Wiley Post and Harold Gatty in Germany, 1931/Wikipedia
1933: Pilot Wiley Post returns to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, 7 days, 18 hours, 49 minutes after leaving. Aided by new technology, his flight is the first solo circumnavigation by air, and it’s also the fastest-ever around-the-world-trip.
Born in Texas, Post wanted to be a pilot after seeing his first airplane at a county fair at the age of 15. He got his break at age 24, when a barnstormer let him fill in for his injured skydiver. Post performed several jumps, but always wanted to be the pilot, not the skydiver.
His dream was almost ruined while working in the oil fields to earn money for an airplane: He lost his left eye in an accident. Despite the lack of depth perception, Post was able to earn his pilot’s license and, with his workers’ compensation checks, bought his first airplane.
Post quickly advanced his flying skills and became the personal pilot for wealthy oilman F.C. Hall. His boss encouraged Post to use the plane when it wasn’t needed for business, and the now-32-year-old pilot promptly went out and won a prestigious air race from Los Angeles to Chicago.
With the success, Hall allowed Post to use the sleek Lockheed Vega aircraft, named Winnie Mae after Hall’s daughter, to pursue any air records he wished.
Post wasted no time, and in 1931 he and navigator Harold Gatty broke the around-the-world record that had been held by an airship, the Graf Zeppelin. Their 15,000-mile-flight lasted 8 days, 15 hours, 51 minutes and included 13 refueling stops. The Winnie Mae had slashed more than 11 days off of the previous record.
After several people suggested Gatty was the brains behind the effort, Post set out to disprove his critics the very next year by making the trip solo. He equipped the Vega with two significant pieces of new technology: a primitive autopilot from Sperry Gyroscope and a radio direction finder for navigation. The trip would be the first significant flight where the new navigation technology would replace the human navigator.
The early autopilot proved to be problematic at times, though it did help the solo pilot stay on his desired course. Aided by the radio direction finder that allowed Post to navigate to any radio station’s transmitter, the Winnie Maestayed on record pace through the early part of the flight.
After several unscheduled stops in the Soviet Union and the need to fix a bent propeller, Post was able to make it back to North America still ahead of schedule. Fighting fatigue in the final hours, Post developed a very simple piece of technology to keep from falling asleep in the cockpit. The former mechanic tied one end of a string to a wrench and the other end to a finger.
He would simply hold the wrench while he flew. If he fell asleep, the wrench would fall, tugging on his finger and waking him up.
The klugey wrench alarm worked, and as the clock approached midnight, Post landed back at Floyd Bennett Field in front of thousands of spectators who had come to greet him. He credited the autopilot and radio direction finder for making the record-setting flight possible. He had beaten his previous record by 21 hours.
Post would later go on to develop a pressure suit allowing him to set more records by flying at altitudes as high as 40,000 feet.
In 1935, the record-setting pilot set off on a flight with his good friend Will Rogers. The famous humorist had hired Post to fly him around Alaska in search of new material for his newspaper column.
Post ended up settling for some pontoon floats that were too big for the modified Lockheed they were flying on the trip. Post and Rogers took off from a lake in northern Alaska on Aug. 15, and the engine quit.
The airplane was difficult to control with the oversize floats, and it crashed into a lake, killing both on board. Rogers was 55. Post was 36.