Wiley Post: The First Pilot to Fly Around the World Alone

Wiley Post: The First Pilot to Fly Around the World Alone
Photo: nasm.si.edu
The "Winnie Mae" plane flown by Wiley Post

MARY TILLOTSON: Now the VOA Special English program, Explorations. Today Shirley Griffith and Doug Johnson tell about pilot Wiley Post. He set new records when he flew his own airplane around the world in nineteen thirty-three.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: It was nineteen thirty-three. Only six years earlier Charles Lindburgh became famous around the world as the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Now, a young pilot was trying to fly across Russia. He had left Moscow several hours before. All he heard was the sound of the one engine that powered his plane. Hour after hour the same sound. Now the weather was bad. He could not see much ahead, only the fog. Flying in fog is very dangerous. Yet the sound of the engine made everything seem warm and safe. Then, out of the fog he saw a mountain. He had only seconds to bring the airplane up. It was a narrow escape, one of many he would have during his long flight.

DOUG JOHNSON: The young pilot was Wiley Post. He was trying to fly around the world by himself. He made the trip in less than eight days. He stopped eleven times for fuel, food and a little sleep.

Wiley Post made his famous flight in July, nineteen thirty-three. Not many flight instruments existed that could help him find his way. He was alone, fighting against sleep. If he fell asleep he would die.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Nothing in Wiley Post's early years suggests that he would become a famous pilot. He was born in Grand Saline, Texas, in eighteen ninety-eight. His family were farmers. In nineteen thirteen, Wiley saw something that forever changed his life -- an airplane. After watching the plane fly, young Wiley waited until most people had left the area. He then began inspecting and studying the plane. He measured different parts of the plane with his hands. Many years later, Wiley Post would say that first airplane was the most wonderful thing he had ever seen.

Wiley Post
Wiley Post

DOUG JOHNSON: Wiley Post began to study everything he could find about flying. He began to educate himself about subjects such as mathematics, radio and machinery. His self-education would continue the rest of his life. Post finally rode in an airplane in nineteen nineteen. At the time, many people believed all pilots were special people. They believed it took special skills and courage to fly an airplane. But after his first ride, Wiley Post knew that flying was something he could learn to do.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Wiley Post began his career in flying, not as a pilot, but as a performer who jumps from airplanes using a parachute. He did this with a group that performed flying tricks to earn money. He jumped ninety-nine times in two years with the flying show. When he was not jumping with a parachute, he was being taught how to fly by pilots in the air show. But he could not fly as often as he liked.

DOUG JOHNSON: Wiley Post then decided the only way to become a good pilot was to buy an airplane of his own. He needed more money than he earned in the flying show. He went to work in the oil-producing areas of Texas. But he damaged his left eye in an accident. Doctors had to remove his eye. At first, Post thought his days as a pilot were ended. A pilot needs to be able to judge distance. Judging distance is difficult without two eyes. It seems impossible to tell how big objects are and how far away. Wiley Post began teaching himself to judge distance with only one eye. He worked hard at training his eye and brain to tell the correct distance. It took a long time, but he succeeded. He continued to fly and soon became a very good pilot.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen twenty-eight, he got a job flying the plane that belonged to a rich oil producer from Oklahoma. The man's name was F.C. Hall. He bought a new airplane for Post to fly. Mister Hall named the airplane the "Winnie Mae" after one of his daughters.

F.C. Hall told Post he could use the plane to enter flight competitions. Post did. In nineteen thirty, he entered the National Air Races. The race called for flying without stopping from Los Angeles in the western state of California, to the city of Chicago, in the middle western state of Illinois. Post won the race. He defeated several well known pilots. It was the first time the public heard the name Wiley Post.

DOUG JOHNSON: Post was not really interested in racing airplanes. He wanted to be the first person to fly around the world. Many pilots had talked about trying to make such a flight. But no one had done it.

Post believed he would need someone to help him in the effort. He chose an Australian man, Harold Gatty, to do the mathematics that decided the plane's direction. Post would fly the plane. On June twenty-third, nineteen thirty-one, Post and Gatty took off from Roosevelt Field in New York. They returned to Roosevelt Field eight days, fifteen hours and fifty-one minutes later. They had flown around the world.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: At first everyone was very happy. Wiley Post and Harold Gatty were heroes. Then many people began to say that Post was nothing more than an airplane driver because he had no real education. They said Gatty was the real hero. He had guided the flight. Both men knew they had made the flight as a team. Others did not recognize this. This hurt Post. Wiley Post began to plan another flight around the world. This time he would go alone.


DOUG JOHNSON: Wiley Post knew that any effort has a good chance of success if the person planning the task is well prepared. So he worked hard to prepare well. He used the most modern equipment possible. He made sure the engine on the "Winnie Mae" was perfect. And to prepare himself, he went without sleep for long periods of time.

On July fifteenth, nineteen thirty-three, Post took off from Floyd Bennett Field in New York. His first stop would be Berlin, Germany. He landed in Berlin twenty-six hours later. He became the first person to fly from New York to Berlin without stopping.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: After a little food for himself and fuel for the "Winnie Mae," Post was once again in the air. This time he was headed for Russia. For long hours he flew, listening only to the sound of his engine. Often, the weather was so bad he could not see where he was. At one point he came so close to running out of gas he considered using his parachute. But at the last minute he found a place to land and get gas. The flight across the huge width of Russia was difficult. He made several stops for gas and a few hours rest before flying across the Bering Sea to Alaska.

DOUG JOHNSON: By now, he was very tired. To keep himself awake as he flew east during the long night, Post tied a piece of string to one finger. The other end of the string was tied to a heavy aircraft tool. He held the tool in his hand. If he started to fall asleep, the tool would fall from his hand. The string would pull his finger and wake him.

From Fairbanks, Alaska, he flew to Edmonton, Canada and then on toward New York. More than fifty thousand people waited at Floyd Bennett Field. Wiley Post gently landed the "Winnie Mae" long after dark. He had flown around the world in seven days, eighteen hours and forty-nine minutes.

Thousands of excited people rushed toward the plane. Wiley Post was a hero. He had become the most famous pilot in America.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen thirty-five, only two years after his around the world record flight, Wiley Post was killed in a flying accident in Alaska. Post and the famous American humorist Will Rogers were killed when Post's plane crashed on takeoff near Point Barrow.

Before Post's death, the government of the United States had bought the "Winnie Mae." The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. owns the plane. You can see it at the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

DOUG JOHNSON: Many pilots have flown around the world since Wiley Post made his famous flight. His record was first broken only a few years after his death. Since that time many records for the trip have been made and broken. Yet Wiley Post was the first to fly around the world ... alone.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: This program was written by Paul Thompson and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Shirley Griffith.

DOUG JOHNSON: And I'm Doug Johnson. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are all available -- free of charge -- at 51voa.com. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.