One of America’s most influential early aviators was Wiley Post, who rose to fame during the depths of the Great Depression by breaking numerous aeronautical records and designing and testing the world’s first fully pressurized flying suit and helmet.
Wiley Post was born in 1898 to a family of cotton farmers in Cornith, Texas. Growing up, Post had little interest in school or farming. Instead, he was drawn to mechanical devices and always wanted to know how things worked. When he was introduced to his first airplane at a county fair, he was captivated right away.
During World War I, Post joined the U.S. Army with the intent of becoming a pilot. However, Germany surrendered before he had the chance to fly. After the war, he got a job working in the oil fields in Oklahoma as a “roughneck.” Around this time, Post lost his left eye in an accident on a drilling rig. But despite his injury, Post was more determined than ever to pursue his dream of flight. Although his sense of depth perception was limited, he learned to fly and used the settlement money from the accident to buy his first airplane.
To earn a living, Post became the personal pilot for F.C. Hall, an oil tycoon. Hall had purchased a high-wing, single-engine Lockheed Vega and named it the Winnie Mae after his own daughter. Recognizing the young aviator’s talent, Hall encouraged Post to enter air races and pursue multiple air records in the Winnie Mae.
Right away, Post gained national recognition as a daredevil pilot. In 1930, he won the Derby of the National Air Races before setting his sights on a new record: around-the-world flight. In 1931, Post flew the Winnie Mae around the world with the assistance of a navigator, Harold Gatty. Post completed the journey in a record eight days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes. An account of the voyage was published in the book Around the World in Eight Days.
In 1933, Post acquired the Winnie Mae from Hall and set out for his second around-the-world flight, this time solo. With the aid of two new aeronautical devices–an auto-pilot and a radio direction finder–Post beat his previous record and completed the first solo trip around the world in just seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes.
Soon after his record-breaking solo flight, Post began experimenting with high-altitude, long-distance flight. But because the cabin of the Winnie Mae was not pressurized, Post had to find a way to survive the high-altitude conditions. Working with Russell S. Colley of the B.F. Goodrich Company, Post helped design and test the world’s first practical pressurized flight suit and helmet.
The innovative suit was constructed of rubberized parachute fabric and had an internal rubber air pressure bladder. It had an aluminum and plastics diver’s helmet which featured a faceplate that could be sealed at a height of 17,000 feet. Wearing the suit, Post reached an altitude of 50,000 feet in the supercharged Winnie Mae. At certain times during experimental flights, the aircraft reached a ground speed of 340 mph, proving that significant speed increases were possible when flying at high altitudes. Many credit Post with discovering the benefits of the jet stream and designing the basis for spacesuits.
Sadly, Post’s trailblazing aviation career was cut short by a fatal aviation accident in 1935. Together with his good friend, Will Rogers, Post set off on an aerial tour of Alaska in a hybrid Lockheed Orion and Lockheed Explorer aircraft. Soon after taking off, the aircraft’s engine lost power. Because the airplane was heavy with fuel and fitted with oversized pontoon floats, Post lost control and crashed into a lake. Both men died instantly in the accident. Post was 36, and Rogers was 55.
Wiley Post’s monumental accomplishments undoubtedly contributed to the advancement of aviation as we know it today. In 1969, he was enshrined to the National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) for his achievements as “a great scientific aviation pioneer.” After Post’s death, the Winnie Mae was sent to the National Air and Space Museum’s collection, where it remains today. Post’s pressurized suit is also a part of the Museum’s collection, where it is currently undergoing extensive restoration.