He flew planes while having only one eye. He set a record for fastest flight across the globe with a navigator, then, two years later, broke his own record with the first solo around-the-world flight. He dabbled in high-altitude flight pioneering, built his own seaplane modifications, and was an early air-tourist of remote Alaska. All in the golden age of pre-war flight.
Wiley Post was an aeronautical badass.
Post was born (1898) in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, and grew up a restless soul. He flunked out of school after the 7th grade, but with the dawn of World War 1, Post, already fascinated by the brand new technology of the airplane, enrolled in flight training. He excelled there where he didn’t in traditional classes. When the war wound down before he could join the Army Air Service, Post, disappointed, took a series of jobs in the oil industry.
In 1926, Post was working on an oil rig as a roughneck when an accident with a shard of metal took his left eye. He wore an eye patch the rest of his life; it became a signature look for the dashing, mustachioed Post. More importantly for his future career, Post received a sizable insurance payout for the accident. He used that unexpected windfall to purchase his first airplane.
Reduced eyesight didn’t seem to be much of a problem for Post, incredibly, his lack of true depth perception never hindered his piloting ability. Shorty after recovering from the gruesome accident, he took a job as a personal pilot for an Oklahoma oil exec, named F.C. Hall, who became something of a benefactor to Post. Hall had recently bought his own suped-up plane, a Lockheed Vega, named Winnie Mae, and he insisted Post put the machine through its paces.
Post proceeded to smash aeronautical records in the Winnie Mae.
First, in 1930, he won the National Air Race Derby, setting a record for fastest flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Then, the following year, Post, along with navigator Harold Gatty, broke the record for fastest flight around the world, taking off from Long Island, and returning 8 days and 15 hours later after crossing the globe.
Unsatisfied, two years later Post set out beat his own record, this time flying solo, with the help of a very rudimentary autopilot device and a radio-based navigation system. He’d rigged a system by which a wrench tied to his finger would fall if he fell asleep, hopefully waking him, as he flew for hours and hours uninterrupted. At one point he became lost over Alaska, and nearly crippled his plane after an unplanned landing. He finished this around-the-world flight in only 7 days, 18 hours.
Ever the pioneering spirit, in 1934 Post next set his sights on high-altitude flight. He designed what he called the “Man From Mars” pressurized flight suit to enable a pilot to climb to then unheard-of heights of 50,000 feet. Post’s suit looked something like a cross between early scuba gear and Arthurian knight’s armor, with a tall cylindrical helmet and leather gloves and boots.
By 1935, Post had decided to begin running a mail and passenger flight program in Alaska. He set about building a custom plane for the purpose, fitting pontoons on the bottom of the aircraft so that he could takeoff and land in water. Once finished, Post invited his dear friend Will Rogers, one of America’s best-loved humorists, along for early Alaskan flights.
On August 15, the men became lost while flying above the Alaskan bush, and set down in a small body of water near Point Barrow. Their bearings regained, Post took off again, only to immediately lose power and crash into nearby mudflats. Both Post and Rogers were killed. Post, one of the nation’s finest pilots, was just 36.
Congress awarded Post with the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1932. He was hosted at the White House by Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. In 1969, he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.