July 22, 2010, marks the 77th anniversary of Wiley Post’s 1933 solo flight around the world in the Lockheed 5C Vega Winnie Mae. This record-breaking flight demonstrated several significant aviation technologies. It used two relatively new aeronautical devices—an autopilot and a radio direction finder. The autopilot corrected for errors in aeronautical bearing, keeping the aircraft on course. The radio direction finder helped Post navigate the aircraft toward specific radio transmitters along the route.
Although the flight was interrupted because Post had to repair the gyroscope and a bent propeller, he set a record of seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes, bettering his previous around-the-world record of eight days, also set in the Winnie Mae in 1931, with navigator Harold Gatty. That flight had begun on June 23 and ended on July 1; it covered 15,474 miles. It broke the record previously held by the airship Graf Zeppelin of twenty days, four hours set in 1929. That same year Rand McNally published an account of the flight, Around the World in Eight Days, authored by Post and Gatty. For both flights Post was honored by a ticker tape parade in New York City.
The significance of Post’s 1933 flight is inestimable. In July 1938, Howard Hughes and his crew successfully circled the globe in a Lockheed Super Electra fitted with the most advanced radio and navigation gear. When asked how his flight compared to Post’s, Hughes responded “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.”
In 1934, Post began to probe the possibilities of high-altitude, long-distance flying. The cabin of the Winnie Mae was not pressurized, however. That meant that Post, with the help of the B.F. Goodrich Company, would have to develop the world’s first pressured flight suit. Post attempted numerous times in 1935 to set solo high-altitude transcontinental speed records, but none was successful. One particular attempt on March 15, however, was noteworthy. Wearing the pressurized suit and flying at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet, Post flew the Winnie Mae, now equipped with a supercharger and jettisonable landing gear, from Burbank, California to Cleveland, a distance of 2,035 miles in seven hours and 19 minutes; at times the aircraft reached a ground speed of 340 mph. This flight showed that significant speed increases could be achieved by flying at high altitudes.
In August 1935, Post and his friend and fellow Oklahoman, the humorist Will Rogers, set out on an aerial tour of Alaska and Siberia. Post was flying a hybrid aircraft made up of a Lockheed Orion and a Lockheed Explorer, powered by a 550-hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine, and fitted with floats that were reportedly ill-suited for the already makeshift aircraft. The plane was overly heavy with fuel plus hunting and fishing gear. On August 15, they left Fairbanks, Alaska, bound for Point Barrow. Flying in fog Post got lost and was forced to land in a lagoon and get his bearings. When they took off again, the engine failed and the aircraft plunged to the ground. Both men were killed instantly.
The deaths of Post and Rogers brought about an international outpouring of grief. Post’s body lay in state in the rotunda of the Oklahoma state capitol building. Among the distinguished mourners were famous American aviators like Amelia Earhart and high-ranking political figures.
The Winnie Mae, one of the most significant pioneering aircraft of the 1930s, has been in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum since 1936. Post’s pressurized flight suit is also in the Museum’s collection, and is undergoing extensive restoration at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute in Suitland, Maryland.
Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum