First to Fly Solo Around the World, Lost over Alaska
By Stephen Sherman, Jan. 2001. Updated June 27, 2011.
When Wiley Post and Will Rogers crashed at Point Barrow, Alaska on August 15, 1935, the world mourned the loss of the great flier and the beloved humorist.
Post twice set the record for flying around the world:
- June, 1931 - 8 days, 16 hours - with navigator Harold Gatty
- July, 1933 - 7 days, 19 hours - solo
Also a scientific innovator, Post developed a pressure suit that permitted him to fly the Winnie Mae into the stratosphere.
He was a natural flier. No less an authority than Eddie Rickenbacker declared that Post was "a man born with as sensitive a touch as any aviator could develop."
Wiley Post was born in Texas on November 22, 1898. Never much of a student, Wiley was interested in mechanical things. His family moved around a bit; when Wiley was 11, they settled in Garvin County, Oklahoma. He saw his first airplane at an air show in nearby Lawton County (coincidentally, the WW2 ace Robert S. Johnson, grew up in Lawton Co.). Post's first job was with the US Army. He switched to work in the oil fields in 1919, but whether times were tough, or Post was just wild, he stole a car in 1921. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years, but was paroled after one year. He lost his left eye in an oil field accident in the mid-1920's, and used the $1800 settlement to buy his first airplane. In 1925, he first met his fellow Oklahoman, Will Rogers; Rogers needed to get to a rodeo, and Post was pleased to fly the famous humorist there. He became the personal pilot of F.C. Hall, a wealthy Oklahoma oilman, and had use of Hall's personal plane, an open cockpit Travel-Air biplane.
Later Hall bought a Lockheed Vega, largely for Post's use, nicknamed Winnie Mae for the oilman's daughter. The Depression intervened, and Hall was sold the plane back to Lockheed. In 1930 Hall bought a later version of the Lockheed Vega, a model 5-C, again nicknamed Winnie Mae. This later aircraft is the one most often seen in photographs of Wiley Post.
(When I was a child, my Dad, a lifelong aviation buff, had a model of the Winnie Mae in the house. It's weird aerodymanic 'pants' over the wheels fascinated me, as did its blue-on-white color scheme, its large NR-105-W registration number on the wings, and the list of faraway cities on its world itinerary.) In 1930, the Lockheed Vega was the hottest airplane of its type. Specifications and performance data for the "Wasp" powered Lockheed Vega 5-C:
- length 27'8", wing span 41', height 8'6", wing area 275 sq. ft,
- empty weight 2361 lbs., useful load 1672, payload 1012, gross wt. 4033 lbs.,
- max. speed 170 MPH, cruise 140 MPH, landing 54 MPH, ceiling 20,000 ft.,
- gas capacity 96 gal., oil 10 gal., range 725 miles.
- price at the factory, July 1928 - $18,500.
The Lockheed Vega was one of the most famous record-breaking airplanes of the early 1930s. The beautifully streamlined, high-wing, single-engine monoplane was designed by John Northrop and Gerrard Vultee, two aviation pioneers who later established their own aircraft companies. Although the Vega first flew in July, 1927, it was during the early 1930s that the plane established its reputation for rugged reliability and airworthiness. It was designed as a small transport aircraft, carrying six passengers and a crew of two. Lockheed built about 130 of them between 1927 and 1934.
In addition to Wiley Post, two female aviators, Amelia Earhart and Ruth Nichols flew the planes.
Post first achieved national prominence in 1930,when he won the National Air Race Derby, from Los Angeles to Chicago. The side of the Winnie Mae's fuselage was inscribed: "Los Angeles to Chicago 9 hrs. 9 min. 4 sec. Aug. 27, 1930." The Winnie May is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM).
Around the World in Eight Days
In 1931, he flew around the world in the Winnie Mae with his navigator, Harold Gatty. (Gatty was a renowned aviator in his own right. An Australian naval cadet, he had accompanied Roscoe Turner on a trans-contintental flight in 1929. In 1930, he flew with Harold Bromley on an unsuccessful Trans-Pacific attempt. He devised the ground-speed and drift indicator which formed the basis of the automatic pilot. During the War, he served on McArthur's staff as Director of Air Transport and wrote the Raft Book-a survival manual for downed Allied aircrews. He founded Fiji Airways, now Air Pacific, in 1951.)
