Wiley Hardeman Post was born November 22, 1898 near Grand Saline, Van Zandt County, Texas to William Francis and Mae Quinlan Post. His family were cotton farmers and moved to Oklahoma when Wiley was five years old, finally settling close to Maysville. He was exposed to flying at a local county fair when he was about twenty years old. It inspired him to take flying lessons, though he did not begin flying on his own until later but took a construction job.
Wiley enlisted in the United States Army Air Service and wanted to fly in World War I. He took his training in Oklahoma, hoping to join the war effort as an aviator, but the war ended before he completed his training. After his enlistment ended, he returned to life in Oklahoma, working in the oilfield. This is not in all of the accounts of his background, but in 1921, Wiley was convicted of robbery and sentenced to ten years in prison. However, he was paroled in 1922 after serving just over one year in the Oklahoma prison system. After his release, he went to work again in the oilfield until he suffered an injury in 1926 that resulted in the loss of his left eye. He used the $1,800 insurance money from the accident to purchase his first airplane.
Not long after his oilfield accident, he took a job with a “flying circus” as a parachutist. Around that same time, Post met the Oklahoma-born Will Rogers. Rogers was about twenty years older than Post, having been born in the Cherokee Nation to parents who were both part Cherokee. By then, Rogers was becoming known as a humorist, wryly commenting on current events as he did rope tricks that he had leared from his earlier ranch work. He had performed and also starred in the Ziefield Follies on Broadway and had acted in some silent movies. On the occasion that they met, Post had agreed to fly Rogers to an Oklahoma rodeo and the two remained friends after that occasion. Rogers went on to Hollywood to make a number of talking movies while Post began to distinguish himself as an aviator.
Post upgraded his airplane when he began using a Lockheed Vega, a model known for its speed. The particular plane was named the Winnie Mae, after the daughter of a former owner. Soon afterward, Post won a national race in August of 1930 by flying from Los Angeles to Chicago, winning the race in nine hours nine minutes, ahead of the nearest challenger by one minute. The following year, Post and a navigator named Harold Gatty became world famous for setting a new record for a flight around the world. Their flight of over fifteen thousand miles took just over eight and one half days, after which Post acquired the plane.
Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae.
(Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)
Post then made a solo flight around the world, using then new equipment including an autopilot and radio equipment that allowed him to not use a navigator. His time on this flight was just seven days and nineteen hours. Post is also known for helping to develop a pressure suit as he experimented with high altitude flight. The construction of the Winnie Mae did not allow for it to be pressurized. Post made flights of up to 40,000 to 50,000 feet as he continued to work on the pressure suit. It was during this period of experimentation that he was credited for discovering and using the jet stream. The jet stream is an air current that flows west to east around the atmosphere of the earth and other planets. On earth the strongest such winds are the polar jets that exist from around 30,000 to 39,000 feet above sea level and somewhat higher (around 33,000 to 52,000 feet) for the subtropical jets. Post also attempted to make nonstop transcontinental flights across the United States.
Post then had a new airplane built out of two other planes, a Lockheed Orion and parts of a wrecked Lockheed Explorer, an experimental model. The longer wings of the Explorer did not accommodate retractable landing gear and Post had long, heavy floats from yet another airplane which allowed for water take offs and landings. Various accounts describe the airplane as being front heavy particularly at low speed, though not uncommon for this type of airplane, since the powerful engine is required to generate the lift needed for it to take off and remain in flight.
Rogers kept up his friendship with Post and the two had arranged to make a flight up the west coast of North America to Alaska, then still a territory of the United States. Rogers had jokingly said that when he got to Nome, Alaska, he wanted “to rope a reindeer.” The two made practice flights all the way to Alaska and on August 15, 1935, they took off from Fairbanks heading for Point Barrow, some 510 miles away. Close to their destination, Post became lost. After spotting some Alaskan natives at a sealing camp, Post landed the airplane in a lagoon to ask directions. When they took off after receiving directions, the airplane achieved a height of only fifty or sixty feet before it misfired, suffered an engine failure and crashed into the lagoon, killing both Post and Rogers. There was a short explosion and fire. At the time of their deaths, Post was 36 years old and Rogers was 55.
News and accounts of the crash were quickly posted in newspapers within a couple of days. First person accounts of the accident described the incident in detail. The airplane first touched the surface with one wing and then plowed into the water which at that point was a depth of only two feet. The engine was driven back into the fuselage pushing everything back towards the tail. The bodies of Post and Rogers had to be removed by tearing through the side of the plane and pulling it apart with ropes. The victims were taken to a hospital where they were attended to by a local surgeon, Dr. Henry Geist and a local man, Charles Brower who was known as “King of the Arctic.” Brower had operated a whaling station for fifty-one years.
As news continued to spread, condolences were received by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice-President John Nance Garner, John W. Troy – governor of Alaska, and others. Harold Gatty, Post’s former navigator, wrote that the world had lost leaders in Post and Rogers. Pioneer aviator Amelia Earhardt also added her condolences.
Two days later, the bodies of Post and Rogers were flown back to the lower states by a friend of the victims, pilot Joe Crosson, in a twin engine Lockheed Electra and had received permission to fly over Canadian airspace. A memorial was held for Rogers at the Hollywood Bowl in California for Rogers and twenty thousand people attended. Our grandfather told of picking up his brother and driving to the airport in Claremore, Oklahoma for the local memorial service for Rogers and Post. Family and friends sat in an airport hangar, while our grandfather and great uncle sat in the airport along with 2,000 other people and listened to the proceedings over the airport loud speakers. Bleachers had been quickly erected to accommodate another 3,000. Overflow listeners sat in their cars and listened on the radio.
The government had been in negotiations to acquire Post’s record setting Lockheed Vega and finally did so. It now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Rogers’ funeral was held in California and he is buried at the Will Rogers Museum in his home town of Claremore, Oklahoma. Post’s funeral was held at First Baptist Church and he is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Oklahoma City.
Many locations were named in honor of Rogers, Post or both. The August 20, 1935 issue of the Miami (Oklahoma) Post told of twin boys, previously designated Number One and Number Two, who were born to Mr. and Mrs. Bert Ash on July 10, 1935. In honor of the late flyer and humorist, they decided to name their sons Wiley Rogers Ash and Will Post Ash. The twins grew up to become independent oil producers in Kansas.
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