Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 19 - July Issue - Year 2018
Wiley Post and Winnie Mae
Wiley Post and Harold Gatty during their stopover in Germany
The car sped through the city streets, almost tilting up on two wheels as it careened around a corner. It soon managed to distance itself from the howling siren of the police car in hot pursuit. Just as the young man was beginning to gloat over his successful escape, two police cars were positioning themselves sideways across the rural road where the fugitive vehicle would be passing a few minutes later…
Wiley Post was born in Texas in November 1898. At the age of five, his family moved to Oklahoma, where his parents worked as cotton farmers. Wiley didn’t care much about school, barely managing to finish the seventh grade. When he was fifteen, Wiley was transfixed when he saw an airplane in flight at a county fair and he knew immediately that he wanted to become an aviator. He enrolled at a flying school in Kansas City and got his pilot’s license seven months later.
At the beginning of World War I, Wiley joined a military training camp, hoping to become a pilot with the U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS). The war ended before Wiley could finish his training and the USAAS no longer needed his service, but the radio technology he learned at the camp, together with the science and math at which he excelled, would prove very useful later as an aviator.
Post found a job as a roughneck with an oil-drilling company in Oklahoma, but the pay was poor and unsteady. He went through a very rough period, turning to armed robbery in order to support himself. In 1921, he was arrested for stealing a car and was sentenced to ten years in prison, but he was paroled a year later.
Wiley’s lucky break came in 1924, when a flying circus came to Oklahoma. The troupe’s skydiver was injured and, although Wiley had no experience with parachutes, he convinced the circus owner to let him fill in. For the following two years, Post made almost one hundred jumps and became quite famous in the barnstorming circuit. Still, he was not satisfied, for his dream was to become a pilot. So he returned to the oil industry in the hope of making enough money to buy his own plane.
Once again, fate stepped in. Wiley had a serious accident at work and lost his left eye. It seemed he would never be able to fly, since he had no depth perception with only one eye and this would have been a serious obstacle when attempting to land an airplane. Nevertheless, Wiley was determined and with the accident insurance money he bought his first airplane. He trained intensively and learned to gauge distances by observing telephone poles and low buildings. For the next few years, Post made a living by giving flying lessons, flying oil executives to their rigs and by barnstorming over the weekends.
In 1930, Wiley Post became the personal pilot of Mr. F.C. Hall, a very wealthy oil executive who also happened to be an aviation enthusiast. Hall had bought a Lockheed Vega, one of the most modern high-wing, single-engine airplanes in production, and named it Winnie Mae after his daughter. With this plane, Wiley Post won the National Air Race Derby from Los Angeles to Chicago in nine hours, eight minutes and two seconds.
After this resounding success, Hall told Post that he could use the Winnie Mae to pursue any records he wished. This inspired Post to attempt to beat the round-the-world record, then held by the Graf Zeppelin, a two hundred and thirty-six meter long, hydrogen-filled German airship that had completed the circumnavigation in August 1929 in twenty-one days. On June 23rd, 1931, Wiley Post and Harold Gatty, a well-known Australian navigator, took off from New York and flew eastwards. After flying over England, Germany, Russia, Alaska and Canada, the two aviators returned to a hero’s welcome in New York eight days and sixteen hours later.
After this successful flight, Wiley bought the Winnie Mae from Hall - he had one more objective he wanted to achieve. Wiley Post spent the following year improving his aircraft. He installed an autopilot device and a radio direction finder, a new technology that enabled the plane to home in on target radio stations.
On July 15th, 1933, Wiley Post took off from New York in his beloved Winnie Mae and became the first person in history to fly solo around the world, completing the flight in seven days and nineteen hours.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN
Author: Giovanni Gregorat