Tuesday, June 23, 1931. Log entry number one: "Took off 4:55, daylight saving time, set course 63 degrees, visibility poor."
Hunkered in the back of the big monoplane, navigator Harold Gatty made that notation as he, Wiley Post, and the Winnie Mae of Oklahoma flashed down a wet grass field into history.
It was time to go out and do it. The Graf Zeppelin had done it in 21 days two years before; the Army's Douglas World Cruisers had taken six months to do it in 1924. Now, Wiley Post believed airplanes and their engines were dependable enough to circle the globe in just ten days,
and that to do it would give both aviation and his career a shot in the arm. There was no choice for someone like Post; it was time to do it, so he would.
Wiley Post and Harold Gatty, right.
Wiley Post was not a rich man, but oilman F. C. Hall was, and Post was Hall's personal pilot. Hall first hired Post in 1928, hoping to use an airplane for quick transportation around his oil fields. Having once been a barnstormer, rough field landings were nothing new to Post and he made quite a few for Hall in his three-place, open cockpit Travel Air. But the comforts of a closed cabin wee too much for Hall to ignore; he ordered a new Lockheed Vega, naming it for his daughter, Winnie Mae Fain.
This was Winnie Mae number one, not the airplane that Post later used in his record-breaking flights. The stock market crash of 1929 forced Hall to sell the first Winnie to Nevada Airlines.
Plane-less and therefore jobless, Post went to California to work as a test pilot for Lockheed, learning to fly the rudimentary instruments of the day. But F. C. Hall was never a man to be defeated. By June of 1930, he had rebuilt his empire and called Wiley back to work. Post returned to Oklahoma and to Winnie Mae number two.
She was a beauty, a Lockheed Vega 5-B with a 420 horsepower Pratt and Whitney Wasp, supercharged on a seven-to-one ratio. Hub to rudder tip, she measured 27 feet, 7 and a half inches. Winnie had a 41 foot wing span and stood 8 feet, 10 inches tall. She cruised at 150 miles per hour at 1,700 rpm, using about 22 gallons an hour.
Ed: Those spex are given in the past tense because Post modified the airplane for his experimental work at least six times in succeeding years. She is somewhat different in appearance as you view her today at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Hall had the Winnie Mae painted white with blue trim. Her registration number was NC-105W. The "NC" would change to the experimental designation "NR" later on.
When Post went to the Lockheed factory to pick up the airplane, he left the company a check for $22,000.
Wiley Post began flying in 1926, taking lessons where he could get them while working as a parachute jumper in a flying circus. He had been captured by aviation at age 15 when he saw his first Curtiss Pusher at a county fair, deciding at that moment that he could never be happy on his father's Texas farm. To fund his new ambition, he found work in the oil fields. It was a dangerous business. Post lost his left eye to a metal chip flying off a workman's hammer. Being a natural opportunist, he used the nearly $1,700 in workmen's compensation to buy his first airplane.
The accident had cost him dearly in terms of depth perception. Post compensated by spending hours pacing off distances from known objects and memorizing how they looked to his remaining eye. He was wearing a glass eye at that point, but later turned to a patch when at high altitudes the eye became so cold it caused severe headaches. The patch became a trademark.
Once back on F. C. Hall's payroll, Post started promoting use of the big airplane in competition. With Hall a ready partner, Winnie Mae was entered in the 1930 National Air Race's Nonstop Air Derby, a "timing race" from California to Chicago. Post applied for the first of her many "restricted" licenses and stripped her down for battle. Actually, in the process, he added quite a lot: extra fuel tankage was installed, increasing the plane's capacity from a standard 150 to a full 500 gallons. He exchanged the seven-to-one standard supercharger for a ten-to-one to get extra speed. He changed the angle of incidence for the same reason. Post also installed one special fuel tank which was always filled with 87 octange gas. According to a Smithsonian monograph written by Stanley Mohler and Bobby Johnson, Post would use the 87 octane on takeoff to "pull" 500 horsepower for a maximum of about five minutes. He would switch to 80 octane for cruise. The system was employed on Winnie Mae throughout her flying career.
Fuel tanks in Winnie Mae's cabin as they exist today (left). Picture is from my Smithsonian collection.
Wiley and Winnie Mae won the race, flying 1,760 miles in 9 hours, 9 minutes and 4 seconds for an average 192 miles per hour, beating their nearest competitor by just seconds for a prize of $7,500. Ironically, second place was taken by Art Goebel, flying Winnie Mae number one.
Although Post and his airplane were now famous, it wasn't enough. There were other worlds and conquor and new records to break. Post started talking to Hall about going around the world.
He knew the airplane could do it and he was just as sure of his skill. What he needed, besides Hall's backing, was the best navigator he could get. Harold Gatty had laid out the charts for the cross-country race. Post decided to ask Gatty if he would be interested in a global run. As it turned out, he would.
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