BROOKLYN, NY (WHTM) — Aviator Wiley Post was itching to set a new world record. The 1920s and 1930s were a prime period for testing the limits of aircraft, and performance records were set, smashed, then smashed again.
One of those records: the fastest time for flying around the world. In 1930 the record was held by a dirigible, the Graf Zeppelin, which made the trip in 21 days. Then in 1931 Wiley Post, accompanied by Australian navigator Harold Getty, took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island in Post’s single-engine Lockheed Vega, Winnie Mae. Eight days, 15 hours, 51 minutes, and 14 stops later, they returned to Roosevelt Field. Not only did they smash the previous record for flying around the world, but they were also the first to do it in a single-engine monoplane. The two were celebrated as heroes wherever they went.
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Post then set his sights on a new goal: become the first pilot to fly around the world solo. Advances in technology made this possible. When he left for this flight, the Winnie Mae carried some new devices — an autopilot and a radio direction finder — which, along with a compass, would allow him to make the trip without a human navigator.
He departed from Floyd Bennett Field on July 15, 1933. He made stops along the way at Berlin, Königsberg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Rukhlovo, Khabarovsk, Flat, Fairbanks, and Edmonton, before returning to Floyd Bennett Fieldon on July 22. He made the trip in seven days, 18 hours, 49 minutes, making him the first pilot to fly solo around the world.
Having set not one, but two records for going around, Post then turned his attention to going up. In 1934, he worked with the B.F. Goodrich Company to develop the world’s first pressure suit, the ancestor to the suits worn by high-altitude pilots and spacesuits used by astronauts. With it, he was able to fly up to 50,000 feet, where he discovered the existence of the jet stream.
Ironically, after two record-setting trips around the world, and breaking barriers to high-altitude flight, he would lose his life making a simple takeoff. He and his friend, comedian, and columnist Will Rogers, were traveling in Alaska using a pontoon plane. Post was investigating a possible mail and passenger air route, and Rogers was finding material for his newspaper column. On August 15, near Point Barrow, Alaska, they were taking off from a lake when the engine failed. They crashed into the water and died instantly. Rogers is remembered as one of America’s most beloved humorists, and Post is remembered for his record-setting contributions to early aviation. Both his airplane Winnie Mae and his pressure suit are in the collection of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.