On July 22, 1933, Wiley Post, the famed American aviator who had overcome personal tragedy to become one of the most popular pilots of the 20th century, touched down at New York’s Floyd Bennett Field to a crowd of more than 50,000 well-wishers, eager to congratulate him on yet another aeronautical achievement. Post, already in possession of several airspeed records, had just made history by becoming the first person to complete a solo flight around the world, beating the previous record, which he had set with a co-pilot just three years earlier, by nearly a full day. Though largely forgotten today, Post was as accomplished an aviator as Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart, and his contributions to the field of aeronautics (including the first pressurized flight suits and early stratospheric flights along the jet stream) were far more impactful than either of his contemporaries. Eighty years after his globetrotting flight made history, here’s a look back at the unlikely life—and tragic death—of an aviation icon.
Born in a tiny east Texas town in November 1898, Wiley Post moved frequently with his cotton-farming family throughout the region, finally settling in Oklahoma when he was 5. An indifferent student, Post struggled academically, abandoning school after the seventh grade. A chance encounter around the same time, however, would change his life forever: In 1913, the teenaged Post attended a local fair hosting an aeronautical exhibition featuring a Curtiss airplane, one of the world’s first mass-produced aircraft. Immediately captivated by the idea of manned flight, Post soon enrolled in a Kansas City, Missouri, aviation school. He had clearly found his niche. The high-school dropout excelled in math and science classes during the seven-month long program, and during World War I Post began advanced training for the U.S. Army Air Service (the forerunner to today’s U.S. Air Force). Post’s dream of flying for his country was dashed, however, when the war ended before he could enter service. With few prospects, Post returned to Oklahoma and found work as a “roughneck” on the region’s oil fields, and ran into trouble with the law—a 1921 arrest for robbery resulted in a yearlong stint in the Oklahoma State Reformatory.
After his release from prison, Post found part-time work with a travelling aviation group on the barnstorming circuit, working first as a parachutist and later as a pilot. Just two years later, however, tragedy struck. In October 1926, Post was severely injured during in an oilrig accident when a piece of metal pierced his left eye. Infection soon sent in, permanently blinding the 28-year-old in that eye. (The patch Post subsequently wore over the eye would become one of his most recognizable trademarks.) In 1927, while Post was recovering, Charles Lindbergh was making history, becoming the first person to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean, and emerging as a worldwide superstar virtually overnight.
But there was a silver lining to Post’s horrific accident: he used the insurance money he received to buy his first airplane. The now one-eyed Post refused to let his handicap impact his flying, and was soon working as the personal pilot for wealthy Oklahoma oilman F.C. Hall. After Hall purchased a new Lockheed Vega, nicknamed the “Winnie Mae” after his daughter, he allowed Post to use the plane in a series of aviation races, including the 1930 National Air Race Derby, which Post won with the fastest flight time ever recorded between Los Angeles and Chicago. A year later, Post and his navigator Harold Gatty smashed the record for fastest around-the-world flight (previously held not by an airplane, but by a German zeppelin), covering more than 15,400 miles in 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes (more than twice as fast as the zeppelin). The feat made Post and Gatty famous. The pair were honored with a New York City tickertape parade and feted at the White House.
Unlike Lindbergh, sudden fame did little to ease Post’s financial woes. Plans to open his own aviation school sputtered when he was unable to raise the necessary funds, and rumors swirled that it had been Post’s more accomplished navigator, Harold Gatty—a close friend of Charles Lindbergh and the man who had taught Anne Morrow Lindbergh how to fly—who had been responsible for the record-breaking flight aboard the “Winnie Mae.” Anxious to disprove the rumors, Post began plans for a solo flight around the world, replacing Gatty with cutting-edge technology. He obtained permission from the U.S. Army Air Service to use two new systems, both still in development: A radio direction finder that allowed pilots to serve as navigator and early version of automatic pilot, easing the physical strain of long-distance flight. With his souped-up, state-of-the-art Lockheed Vega ready to go, Wiley Post took off from Floyd Bennett Field on July 15, 1933. Twenty-six hours later–with no stops–he landed in Berlin, becoming the first person since Charles Lindbergh to successfully fly solo across the Atlantic without stopping. He encountered trouble in the second leg of the trip, when problems with the autopilot system forced a series of lengthy delays as he crossed over the Soviet Union. Desperate to make up time, Post slept little during the trip, tying a string around his finger attached to a wrench at the other side, which he gripped in his hand. If Post nodded off, the pull of the wrench dropping from his hands was to quickly wake him up. The breakdown of his radio direction system resulted in him getting lost in the Alaskan wilderness, and he heavily damaged the plane during an emergency landing. Post began the final 2,000-mile long leg of the trip in Edmonton, Canada, on the morning of July 22, landing in New York shortly before midnight. His final time (which included just 11 stops in all) was 7 days, 18 hours and 49 minutes, beating his own record by 21 hours.
Having proven that his first flight was no Fluke, Post turned his attention to next aviation frontier—high-altitude flight. Working with the B.F. Goodrich Company, now famous for its tires, but at the time one of the country’s most respected aeronautical manufactures, Post helped develop the first pressurized air suits, allowing him to set new altitude records in 1934. Attempts at setting new cross-country flight records utilizing the jet stream ended in mechanical failure, but Post remained convinced that high-altitude flight was the future.
After permanently retiring the “Winnie Mae” (now on display at a branch of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum), Post began assembling a new aircraft, which he planned to use for a commercial mail-and-passenger route in the Northwest and Alaska. The plane, which featured parts cobbled together from other aircraft, had one significant difference from all others: To allow for landing and takeoff in the region’s numerous bodies of water, Post had installed pontoons instead of traditional landing gear. By July 1935, the plane was ready, and Post prepared for his initial jaunt to Alaska. Accompanying him was his longtime friend and fellow Oklahoman, Will Rogers. Rogers, an actor and humorist, was one of the most popular figures of the day, and the pair’s planned trip made headlines around the world. The two men departed in early August, and all went smoothly until August 15 when, lost in the wilderness, Post’s planed landed in a lagoon just a few miles from Port Barrow, Alaska. After receiving directions from local residents, Post and Rogers soon departed. On takeoff, however, the plane failed to obtain altitude, and the nose-heavy aircraft plummeted back to the water, killing both men instantly. Rogers was 55, Post, one of America’s greatest aviation pioneers, just 36.