by Susie Hodgson
When the name “Wiley” is spoken, who do you think of? Why, Wiley Coyote of course! Right?
Not so fast. There’s another Wiley who made worldwide news in the early 1900s. Especially the 1930s. He was a pilot. Know who he was yet? Try Post. No, not the cereal. Wiley Post was one of the planet’s most famous and accomplished pilots in his day. (Okay, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart counted too!)
Wiley Post was raised from a young age in Oklahoma. He remained an Oklahoman his whole life, no matter how far he travelled.
As a young man (after doing very poorly in school) Wiley joined a flying circus (barnstorming) and was also a parachutist. But he dreamed of flying - and really wanted to fly in the Great War. So he went to flight school, but Germany surrendered before he could go to World War I. Disappointed, Wiley took to working on an oil field. But the oil field work was unstable and paid little. Wiley tried armed robbery, was arrested and did time. Still, a famous legend (a trademark) was born of that oil field. (See below!)
But before we get to that, let’s take a look at (arguably) Wiley Post’s most infamous flight. He had a passenger - a good friend who also just happened to be very famous.
While Wiley Post was a pioneer in the art of flying - especially Lockheed Vegas - his passenger was also a pioneer, and an Oklahoman and a Cherokee. But his skills were in humor, acting, politics, writing syndicated columns, etc. He grew up to be an American stage actor (Ziegfeld Follies) and film star. Ever heard of the film State Fair? He was in the first one, in 1933. There were two more State Fair movies, a musical in the 40s and a re-do in the 50s. Know who that passenger was?
Ever been to the seashore? Heard of Will Rogers State Beach?
That was him - Will Rogers, the passenger. The guy who coined, “Every time Congress makes a joke, it’s a law, and every time they make a law it’s a joke.” AND, “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.” AND, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” AND, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Rogers was absolutely beloved.
But back to the oil field. Wiley had an accident in the oil field and lost his left eye. Later, his left-eye patch became famous in its own right. It was his trademark. But could he ever fly again?
Actually, yes. He took the compensation he received from the accident and bought his first plane. A Lockheed Vega, to be exact. The Lockheed Vega was co-designed in the late 1920s by a guy you probably know named Jack Northrop. (Northrop later started his own company.) Jack worked for Lockheed then and named his plane the Winnie Mae, after his daughter. And Lockheed Vegas were FAST.
From there, Wiley started winning plane race after plane race. Charles Lindbergh made his renowned flight across the Atlantic in 1927; in 1937, Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to try to do the same. But Wiley was bound and determined to beat Lindbergh’s record. (Note: The very first “flying machine” to cross the Atlantic was not a plane, but a German Zeppelin in 1929.)
Wiley made the first ‘round the world flight in 1931. It took eight days, 15 hours and 51 minutes. Wiley ended up writing an essay entitled Around the World in 8 Days. But the flight included a navigator. Wiley didn’t want a navigator. No navigator, but yet he acquired an autopilot device and a radio direction finder, developed by the Sperry Gyroscope Company and the U.S. Army. With these new instruments, Wiley repeated his flight around the world - the first SOLO pilot to do so. It took 7 days, 18 hours and 49 minutes, and Wiley was feted by 50,000 people and a ticker-tape parade.
In 1934, with financial help from Frank Phillips of the Phillips Petroleum Company, Wiley started investigating high-altitude, long-distance flight. The cabin was not pressurized and there was no practical pressure suit. So three suits were made, but only one suit worked.
Later, Wiley discovered the jet stream and made the first high-altitude (50,000 feet high) pressurized flight. In 1935, he tried to fly to California to New York, didn’t make it, but at least he lived. Also in 1935, Wiley decided to fly from the U.S. west coast to Russia. He wanted his wife to go with, but she voted against it, too afraid of the freezing cold camping that was required. So he got another passenger - a VERY well-known one, who was a great friend of Wiley’s. You know who.
Meanwhile, Wiley fixed the new plane by merging pieces of older planes. The aircraft company Pacific Airmotive (remember them?) modified the new plane. But the new wings on order were delayed. So Wiley used wings designed for larger planes, thinking that since there were so many bodies of water in Alaska, they needed bigger wings to act as pontoons.
Sure enough, Wiley had to land in water - a lagoon. That night, they didn’t take off, but stuck around to have dinner with a local. They were celebrating because they were already so close to their next destination in Alaska. By then, the plane had cooled off and when they took off, the plane failed at low altitude, with its nose heavy, and it plunged in the lagoon.
Both men died instantly.
Today there are airports (in Oklahoma, naturally) named after Wiley Post. Countless medals were named in Wiley’s honor. He was inducted in the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, and much more.
Wiley Post was one of the most ingenious pilots ever... but he wasn’t particularly funny. Will Rogers was one of the most ingenious humorists ever... but he was no pilot.
And they both died on August 15, 1935. The whole world mourned.
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Web site: www.burbankhistoricalsoc.org