In the early morning of July 15, 1933, Wiley Hardeman Post stood on the airstrip of Floyd Bennett Field in New York, waiting for favorable flying weather. Realizing that conditions probably wouldn't improve, Post—fortified with thermos bottles of water and tomato juice, three packets of gum, and a carton of zweiback—climbed into the purple-and-white Lockheed 5C Vega Winnie Mae and set off on what he hoped would be a record-breaking flight.
Seven days, 18 hours, and 49 ½ minutes later, Post landed at Floyd Bennett Field, becoming the first person to fly solo around the world.
This wasn't Post's first around-the-world trip. In 1931, accompanied by navigator Harold Gatty, he made a 14-stop world circuit in a little over eight days (12 days faster than the previous record set by the Graf Zeppelin in 1929). But on his solo attempt, Post hoped to complete the journey in six days, shaving two days off his earlier time. Two technological advances allowed him to attempt the solo effort: An autopilot, which Post immediately dubbed “Mechanical Mike,” and a radio compass (still in the experimental stage, and considered classified by the Army, which was developing the instrument).
Bad weather and a problem with the oil supply line on the autopilot kept Post from achieving his goal of circling the globe in six days with only five stops. But he cut 21 hours off his previous record, and was convinced that, with good weather, the route could be completed in four days. (Post made 11 stops total; click on this interactive map for more details from his record-setting flight.)
More than 50,000 spectators thronged Floyd Bennett Field on July 22, 1933, waiting for a glimpse of the weary aviator at the conclusion of his flight, while thousands more were caught in traffic along the highway leading to the airfield. As the Winnie Mae dropped through the cloud cover at midnight, thousands of onlookers broke through the barriers and swarmed the field. One of the first to congratulate Post was his former navigator, Harold Gatty.
At a press conference a few days later, the pilot was asked if he would attempt a third flight. The Corning (New York) Leader reported that a spectator yelled from the crowd, begging him not to. “Don’t do it again, Wiley. It’s too tough on us,” he said.
Post’s solo flight would not be duplicated until 1947. When William P. Odom circled the globe in 73 hours and five minutes in a Douglas A-26 twin-engine attack plane, the press was blasé, if not downright hostile. Typical was Flight magazine’s comment: “Just what [Odom] has proved there is not clear.”
In August 1935, Post and humorist Will Rogers set out to tour Alaska and Siberia in an unusual hybrid aircraft made from the wreckage of a Lockheed Orion and a Lockheed Explorer. The one-of-a-kind Orion-Explorer was felt by some of Post’s colleagues to be nose-heavy—a condition that could lead to a crash. As the two men took off from Barrow, Alaska, the engine suddenly quit; the Orion-Explorer hit the water, killing both men.
The news stunned the nation. Eight thousand people quietly waited at the airport in Oklahoma City to meet the DC-2 carrying Post’s body. More than 20,000 people viewed Post’s casket at the Oklahoma State Capitol Building.
The Winnie Mae was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution—through an Act of Congress—in 1936. It is currently on display in the Time and Navigation exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum.