from Hall and began planning his own round-the-world journey. He’d make this trip solo, relying on new technology: an autopilot and a radio direction finder.
He left New York on July 15, 1933, promising his wife that he’d be back in a week.
“I got into a mess of dirty weather three minutes after I took off Saturday morning,” he reported, “and it stuck to me for an hour and a half.” He was feeling good about Winnie Mae, though. “She’s behaved loyally and bravely so far,” he concluded. “She’s built for speed, power and economy, and even the mechanics at Tempelhof airdrome marveled at her fit condition after my hard drive across the Atlantic. Not a gadget was out of order.”
He was pushing hard, snatching bits of sleep here and there. At one point, clouds forced him so low that his fuselage scraped the tops of trees. Nevertheless, he made it back to New York in 7 days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes, shattering the record that he’d set with Gatty. An estimated crowd of 25,000 people awaited him.
“The Winnie Mae became the Winnie Did for the second time,” newspaper accounts blared after he landed.
Several years later, Howard Hughes made a similar trip around the world, but with a crew and in a much more advanced machine. He was asked what he thought of Post’s trip: “Wiley Post’s flight remains the most remarkable flight in history. It can never be duplicated. He did it alone! … It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half.”
Sadly, Post was killed just over two years later in a plane crash. By then, he’d experimented with high-altitude flying, and he’d proved the value of using the jet stream. He had created a pressure suit for those flights, and it became the predecessor of astronaut suits.
He persevered, he overcame, and he made invaluable contributions to aviation. What an AMERICAN thing to do.
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Bryan B. Sterling & Frances N. Sterling, Forgotten Eagle: Wiley Post, America’s Heroic Aviation Pioneer (2001)
Dominick Pisano, Wiley Post (National Air & Space Museum; July 22, 2010)
Jonathan Welsh, More Than 100 Aircraft Gather to Honor Wiley Post and Will Rogers (Flying Mag.; Aug. 16, 2022)
Just a Regular Fellow: It’s Wiley Post, Who Hates Fuss and Frills; and How he Hates to Make a Speech! (Indianapolis Times; Sept. 13, 1933) (page 1)
Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae (National Air & Space Museum)
Post, Wiley (Oklahoma Hall of Fame)
Roger Connor, Remembering Wiley Post and Will Rogers (National Air & Space Museum; Aug 16, 2013)
Story of Post’s Flight is Heroic Adventure (Blackwell Journal-Tribune; July 23, 1933) (p. 1)
The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture: Post, Wiley Hardeman (1898–1935) (Oklahoma Historical Society)
Wiley H. Post (San Diego Air & Space Museum)
Wiley Post (U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission)
Wiley Post Details Events of New York-Berlin Hop (Atlanta Constitution; July 17, 1933) (p. 8)
Wiley Post Ends Great Solo Dash (Asheville Citizen-Times; July 23, 1933) (p. 1)