Wiley Post was the first to test a pressure suit.
Wiley Post, famous aviator, set around-the-world records in a Vega called the Winnie Mae. (Records: LA to Chicago - 9 hours, 9 minutes, 4 seconds, August 27, 1930; Around the world - 8 days, 15 hours, 51 minutes, June 23 to July 1, 1931; Around the world - 7 days, 18 minutes.)
Wiley Post with Orion-Explorer hybrid seaplane, which was built by mating the wing of Explorer 4 with an Orion 9E.
Wiley Post was one of the most celebrated pilots in aviation history. He set two trans-global speed records during the 1930s, one with a co-pilot, and one by himself. Post also developed the first practical pressure suit and helped pioneer high-altitude flight. Many Americans related to Post's ability to overcome his difficult circumstances, particularly during the Great Depression. His tragic and untimely death in 1935 stunned the nation and robbed aviation of a valuable innovator.
Post was born in 1898 in Grand Saline, Texas, to farmers. When he was five, they moved to Oklahoma. Post dropped out of school in the eighth grade. On the family farm, he started learning all he could about machines. His love for mechanical devices became apparent during a trip to a county fair in 1913. There he saw his first airplane and instantly knew that he wanted to become an aviator. Like other young men, though, Post was practical and began working as a mechanic in an oil field instead. Still, one day, when a plane flew overhead, he remembered his dream and started pursuing it.
Post broke into aviation when a barnstorming troop came to Oklahoma in 1924. The troop's skydiver was injured and Post convinced the owner to let him fill in. Although Post had no experience, he made the jump. Over the next two years, he jumped 99 times, sometimes earning as much as $200 a fall. But Post wanted to be a pilot, not a skydiver, and decided to return to the oil fields to make enough money to buy his own aircraft.
One day in 1926, though, a serious accident jeopardized his dream. A stray chip hit Post in his left eye. A massive infection developed and began to affect both his eyes. Post, fearing blindness, agreed to let doctors remove his left eye in the hope that the infection would recede and, fortunately, it did. With only one eye, Post had trouble with depth perception, but he trained himself to gauge distances through practice; he learned to land a plane by using the height of telephone poles and two-story buildings. Although the accident had cost him his eye, he used his $1,800 worker's compensation check to buy his own plane, a Curtiss Canuck (the Canadian version of the Jenny). Over the next few years, Post made a living teaching student pilots, flying oilmen to their rigs, and barnstorming on weekends.
Soon after, Post started working for F.C. Hall, an important oilman, as his personal pilot. Hall was an aviation enthusiast and owned a Lockheed Vega, one of period's most advanced planes. The oilman named the Vega the Winnie Mae, after his daughter. Realizing Post's aviation ambitions, Hall encouraged Post to use his plane when he did not need it. In 1930, Post entered the prestigious 1930 Men's Air Derby Race from Los Angeles to Chicago. He won the race by more than 1-1/2 hours, despite a faulty compass. Impressed by Post's abilities, Hall told Post he could use his plane to pursue any air records he wished.
Post decided to attempt a new speed record for around-the-world travel the very next year. Despite the then current record of 20 days, 4 hours, Post predicted that he could accomplish the task in 10 days. To help him, Post chose Harold Gatty, a well-known Australian navigator and aviator. While Gatty plotted a route, Post made several changes to the Winnie Mae including an improved instrument panel, adjustable seats, and a special navigation station. On June 23, 1931, the two men took off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, the same field Charles Lindberg h had started from four years earlier. Over the next several days, Post and Gatty faced some serious challenges, including getting bogged down in a muddy field and a bent propeller that they hammered back into place. But after 8 days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes, they landed back on Long Island on July 1 and smashed the previous record. Post and Gatty became heroes overnight.
After his record-setting flight, Post wanted to open his own aeronautical school, but no one would back him. People doubted his ability to operate such an institution because of his rural background and limited formal education. Post consequently became depressed. It also hurt him that people believed that Gatty had been the real brains behind their trans-global trip. Determined to disprove his naysayers, Post decided to fly solo around the world and attempt a new record.