On June 23, 1931, Post and Gatty left Roosevelt Field, New York. They made fourteen stops: first at Harbor Grace, Newfoundland; then Chester, England; Hanover and Berlin, Germany; Moscow, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk, all in the Soviet Union; Nome, Alaska; and Edmonton, Canada. They then flew to Cleveland, and back to New York on July 1, having traveled 15,474 miles.
Here's their partial itinerary, copied from the program of the July 7 Hotel Astor Banquet.
The flight proceeded smoothly, across the Atlantic and Europe. But two inches of water covered the airfield at Blagovyeschensk (Siberia) and the Winnie Mae bogged down in the mud. After wasting fourteen hours grappling with the plane, Post and Gatty were finally rescued by a detachment of American soldiers with a tractor. Dirty, but not damaged, the Winnie Mae once again soared through the sky. In Khabarovsk, USSR, the plane was grounded for several hours while mechanics inspected the engine. Luckily, the Winnie Mae was in perfect running order, and the around-the-world flight continued. After a 17-hour leg, they landed in Alaska.
Their most serious setback occurred on June 30, in Solomon, Alaska, where they bent the Winnie Mae's propeller. In his book, Around the World in Eight Days, Post described the takeoff from Solomon:
With 100 gallons of fuel aboard, we started to take off. Taxiing back along the beach, the ship started to sink into the sand. With a quick thrust I banged the throttle open to pull her through it before we were stuck. But all I succeeded in doing was to boost the tail up into the air. With a loud slap the propeller cut a hole in the sand and bent both tips on the blades. I cut the emergency switch just in time to keep 'Winnie Mae' from making an exhibition of herself by standing on her nose. That would have been fatal to our hopes.
I jumped out and surveyed the damage. With a wrench, a broken-handled hammer, and a round stone, I drew out the tips of the blades so they would at least fan the air in the right direction.
But misfortunes never come singly. Harold was swinging the prop for a prime with the switch cut to restart the hot engine. He called 'all clear' to me, and I switched on and whirled the booster. One of the hot charges of gasoline caught on the upstroke of the piston, and with a back fire the Wasp kicked. The propeller flew out of Harold's hands, and the blade opposite smacked his shoulder before he could jump clear of the track. He dropped like a log. It was fortunate, to say the least, that it was the flat side of the blade which hit him, though it gave him a bad bruise and a wrenched back. If the prop had been going the other way, he might have been sliced in two.
Like a major, Harold climbed in as soon as he had recovered his senses, and we took off for Fairbanks. I was cautious as I had ever been on that run along the shifting sands of Solomon beach. Luck was with me, and we got away without misfortune No. 3. I hope we didn't leave it behind for the next bird who lands there!
The damaged prop was replaced in Fairbanks with a spare obtained from Alaska Airways. They climbed over the 10,000 foot Rockies, to Edmonton, where they landed at Blatchford Field, another water-logged strip. While they had touched down there, they couldn't possibly take off from it. The locals helped them haul the plane over to Portage (now Kingsway) Avenue, which served well enough for the Winnie Mae to get airborne. They landed at New York's Roosevelt Field on July 1.
They were welcomed across the country, including lunch at the White House on July 6. The next day, a ticker tape parade in New York City and a banquet given by the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America at the Hotel Astor. Speakers included Post, Gatty, Mayor Jimmy Walker, and Assistant Secretary of Commerce Clarence Young.
After the flight, he acquired the Winnie Mae himself. Sources differ as to whether he had a falling-out with F.C. Hall, and bought the plane, or "Hall's admiration for his pilot manifested itself in the gift of the Winnie Mae." - as noted on the NASM web site.
Post and Gatty published a ghost-written account of their journey, titling it Around the World in Eight Days, a play on the title of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Will Rogers contributed an introduction.
He spent the next year improving his airplane, installing an auto-pilot made by the Sperry Gyroscope Company and a radio direction-finder which homed in on target radio stations.
In 1933, he repeated his round-the-world flight, but this time did it solo, with the aid of the auto-pilot and radio compass. He took off from New York's Floyd Bennett Field on July 15, bound, non-stop, for Berlin. Despite bad weather over the Atlantic, he made it in 26 hours, setting a record for a New York-to-Berlin flight. After a couple false starts, he departed Germany, only to be forced down in Moscow by trouble with his auto-pilot. While more repairs were needed in Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, he reached Khabarovsk ten hours ahead of his previous record.
In Alaska, his radio direction-finder malfunctioned, and he got lost.
