The Lofty Ambitions of Wiley Post
Eighty-four years ago today, the great Will Rogers died in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. I’ve written before about how Congress suspended deliberations upon learning of the death of the great humorist, political pundit, and rodeo rider -- notwithstanding the fact that Capitol Hill was the frequent target of his celebrated wit.
His gracious sensibility, in short supply these days, is epitomized by his most famous line. “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime,” he said, “but I never met one I didn’t like.”
Another remarkable man died in that aerial accident, however, and he was as accomplished in his chosen field as Will Rogers was in his. I’m talking about Rogers’ close friend Wiley Post, who piloted the plane that fateful morning. There’s an old chestnut in the newspaper business, invariably invoked when reporters would accompany a candidate on a small plane in Iowa or someplace similar, about how the headline in the next day’s paper would read if the plane crashed: “Senator So-and-So and three others perish in cornfield.”
It wasn’t like that when Wiley Post and Will Rogers went down.
“With the exception of Charles Lindbergh, no American aviator of the time was as celebrated as Post, while Rogers was widely considered as the nation’s most gifted commentator on American society,” notes National Air and Space Museum curator Roger Connor. “Their loss impacted the two brightest spots in American culture during the Depression -- aviation and film -- and was especially devastating because of it.”
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Wiley Hardeman Post was born in Corinth, Texas, one of five children of itinerant cotton farmers who moved between Texas and Oklahoma. But young Wiley didn’t take to farming and from the day he saw his first airplane -- a Curtiss “Pusher,” it was called -- at the 1913 county fair in Lawton, Okla., he was hooked.
Until then, he’d been a diffident student. But now he had a mission. Post enrolled in the Sweeney Automobile and Aviation School in Kansas City where he aced the science and math classes. Returning to Oklahoma, he worked in construction, and when the United States entered World War I, he signed up for the U.S. Army Air Service pilot training camp at the University of Oklahoma.
The war ended before Post completed his training, and little is known about the next few years of his life. He seems to have worked as a roughneck in the oil fields, served a year in prison on a robbery beef, and hooked up with Burrell Tibbs's Flying Circus, working first as a parachute jumper and then as a stunt pilot. Along the way, he lost an eye, apparently in an industrial accident on an oil rig. But that mishap turned into a blessing: He used the settlement money to buy his first plane, a Canadian-built JN-4 “Canuck.” Hired as company pilot for oilman Florence C. Hall, Post upgraded to a Lockheed Vega, the plane he named Winnie Mae.
In aviation’s early days, daring pilots like Wiley Post would make headlines by winning match races or by performing feats such as flying around the world. Post did both. He won a celebrated 1930 race from Chicago to Los Angeles in a second Lockheed Vega, also named Winnie Mae. A year later, he and navigator Harold Gatty circled the globe in just over eight days.
But Wiley Post wasn’t a daredevil as much as he was an aerial argonaut. Decades before the term was popularized by Tom Wolfe, he pushed the envelope to do it. From 1932 through 1935, Post pioneered high altitude flying and pressurized cabins, explored the variables of the jet stream, and designed float planes. He flew these hybrids, too, and did so before they were truly aerodynamically stable. He was flying one of them on this date in 1935 when it crashed into Walakpa Lagoon just outside Point Barrow, killing him and Rogers.
“Post’s brief but remarkable flying career had a tremendous impact on the early aviation industry,” wrote aviation expert Erik D. Carlson. “His adventurism, his record-setting flights, and his aeronautical experiments transformed aviation and blazed a pathway for modern flight.”
Wiley Post was 36 years old when he died, taking his dear friend with him. In a book he wrote about his around-the-world feat, Post had inadvertently foretold the tragedy. “Misfortunes,” he wrote, “never come singly.”