“Post’s plans are so revolutionary and so far advanced that it is hard even for the aeronautical engineer or aviation expert to grasp them fully.”.
S. E. Perry, Superintendent of Maintenance for Braniff Airways, Inc, 1934
The Wiley Post story is not going to be forgotten for centuries. Going around the world twice, once solo, pioneering the use of the autopilot, the radio compass and ADF, discovering jet streams and being the first to use them. Research on stratospheric flight and the world’s first practical pressure suits, discoveries on ‘Jet’ lag at a time when there were no jets. Imagine being feted by two Presidents, given keys to the city of New York.
A Postcard Flown By Wiley Post On A Transcontinental Fl
Any one of these events would have been enough to ensure man fame for lifetime. Wiley Post had all of these and more.
Who was Wiley Post? What prompted him to do what he did and how could he make the one major mistake that cost him his life?
An Introduction to Aviation
The Wiley Post story begins, like many in American History with parents of humble descent, working their small farm with their children. Wiley Hardeman Post was born to William Francis and Mae Quinlan Post. The family moved to Oklahoma when Wiley was five.
Nothing distinguished the first 26 years of Wiley’s life except a capability to tinker with tools and machines. Like many others, he dropped out of school after completing eighth grade and went on to work in the oil fields of Oklahoma.
Wiley was 26 when he first felt the wind in his face. A flying circus had come nearby and since their regular parachutist was injured, Wiley, out of the blue, offered to take his place.
The first jump, with no prior experience, was magical. Wiley climbed on to the wing and threw himself off from 2000 feet. From then on, aviation was never far away from Wiley’s mind. He went on to take flying lessons and went solo on a Curtiss JN 4 Jenny sometime in early 1926 (although he had to provide a security deposit of $200 to his instructor for the use of his airplane).
Working on the oilfields, Wiley suffered an accident that would have put a stop to many a young man’s aerial dreams. A metal chip hurt his left eye and when the resulting infection threatened his good right eye as well, the left eye had to be surgically removed. Although distance vision requires two eyes, Wiley trained his right eye and mind to work together to give him a fair estimate of distances. While recovering at a relative’s house, he would continuously estimate the distances to objects and then measure the distance to make a comparison. Eventually he got good at it and the resulting mental math sharpened his thinking further.
Turning bad fortune around, Wiley used his compensation check to purchase a damaged Canuck for $200 which took another $340 to repair. Though Wiley had lost his left eye, this very loss gave him the means to buy an airplane.
A Licensed Pilot with an Eye Short
Shortly thereafter, Wiley got regular employment with two oil explorers Briscoe and F. C. Hall who were keen to use personal airplanes for work since they had lost lucrative oil contracts because of arriving late at a venue. This work however required a license to fly.
Licensing in Aviation was still in its infancy. Waivers on medical conditions could be granted if the Secretary for Commerce was convinced that the experience of the pilot overcame his disability. Apparently the Secretary agreed with Wiley and gave a license subject to 700 hours of probationary flying. This was successfully completed and a Transport License was awarded on September 16, 1928.
Wiley Post had arrived.
While flying for FC Hall, Wiley impressed him with the handling of his Lockheed Vega (christened the Winnie Mae after Halls’ daughter). In 1930, Wiley flew the Winnie Mae in the Men’s Air Derby Race from LA to Chicago. He came in first and beat the field by 1 ½ hours. This impressed Hall and he allowed Wiley to use the Vega whenever it was free.
Around The World – Twice
Wiley took Hall at his word and decided to go on a round the world flight. The previous record was held by the Graf Zeppelin that had taken more than 20 days and four hours. Flying his fixed wing Vega, Wiley predicted he would be able to circumnavigate the globe in less than 10 days. With Harold Gatty as his navigator, Wiley got airborne on June 23, 1931 from Roosevelt Field in Long Island. This was the same airfield Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St Louise had used just 4 years earlier for the historic Atlantic crossing.
The circumnavigation of the globe can be seen at many levels. It was a triumph of man over the elements and over fatigue. The flight opened up the vast Russian plains to aviation and proved to the world that aviation was finally coming of age.
Wiley undertook a great many modifications to the Winnie Mae before it was finally ready for the flight. One of the most important ones was the rearranging of the cockpit instrument panels to give himself a more systematic scan pattern. This grouping of instrument panels into a coherent pattern is followed the world over even today although it has been modified due to the newer instrumentation available.