My friend, Larry Rivers, a pilot from that part of Alaska, offered this comment on the itinerary:
I expect that he had crossed from Anayder or Providania Russia, hit the Alaska Coast, then followed it down to Bethel where he could get fuel. From there he could easiely follow the Koyukuk River in to Fairbanks or hopped over the Alaska Range and gone to Anchorage. Either are the normal routes through that part of Alaska. Flat is located east of Bethel which is a coastal town on the Bering Sea. Its at the mouth of the Koyukuk River, about due west of Anchorage.
Worried about the 20,000 foot mountains in his way, he touched down at a 700-foot landing strip in a small mining town, Flat, Alaska. He smashed his prop and right landing gear in the process.
Some local miners repaired on the aircraft, and the prop was flown to Fairbanks to be straightened. The photo shows the miners lifting the Winnie Mae straightened. Ed Olson, the Flat mine owner, took the photo, which is in the collection of Gene Jenne in Talkeetna Alaska, who received the photo from Ed Olson.
After repairs, he continued on to Edmonton (July 22), and then flew over 2000 miles non-stop to New York. 50,000 people greeted him when he landed back at Floyd Bennett Field at 11:50 PM, July 22, 1933. Only making eleven stops, despite some major mishaps, he had knocked 21 hours off his previous record, completing the solo flight in seven days, nineteen hours.
Into the Stratosphere
Always fascinated by the scientific challenges of flight, in 1934 he focused on high-altitude, long distance flight, - funded by Frank Phillips of the Phillips Petroleum Company.
Since the Winnie Mae's cabin could not be pressurized, he developed, with B.F. Goodrich Company, an early pressure suit. The suit was constructed of double-ply rubberized parachute cloth glued to a frame with pigskin gloves, rubber boots and an aluminum & plastic diver's helmet. It had arm and leg joints that permitted easy operation of the flight controls and also enabled walking to and from the aircraft. The helmet had a removable faceplate that Post could seal when he reached a height of 17,000 feet, a liquid oxygen source breathing system, and could accommodate earphones and a throat microphone. The liquid oxygen was contained in double-walled vacuum bottles, and as the super-cold gas boiled off, it could be used for breathing and suit pressurization. In his first flight using the pressure suit, Sept. 5, 1934, above Chicago, he reached 40,000 feet. In the super-charger equipped Winnie May, Post set unofficial altitude records (as high as 50,000 ft), discovering the jet stream in the process.
In March 1935, Post flew from Burbank CA to Cleveland OH in the stratosphere using the jet stream. He took his famous five year-old single-engine Lockheed Vega 2,035 miles in 7 hours and 19 minutes with an average ground speed of 279 mph in a 179 MPH aircraft. At times, his ground speed exceeded 340 MPH. He attempted four transcontinental stratospheric flights, all ending in mechanical failure, before retiring his beloved aircraft. Post's pioneering accomplishments were the first major practical advance in pressurized flight.
His Last Flight
In 1935, Post became interested in surveying a mail-and-passenger air route from the West Coast to Russia. Funded by the airlines, he began to assemble a hybrid plane built from two wrecks. The low-wing monoplane consisted of a Lockheed Orion fuselage and long wings from a Lockheed Explorer. He installed a 550 HP Wasp engine, and oversize 260 gallon gas tanks. He planned to add pontoons, to land in Alaska's and Siberia's many lakes.
His friend Will Rogers visited him frequently at the Lockheed airport in Burbank where the strange beast took shape. Rogers called the red-and-silver plane Aurora Borealis, but others called it "Wiley's Orphan" or "Wiley's Bastard." Post insisted that it didn't have or need a name, just a number. When the pontoons he had ordered did not arrive, he had a set installed that were designed for a much larger plane. Altogether it was a dangerously heavy aircraft, which they loaded down further with hunting and fishing equipment.
After a test flight in late July, 1935, Post and Rogers left Seattle in the unique plane in early August. Rogers commented on the huge pontoons, but Post dismissed his concerns. Their itinerary: Seattle - Juneau, Alaska - Dawson CITY, Yukon Territory - Aklavik, NWT - Matanuska Valley, Alaska -Fairbanks, Alaska - Point Barrow, Alaska.
Larry Rivers, offered this comment on this flight's itinerary:
Note that there are two Dawson's in Canada. Dawson Creek (start of the Alcan highway) and Dawson City (gold rush city). The route from Juneau would hit Dawson City. As the route is not very direct, they must have been working around a great deal of weather.
