Aviator Legend: Wiley Post (1898-1935)
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Wiley Post overcame a grade school education, clinical depression, a criminal record, prison, and the loss of an eye, to rival his friend Charles Lindbergh as the greatest aviator of his generation and one of the greatest in history. His revolutionary feats in the jet stream, the pressurized flight suits he designed, and his pioneering flight around the world remain unparalleled.
Born to migrant cotton farmers in Corinth, Texas, north of Dallas, Post’s family moved to Maysville, Oklahoma when he was five. He migrated west to the Marlow area a few years later. His lifelong passion to fly started at age fifteen when he saw his first airplane in flight at the Comanche County Fair in Lawton. He soon graduated from an aviation technology school, and trained further in preparation as a World War I aviator with the University of Oklahoma’s Students’ Army in Norman. The war ended before he shipped out to Europe, however. So, for a while, did his flying opportunities.
Post worked for a couple of years in construction and the Oklahoma oil fields. Then—bored, unemployed, and depressed—he hijacked a series of automobiles in Grady County. His luck ran out with arrest in 1921. At age 23, the iron bars of Granite State Reformatory in southwest Oklahoma slammed on him with a 10-year sentence.
Fortunately for Post, Governor James Robertson pardoned him after just over a year in prison. Historian Paul Lambert writes that the many terms of release included his avoidance of “improper places of amusement” and “all pool and billiard halls.”
Upon his release from prison, Post returned to working in the southern Oklahoma oil patch. He moonlighted, however, with Burrell Tibbs’ Flying Circus, first as a parachutist, and later as a pilot. In 1926, roughnecking cost him an eye. Exhibiting the audacity that marked his life and legacy, Post married Edna Mae Laine within a few months, then parleyed the proceeds of the insurance settlement from his eye accident into the purchase of his first plane.
By 1930, Wiley Post possessed enough flying talent that wealthy Oklahoma oilmen L. C. Hall and Powell Briscoe both employed him as their personal pilot. Hall purchased an elite Lockheed Vega monoplane and named it Winnie Mae, after his daughter. Post won the Chicago to Los Angeles National Air Race Derby by one minute in it. This feat gained him national acclaim.
Like many pilots, Post seethed over a non-fixed-wing aircraft, the German hot air dirigble Graf Zepellin, holding the round-the-world flight record. So he and his navigator Harold Gatty set about changing that.
The next year, they flew from New York City around the world, including through Berlin, Moscow, Nome, Alaska, Edmonton, Canada, and Cleveland. They shaved the record time from three weeks down to just 8 2/3 days. Then Post purchased the Winnie Mae from Hall.
At this point, the aviator with the eye patch tried to open an aeronautical school. He failed to do so, because potential donors doubted his academic and intellectual aptitude. This bitter humiliation fired the Oklahoman with a relentless determination to further prove his mettle by breaking his own around the world record—this time flying solo.
For over a year, he worked to improve his plane with such trailblazing features as an automatic pilot device and a radio direction finder. These, along with his compass, replaced the need for a navigator. In July, 1933, Post again took off from New York. Seven days and nineteen hours later, he landed with a new record, more glory, a fifty-thousand-person parade, and a larger place in the history books.
Post had no intention of retiring and resting on his laurels. Lacking further horizontal travel challenges, he turned his focus to vertical—extreme high altitude flying. Since the Winnie Mae’s cabin lacked the pressurization to allow for this, he worked to develop a pressurized suit. Fellow Oklahoman and Phillips Petroleum founder Frank Phillips of Bartlesville financed these efforts.
As described by historian Lloyd Mallan, Post’s suit—the predecessor to later American test pilots and astronauts—featured three layers. Moving outward from the flyer’s body, these were insulated long underwear, a rubber air pressure bladder, and a rubberized parachute fabric, along with pigskin gloves, rubber boots, and a diver’s-like helmet that included a microphone and earphones.
First sporting the suit in flight in September, 1934, Post soared to a world record 40,000 feet over Chicago. Later reaching 50,000 feet, he first encountered the west-east jet stream of the stratosphere, and the effect it had on his flight speed.
During the final months of his life, Post pioneered yet another new frontier—transcontinental high-altitude flight. He attempted to fly, while delivering mail, from New York City to Los Angeles. He got within 50 miles of his objective on one attempt, but never quite made it.
Accompanied by his close friend Will Rogers, he flew a float plane he constructed from two Lockheed aircraft from California to Alaska, en route to Siberia to test a prospective USA-Russia air mail route. Post dealt with remote locations at the northern extremity of the United States, treacherous mountains, an unwieldy hybrid aircraft, and finally, daunting visibility. The plane lost power near Point Barrow, Alaska and crashed into a lagoon, killing both men instantly.
The world mourned, then honored—generation upon generation—the melancholy, grade-school educated, one-eyed ex-con who rose to stand alongside Lindbergh and but few others as the giants of American and world aviation history.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.