There were other, more interesting innovations. During the 1930 Derby, Wiley had discovered that if he reduced the angle of incidence of the wing of the Vega, it would reduce the form drag and give him an extra 10 miles per hour. However, this resulted in increasing the landing speed of the Winnie Mae to 80 miles per hour. This was high even for fighter class of aircraft of the day and modifying the aircraft to put in flaps was out of question. You can read more about Wiley Post, His Winnie Mae, and the World’s First Pressure Suit here.
Wiley Post (L) and Harold Gatty - Germany 1931 (Wikipedia)
Nobody knows where Wiley Post learned airframe structural engineering but he knew enough to reduce the tail skid length by four inches. This gave him a higher nose up attitude on landing which in turn compensated for the reduced angle of incidence which in turn gave him back his original landing speed!
This successful modification and many other similar ones may have eventually led to his death…but let me not overstep the story.
The drama and adventure of the flight is documented too extensively to bear repetition. On their return, Wiley and Gatty became instant celebrities. However, there was a constant background hum that the real hero of the flight was Gatty who had navigated the aircraft over uncharted territory. Probably true to a point but this was not something that pleased Wiley.
That is how Wiley began to plan his second trip around the world. This time solo.
Two major inventions, though still in their infancy, helped Wiley in his second endeavor. The first was an automatic direction finder or an ADF that locked on to commercial radio stations. The second was a two gyro autopilot that held altitude and heading. While both were still under development, Wiley got much needed sponsorship since he planned to use these instruments in his epic flight.
The solo trip was even faster than the first thanks in part to larger quantities of fuel that the aircraft could carry without the navigator. The Vega also traveled faster with its variable pitch propeller which produced more power. The autopilot and ADF helped reduce the load on the pilot. In spite of all the technology he had, Wiley was exhausted by the time he landed back. He could hardly speak more than a few words and slept every time he sat in a car.
However, in all of this flying, pushing himself and his airplane to the limits and beyond, Wiley discovered two new concepts. The first was the technical requirements of flying in the stratosphere and the second related to an understanding of jet streams.
Wiley Post in his pressurized suit
Although it is not clear from literature or from his writings if Wiley understood the relationship between IAS and TAS at altitude, it is clear that he knew that high altitude flight was the way of the future. This would give him advantage of the thinner air and allow him to catch and ride jet streams.
Flying at 30000 feet and above was not a hurdle technically. Variable pitch props and highly supercharged engines required for this were available. Wiley hit a wall when it came to pressurizing the cockpit of an aircraft that was not built to take pressurizer.
Out of this necessity the pressure suit was born. Although submarines, diving bells and diving suits existed at that time, they were designed to keep the crushing pressure of the water out. The aerial pressure suit was designed to do just the opposite. After three prototypes and hundreds of technical innovations, Wiley succeeded in getting a practical model ready. It had been his intention to participate in the London – Melbourne race and use stratospheric flight in his pressure suit to beat the opposition. However, the suit was not ready in time and Wiley abandoned his plans to participate.
Nevertheless, the pressure suit went on to be developed further and formed the basis of the life support system used by astronauts and test pilots. Learn more about Wiley Post, His Winnie Mae, and the World’s First Pressure Suit in this book.
The Last Flight
In 1935, Wiley was working with his friend Will Rogers and the two were flying through Alaska in search of material for Rogers’ newspaper column. Wiley who was low on cash, had built a hybrid airplane using the fuselage of a Lockheed Orion and the wings of a wrecked Lockheed Explorer. For the Alaska trip he decided to fit the airplane with floats. Lockheed themselves refused to undertake the modification stating that the combination was unstable and dangerous. But Wiley, confident in his skills and knowledge (remember the time he changed the angle of incidence of the Winnie Mae), decided to undertake the mod himself.
A true testimony to Wiley’s skills, the aircraft flew and flew well. But it was nose heavy and on August 15, 1935 while taking off from a lagoon in Alaska, the engine quit at low altitude. The nose heavy aircraft never gave Wiley a chance to recover and plunged into the water. Both Wiley and Rogers died instantaneously.
This is how the Wiley Post Story ended. America lost one of her greatest aviators. Age just 37, barely ten years of aviation experience yet with monumental achievements. Who knows what else was to come?