Post took off from Floyd Bennett Field, Long Island, on July 15, 1933. Aboard the Winnie Mae were two new devices--a Sperry gyroscope and a radio direction finder--that would make his flight without a navigator that much easier. The gyroscope automatically corrected the plane if it deviated from a particular bearing, while the radio direction finder helped the pilot navigate toward certain distinct radio transmitters. Although Post had problems with his gyroscope and he suffered another bent propeller, he repaired both items and stuck to his predicted pace. The result was a new around-the-world record of 7 days 18 hours and 49 minutes. Post had bettered his previous record by 21 hours.
Post's next goal was to win the MacRobertson Race, a race from England to Australia. He believed the key to winning would be to fly in the substratosphere--somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 feet (9,144 and 12,192 meters) altitude--where the air is lighter and a plane can travel much faster. But since the Winnie Mae was not airtight or pressurized, and the atmosphere at higher altitudes is too thin to breathe, he set out to build a pressure suit that would allow him to breathe as if he were at 5,500 feet (1,676 meters). The B.F. Goodrich Rubber Company helped Post develop a pressure suit. After rejecting two other models, he successfully tested his third model on September 5, 1934, during a flight over Chicago at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters).
By the time Post had perfected his pressure suit, the MacRobertson race had already ended. He decided to use his new suit to try to set a transcontinental flight record instead. Post made four attempts at the record, but each time he failed because of mechanical problems, or in one case, sabotage by a rival pilot. Nevertheless, he did establish a new air speed record during one of the flights by traveling 2,035 miles (3,275 kilometers) in 7 hours and 19 minutes. During that flight, the Winnie Mae reached 340 miles per hour (547 kilometers per hour), more than a third faster than its normal maximum air speed. Post had proven that high-altitude flight was the key to faster air speeds.
In 1935, Will Rogers, the famous American humorist and one of Post's friends, hired Post to fly him through Alaska in search of new material for his newspaper column. Post had recently purchased a hybrid aircraft made of parts from two used Lockheed planes. The new aircraft consisted of an Orion's fuselage and an Explorer's wings. For Post, who was short on cash, it was the most advanced plane he could get for the money. Post had decided to add pontoons to the plane to manage the water landings in Alaska. He had originally ordered some special pontoons for the trip, but when they did not arrive on time, he substituted floats that were much longer than he needed. These floats made the plane nose heavy and difficult to control, and his decision to use them probably cost him his life. On August 15, 1935, as Post and Rogers took off for Point Barrow, Alaska, the plane's engine stalled and the aircraft plummeted nose first into a lake, killing them both.
Wiley Post was one of the world's great aviation pioneers. Although many people believed that Post's solo trans-global flight was his most significant accomplishment, or as fellow aviator Howard Hughes said, "the most remarkable flight in history," Post's development of the pressure suit and his substratospheric flights probably had a greater impact on aviation because they advanced the science and theory of flight. Nevertheless, regardless of which of Post's accomplishments one considers, it is clear that Post made many vital contributions to aviation.
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading:
Burke, Bob. From Oklahoma to Eternity: The Life of Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1998.
Hallion, Richard P. Test Pilots -- The Frontiersmen of Flight. Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
Mohler, Stanley R. and Bobby H. Johnson. Wiley Post and his "Winnie Mae," and the World's First Pressure Suit. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.
Niven, David. The Pathfinders. Alexandria, Va.: Time Life Books, 1980.
Post, Wiley and Gatty, Harold. Around the World in Eight Days: The Flight of the Winnie Mae. New York: Rand McNally and Company, 1931.
Sterling, Bryan B. and Sterling, Frances N. Forgotten Eagle: Wiley Post, America's Heroic Aviation Pioneer. New York: Carroll & Graf. 2002.
Sterling, Bryan B. and Sterling, Frances N. Will Roger and Wiley Post: Death at Barrow. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1993.