Oklahoman Wiley Post Flew Faster, Farther, Higher

Associate Editor

EARLY TULSANS LOVE A PARADE: Especially when it’s to honor the likes of Wiley Post and Harold Gatty. The two aviation heroes were fresh from a New York City tickertape parade honoring their circumnavigation of the world in a fixed wing airplane breaking a two year old speed record set by a lighter-than-air craft. American Aviation was flying high and Tulsans turned out in droves to pay their respects. Seated on the passenger side is Charlie Short, manager of the Tulsa Municipal Airport and a close friend of Post.

Courtesy of Tulsa Air & Space Museum

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth article in a multi-part series about the growth of the aviation industry in greater Tulsa and throughout the region. The series explores the many unique contributions made by Tulsans to what has become a major aspect of the area economy. The editors of GTR Newspapers want to acknowledge and thank the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Tulsa Historic Society for research assistance and the use of many of the historic photos that accompany these articles.

On June 23, 1931, two men took off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, the same field from which Charles Lindbergh started four years earlier to make his historic solo flight across the Atlantic. But on this day the two aviators on board a Lockheed Vega, one of the most advanced aircrafts of the times, were embarking on an even bigger feat of human flight. They were after a new speed record for flying around the world. Such were those times in aviation when great strides were being made by a few brave souls courageously and relentlessly stretching the limits of human flight.

One of the men was an Australian-born navigator named Harold Gatty who had been recruited by his flying partner and pilot for the trip, Wiley Post, a young flyer with sight in only one eye and possibly Oklahoma’s greatest aviation hero. The 15,474-mile trip would take a mere 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes and would beat the old record of 21 days set by Hugo Eckener in a lighter than air Graf Zeppelin only two years earlier. It was a major event in aviation. Across the country Post and Gatty were given the same hero’s welcome afforded Lindbergh including a ticker tape parade in New York City. The two would co-author a best seller about the trip. But in typical fashion, Wiley Post refused to rest on his laurels and two years later flew around the world again breaking his own record by more than a day. Only this time he did it alone making him the first to solo circumnavigate the globe by air. Such was the career of Post. He spent his life on the cutting edge of early aviation never satisfied, always searching for how far, how fast and how high humans could fly. But in spite of all his accomplishments he never severed his Oklahoma roots.

Post was actually born in Van Zandt County, Texas in 1898. His family moved to Oklahoma when he was barely five. Sometime in his youth the flying bug must have bitten him, because at age 26 records show he began his professional flying career barnstorming with Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers bedazzling audiences across the Midwest.

In 1926, as his barnstorming fame grew, Post became more determined to own his own plane. To that end he took on extra work as a roustabout in the oil patch hoping to earn enough. Unfortunately while working on an oil rig, a stray metal chip pierced his left eye causing severe damage resulting in a serious infection that threatened both eyes. No doubt the desperate decision to remove one eye to save the other would have been the low point in young Post’s life to date. With only one good eye and the accompanying loss of depth perception, it would have seemed Post’s halcyon days of flying were over. That assumption would underestimate this aviator’s determination and love of flying. In fact, it was only a temporary set back. Using the same determination and resourcefulness that hallmarked his life, he devised ways to compensate for the loss. Through practice he learned to gauge distances by using the height of structures to help land his plane. Although the accident had cost him an eye, the $1,800 worker’s compensation check bought him the plane he wanted, a Curtiss Canuck.

Up to that point in his flying career Post had flown planes owned by others. One of the others was an Oklahoma City oilman by the name of F. C Hall. Post became Hall’s personal pilot in the late 1920s. This put the young aviator at the controls of the high performance Lockheed Vega called Winnie Mae, named after the oilman’s daughter. Hall must have been in accord with other oilmen of the day who understood the growing symbiotic relationship between petroleum and aviation. He invited Post to use the Vega to compete in some of the popular aviation races of the times, events that showcased aviation advancements and furthered public awareness of flying. Surely it took little persuasion and Post entered the prestigious 1930 Men’s Air Derby Race from Los Angeles to Chicago. He won the race by more than one and one-half hours, despite a faulty compass. Impressed by Post’s abilities, Hall told him he could use the plane to pursue any air records he wished.

This was the plane, slightly retrofitted, that Post flew twice around the world setting new records first with Gatty and then alone. It eventually earned him enough prize money to purchase the plane from Hall. Today the high mileage Winnie Mae occupies a place of honor among other historically significant aircraft as part of the Smithsonian collection.

After winning prestigious races and flying around the world, Post had conquered speed and distance barriers. Now his attention turned vertical. How high could one fly? Helping him in this venture was another oilman, Frank Phillips of Phillips Petroleum Company. Phillips was one more in a long line of Oklahoma oilmen who were aviation enthusiasts. He, like Post, was interested in flying a plane up, up and away into the stratosphere at some 40,000 feet where it was believed a jet stream would push a plane even faster and further.

But to fly in such thin air and low atmospheric pressure would require a special kind of suit. Post worked with Russell S. Colley of the B.F. Goodrich Company to develop what became the world’s first practical pressurized flight suit. After several fits and starts, Post was able to successfully fly well into the stratosphere at 50,000 feet and return safely. Post had discovered the jet stream and made the first major advance in pressurized flight.
On March 24, 1932 Tulsa dedicated its new art deco style airport terminal. In attendance were many aviation notables like Jimmy Doolittle, Art Goebel and Frank Hawks along with the usual suspects from the petroleum industry like W. G. Skelly, J. Paul Getty, Frank Phillips and others. Also in attendance was Charlie Short, manager of Tulsa Municipal Airport along with two of his close friends Wiley Post and the beloved Oklahoma humorist, Will Rogers. The two celebrities were good friends and flew everywhere together promoting aviation. Although never a pilot, Rogers was an avid proponent of commercial flying, touting its safety. Ironically, just three years after that night in Tulsa the two stunned the world when Post’s highly modified Lockheed Explorer crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska on August 15, killing both of the very popular men. The loss was as sudden as it was devastating, marking the plane crash as one of the most memorable in United States history.

The aviation community in the times of Post was close-knit and everyone seemed to know everyone on a personal basis. Some who knew Post noted his frequent bouts with depression, the only cure for which was the exhilarating high of yet another aviation accomplishment. He would spend his career self-medicating by breaking records, always pushing the edge, always looking to achieve more and in his short life of 36 years his addiction to success drove the whole of aviation to ever bigger and better things.

For more see: www.tulsaairandspacemuseum.com and www.tulsahistory.org.

Next issue the series will focus on additional aviation pioneers who passed through Tulsa, on their way to fame and fortune along with the little known Tulsa heroes who also made a difference.

Updated 11-20-2007

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