They probably left Dawson and, due to the weather, had to go south west to the Matanuska Valley, where I am sitting now, as I write this email. At that point they would have fueled in Palmer, Alaska, or a few miles further west in Anchorage. From there they would have headed north up the Susitna Valley to Fairbanks where they likely stopped again for fuel. From Fairbanks they could have flown to Barrow, Alaska.
From Fairbanks, it is NW to Bettles and Barrow. Coastal weather up there is horrible. I fly it a couple months a year and the wind comes off the Arctic ice, across the open leads and turns into ice fog. That lays on the ground about 400 feet thick and you dare not enter if you don't know exactly where you are going. Last trip I landed at Wainright for the same reason. When it was time to leave I made two attempts to get out of it. Once I returned to Barrow and spent another night. The next day I tried to skud run to the mountains and it was too thick so I went up and IFR to Bettles.
Post and Rogers did not know the area. They were brave indeed to even venture into the area in poor weather. They were headed to Barrow for fuel, then west to Providania, Russia a route he had flown the other direction. They may have been headed to Nome, and then across the water (just logical) but encountered weather, in which case he would have had no other place to go except Barrow. Or maybe Barrow was just part of the adventure.
While Post piloted the plane, Rogers banged out his newspaper columns on his typewriter. On the way to Point Barrow, they became lost in bad weather; they landed in a lagoon a few miles from Point Barrow to ask directions.
Larry Rivers suggests this scenario:
The boys were skud running in strange and unforgiving country. They were heavy and worried. Mostly their attention was outside the aircraft, watching the contrast between water and land along the coast so they did not lose ground reference with gray fog on gray water. They were running on the forward tanks, intending to refuel them in Barrow. Since they had poor maps and were flying on pilotage they probably were concerned about how much further they had to fly in that crud. When they saw people, they landed for directions, (we all do it) and probably considered it a place they could stop if they had too... but... they learned Barrow was just a few miles away. Rather than figure out how to tie down the aircraft when there are no trees, and set up camp (unpack the plane) they decided to go on. ("Will, my boy, its only 15 miles, I think we can make it, and then we will have fuel, a warm bed, weather services and tie downs..lets push on north, and we will wait there for better weather.")
They jumped back in the plane, were still concerned about weather and worried that they might not see good enough to get from the lake back to the coast, which they needed to follow to Barrow. Minds were on other things and they forgot to check fuel and switch to a fresh tank. (we have all done that too) In the air they intended to stay low, so they could see the ground and not lose ground reference in the ice fog. Minds on everything except fuel...then the engine quit. Having just taken off they were not up to cruise speed, and did not have enough wind over the horizontal to prevent tail stall, and not enough altitude to dump the nose even if they had. In that position, they were nearly behind the power curve on take off (we have all done that too I hate to admit), and when the engine quit there was nothing available to hold the nose down. It would have pitched up steeply, stalled immediately, and the aircraft would have come down. Probably in a tail slip first until wind got on the rudder and weather vane would have made it rotate, in which case it could have hit nose first.
The engine quit when they tried to take off again, and plane plunged into the lagoon, tearing off the right wing, and killing both men instantly.
The Barrow folks that took part in this report that the aircraft was "Experimental" and had huge fuel tanks. The aft tanks were full, and the forward tanks had run dry. The aircraft was terribly tail heavy with the fuel load. When they took off, they mistakenly remained on a nearly dry tank. When the aircraft rotated into flight and started to climb, the engine experienced fuel starvation, or at least interruption due to empty or nearly empty forward tank. When the engine sputtered and lost power the aircraft was at low airspeed and there was not enough elevator control to keep the nose down. Simply out of the weight and balance envelope. Without thrust, the tail would have dropped, and the aircraft would have plummeted to the earth. Not necessarily in a nose heavy dive.
An Inuit named Clare Okpeah saw the plane wreck and ran the fifteen miles to Barrow to report it. When he described the two men to Army Sergeant Stanley Morgan, Morgan knew that it must be the two famous travelers. He radioed the War Department, and led a recovery party to the site. The remains of both men began the final journey back to Oklahoma.
Shortly after Post's death his widow sold the famed Winnie Mae to the Smithsonian.
The Will Rogers and Wiley Post Monument, across from the state-owned
Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport, was dedicated in 1982 to
commemorate the 1935 plane crash that killed the humorist and the
famous pilot. Two monuments now on the National Register of Historic
Places are located at the crash site.
- NASM article - photo of Winnie May on display
- Wiley Post - Will Rogers Airport - in Point Barrow, Alaska
- Wiley Post's grave/memorial
- Wiley Post bio
- takeoff from Solomon, Alaska