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Around the world in 8 days

Lockheed Model 5B Vega "Winnie Mae" on display in the "Time and Navigation" exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's National Mall Building in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

From before dawn on June 23, 1931, until sunset on July 1, 1931, Wiley Post and navigator Harold Gatty flew a single-engine Lockheed Vega 5C known as Winnie Mae around the world without navaids, radios, an autopilot, or life jackets or a raft, into unknown weather, at remote and unimproved grass fields with questionable fuel and oil availability. Their track was meticulously drawn in pencil on maps of dubious accuracy with rivers and railroads and sun and moon shots as their guides. This is their story.

‘Winnie Mae’

The Lockheed Vega 5C was a proven workhorse aircraft with a monocoque fuselage, high wing, and plywood and metal fittings. Post flattened the angle of the aircraft’s wing for speed and cut four inches from the tailskid to prevent the tail from bouncing during cocked-up, 80-mph landings.

The Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engine with a supercharger developed 510 horsepower, cruised at 160 miles per hour, and drank 22 gallons per hour. The aircraft’s 500-plus gallons of fuel were carried behind the cockpit, separating pilot from navigator. Post and Gatty communicated through a ship-like speaking tube.

Gatty sat at a fixed table in a chair that he moved back and forth within a two-foot range—fore during takeoff and aft during landing. Post flew from his favorite armchair—16-hour flight legs necessitate comfort and some room to squirm.

Winnie Mae was outfitted with 1930s state-of-the-art IFR/night instruments—a bank-and-turn indicator, a rate of climb meter, an artificial gyroscopic horizon, and an aperiodic compass. Two navigation hatches were cut into Winnie Mae, one in the roof to shoot latitude and longitude, and one in the floor to calculate drift and ground speed.

Harold Gatty

From his native Tasmania in Australia, Gatty fell in love with the sea and plied his trade as an officer on merchant ships sailing to the most remote parts of the South Pacific. Gatty passed on being an engineer, keeping his eyes to the skies—their romance, rotation, and navigation.

By the time Gatty was 25 in 1928, he was living in southern California with his wife and child, and had opened an aviation navigation school. However, in the United States, aviation was the buzz, not navigation. Even military pilots flew by map, looking at the ground. Gatty’s exacting aviation navigation school and his development of the best navigation tools of the day attracted the smartest and most influential aviators. When Post sought him out in the fall 1930 to fly around the world, Gatty was the best navigator in the air.

Wiley Post

Post was no schoolboy. Machines and their workings made him tick. Post saw his first airplane as a youth and was destined for the sky. To make ends meet, he rough-necked on Texas oil rigs. Post then barnstormed Oklahoma after World War I, saving every nickel. Piloting and parachuting paid well, but by early 1925, the money had run dry.

He returned to supervising oil rig drilling. An iron bolt was being hammered when a chip of metal spit out and struck and permanently blinded his left eye. Workman’s comp bought him a $240 JN–4 Canuck, a Canadian version of the Curtiss JN–3 Jenny, with an OX-5 engine. He trained his right eye to gauge distance better than when he had both and for the next two years, he owned the skies above Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas.

In 1928, a patriarchal wildcatter named F.C. Hall hired Post as his personal pilot and fellow adventurer. Hall wanted the best aircraft available, so he bought a Lockheed Vega 5C and named it Winnie Mae after his daughter. During a brief economic downturn, Hall sold the aircraft, but as soon as the oil business rebounded, he had Lockheed build another, financing the modifications Post prescribed, and also named it Winnie Mae.

The flight

Legacies are born from rainy pre-dawn launches. On June 23, 1931, Post and Gatty took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island and flew six hours and 45 minutes over New England to Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. The two were on a quest in Winnie Mae: Fuel and go.

The Atlantic crossing was foul and dirty. Post flew low, under fog and through steady rain, to see the water and to calculate speed and drift. He could see the needle and ball, and a dimly lit heading. The crew continued ahead at 160 miles per hour, for hour after hour. In improving weather, Post climbed to be able to see the moon so that Gatty could get a fix on their position. Gatty had 15 preset positions on their track, spaced 200 miles apart, from which to make corrections.

They made it to England and the Sealand Airfield of the Royal Air Force near Liverpool. After enjoying some roast beef, they pressed on to Berlin in clear air. In less than an hour, they arrived at the famous Tempelhof Airport, 22 hours and 30 minutes after departing Roosevelt Field.

One-third of the circumnavigation was over the Soviet Union. Broad rivers, desolate mountains, the steppes of Siberia, and the Trans-Siberian Railroad guided the crew east to Moscow, Novosibirsk, Blagoveshchensk, and Khabarovsk, all in frequently blinding rain. When they stopped in Moscow, a young Russian woman, a graduate of Hunter College in New York City, wrote instructions for fueling and the like for future, non-English-speaking ground crew to follow—a blessing.

Four hours after taking off from Khabarovsk, Post and Gatty crossed Sakhalin Island. It was go/no go to Alaska. “Only” 13 hours to go. They pressed on in black rain, fog, and hail, flying between layers to find an opening (to get a fix) and eventually land on the beach at Cape Nome, Alaska, 129 miles southeast of the Bering Strait. The flight leg lasted 16 hours and 52 minutes.

Winnie Mae took on 100 gallons of fuel; however, when preparing for takeoff, Winnie Mae dug into the sand and pitched forward, both propeller tips smacking the sand. Post hammered the bent tips back into shape and continued to Fairbanks, where Alaska Airlines crewmembers gave Winnie Mae the spa treatment, including a new propeller. “Only” 3,100 miles to go.

Over the Rockies to Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. But Edmonton’s sloggy, saturated grass strip made takeoff impossible. No worries, eh? Winnie Mae was towed to the main street in town. Post took off down the main street and flew over the Hotel Macdonald, maître d’ and staff saluting from the rooftop. Next stop: New York.

That New York skyline! After landing, Post and Gatty hugged their wives and Hall, and celebrated ticker tape parade No. 38 with Mayor Jimmie Walker.

Debrief

In 1932, Post acquired Winnie Mae, and in the summer of 1933, he was the first to fly solo around the world, 21 hours faster than his flight with Gatty in 1931! Post developed the first practical pressure suit and, by taking Winnie Mae to 50,000 feet, is credited with verifying the jet stream. In August 1935, Post and good friend Will Rogers were exploring Alaska when the aircraft Post had built from parts of other airplanes experienced an engine failure and crashed into a lake shortly after takeoff. Both were killed instantly.

Gatty returned to his beloved South Seas. He formed the South Seas Commercial Co., whose regional air services were bought by Pan Am. During World War II, Gatty was a captain in the Royal Australian Air Force and developed survival kits for Australian and U.S. air crewmembers downed or ditched at sea. After World War II, he moved to Fiji with his second wife and founded Fiji Airways. Gatty died in 1957 of a stroke and is buried in Fiji. 

Winnie Mae is polished and on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, near Washington Dulles International Airport.

—By John D. Parce

John D. Parce is a retired Naval Aviator who flew the EA-3B Skywarrior for 335 traps from eight carriers in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean and North Arabian Seas from 1979 to 1988. He lives in Key West, Florida, and works as a realtor and real estate blogger.

Topics: People, Around the World Flight

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