Wiley Post was an integral figure in aviation history. He discovered the jet stream, helped develop one of the first pressure suits and was the first pilot to fly solo around the world. Sadly, his life was cut short on August 15th, 1935, when he crashed in what was the Territory of Alaska with his friend, celebrity Will Rogers. Let’s take a look at this tragic incident that happened 86 years ago today.
An Oklahoma connection
William Penn Adair Rogers was a famed actor, humorist, social commentator, columnist, and even a cowboy. He was born in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, on November 4th, 1879, which is now part of Oklahoma, before traveling around the world three times and making 71 films.
The entertainer became a close companion of Post. Notably, after the aviator’s around-the-world adventure in 1931, Rogers gave Post plenty of praise in his newspaper columns amid his feats. Following the growth of their friendship, Post recommended that Rogers should join him in the air to get away from his pressures at work.
Challenges in Hollywood and the newspaper industry were getting to Rogers. So, the aviation enthusiast didn’t think twice about joining Post on his aircraft.
A different transport
The plane that the pair would hop on would not be the legendary Winnie Mae. By this period, the Lockheed Vega had become worn out after heading into the stratosphere, reaching 547 km/h (340 mph) while cruising in the jet stream.
Post came up with a risky solution for his new build, which would prove fatal in the end.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum highlights the following:
“Post had replaced [Winnie Mae] with a new aircraft which combined a Lockheed Orion fuselage mated with wings from a different model Lockheed aircraft – an Explorer. As Post was not an aeronautical engineer, the combination was potentially hazardous and he made it more so by adding floats from a larger Fokker aircraft. This made the aircraft dangerously nose-heavy.”
The hybrid took a former Transcontinental & Western Air Lockheed Model 9E Orion Special with registration NC12283 and fitted it with a wing from a Lockheed Model 7 Explorer. Moreover, This Day In Aviation shares that the Orion’s 450 hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC1 engine was taken over by an “air-cooled, supercharged, 1,343.8-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021L) Pratt & Whitney Wasp S3H1 nine-cylinder radial engine”.
On their way
Post had been keen to survey a mail-and-passenger route from the West Coast to Russia. So, with the aircraft concoction, Post and Rogers set flight for Alaska and Russia in August following a test flight in the month prior. There weren’t any notable issues after the duo departed Lake Washington, near Seattle. Rogers continued writing on his typewriter while Post took the helm of the plane as they made numerous stops across Alaska.
The final stop would be Fairbanks. On the way to Point Barrow from Fairbanks, the pair got lost and landed in a lagoon to find out directions. This headland on the Arctic Coast would be the last stop as the engine sputtered while taking off, and the plane hit the water and flipped. The right wing of the plane was sheared off, and the aircraft ended up inverted in the lagoon’s shallow water, killing both on board the flight instantly.
An investigation followed, which raised major concerns about the way Post put together key parts of his plane from different types. The engine’s failure may have been a result of carburetor icing and not enough elevator surface to counter the nose-heavy plane in a glide.
Gone but not forgotten
Post was 36 when he passed, while Rogers was 55. Their untimely deaths were met with grief around the world.
Post was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Oklahoma, with many influential aviation figures such as Amelia Earhart among the mourners. Rogers’ funeral was held at Hollywood Bowl, and he was buried in Forest Lawn Park, Glendale, California, but he was reinterred at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum concludes:
“The loss of Post and Rogers near the height of their fame helped ensure their enduring stature as icons of Depression-era America, but their accomplishments stand as evidence that there was still a popular spirit of adventure in the United States that economic crisis could not dampen.”
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Many of those looking back at Rogers’ death will remember one of his most famous sayings.
As quoted in The Will Rogers Book by Paula McSpadden Love, Rogers said:
“When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read: “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I dident [sic] like.” I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.”
Overall, both Post and Rogers left a legacy that has lasted through the decades. They were truly pioneers in the early days of their industries and contributed massively to the progress of aviation and entertainment.
What are your thoughts about the achievements of Wiley Post and Will Rogers before their passing in 1935? What do you make of the pair’s legacy in their fields over the years? Let us know what you think of the career of the two pioneers in the comment section.