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Book Review - From Oklahoma to Eternity: The Life of Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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From Oklahoma to Eternity: The Life of Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae, by Bob Burke, Oklahoma Heritage Association, Oklahoma City, 1998, $20.

On the morning of August 16, 1935, I was 12 years old, living in western Oklahoma. I remember that time seemed to stand still when the news reached Oklahoma that Wiley Post, arguably the world's best aviator, and Will Rogers, internationally renowned humorist and philosopher, had been killed in an airplane crash in Alaska. Perhaps the phrase "stunned silence" best describes the reactions of Oklahomans that tragic morning. In Oklahoma to Eternity, Oklahoma attorney and author Bob Burke recounts not only the well-known story of Post's record-breaking flights but also fascinating details of his boyhood, early manhood and marriage. Burke, who has published 15 books on Oklahoma history and personalities, has produced what should become the definitive Wiley Post biography.

Wiley Post was born on November 22, 1898, near Grand Saline, Texas. The Post family, farmers by trade, moved several times during Wiley's boyhood, finally settling near Maysville, in Garvin County, Okla. Wiley quit school at age 11. He was fascinated with machines and became an excellent mechanic. Although he had occasionally seen airplanes fly overhead, it was not until 1913, at the Lawton County Fair, that he saw a plane close up for the first time. His interest in aviation never flagged after that.

Post's first job away from home was as a driver and grader, building the Army airfield at Ft. Sill, Okla. He joined the U.S. Army hoping to become a pilot, but he was training to be a radio operator when the war ended. In 1919 he was working as a roughneck in the oil field near Walters, Okla., when he finally got his first airplane ride–with a barnstormer. Jobs were hard to find at that time, and Post turned to crime. He stole a car, was caught and got sentenced to 10 years in the Granite Reformatory, from which he was paroled after only 13 months. He was finally pardoned in December 1934.

In 1926 Post joined the Burrell Tibbs Flying Circus as a parachute jumper and was taught to fly by one of the circus pilots. He made good money for the time, getting $100 to $200 per jump for the 99 parachute jumps he made. In 1926 he returned to the oil fields, where he was injured the first day on the job, losing the sight in his left eye.

Using the $1,800 awarded him by the Oklahoma Industrial Court, Post bought his first plane, a Canuck, the Canadian version of the Curtiss Jenny. With this plane he barnstormed across Oklahoma and north Texas. In Sweetwater, Texas, he met and fell in love with 17-year-old Mae Laine. In June, 28-year-old Wiley and his girlfriend eloped in his $240-plane. After a forced landing in Oklahoma, they were married by a parson. They barnstormed in Oklahoma and Texas for the next two years, during which time Wiley Post got his first pilot's certificate, with a waiver for his blind eye.

F.C. Hall, of Chickasha, Okla., then hired Wiley to pilot his Travel Air biplane. Soon tiring of the open cockpit, Hall purchased a Lockheed Vega, the Learjet of its day. The plane was named Winnie Mae, after Hall's daughter. The Great Depression ended Post's job with Hall, who sold Winnie Mae back to Lockheed.

When Post delivered the plane to Lockheed, he was hired as a test pilot. In 1930 Hall purchased a later model Vega, also named Winnie Mae–a seven-passenger plane with a 420-hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine that would set many world records. The first of these was a transcontinental race planned by Australian navigator Harold Gatty. Impressed by Gatty's knowledge, Post proposed that they fly Winnie Mae around the world.

On June 23, 1931, Post and Gatty left Roosevelt Field, N.Y., on their round-the-world attempt. Their flight took them to Newfoundland, England, Germany, Russia, Alaska, Canada and back to New York. All went well until a landing on a muddy field at Solomon Beach, Alaska, where the plane nosed up, bending the propeller. After hammering it back into shape, Post flew to Fairbanks, where a new propeller was installed. More trouble occurred at Edmonton, Canada, where he was forced to take off from a street because the field was muddy. They finally returned to New York on July 1, 1931, having flown more than 15,000 miles in 8 days, 15 hours, 51 minutes. After a ticker tape parade in New York City, Post made many appearances, beginning in Chickasha, Okla. When he appeared in Claremore, he met Will Rogers for the first time.

In February 1935, Rogers financed the purchase of a hybrid plane built from two wrecks. The fuselage was from a Lockheed Orion, the long wing from a Lockheed Explorer. Rogers called the plane Aurora Borealis, but others called it "Wiley's Orphan" or "Wiley's Bastard." When the pontoons he had ordered did not arrive, he had a set installed that were designed for a much larger plane. After several leisurely hunting and fishing stops in Alaska, Post and Rogers took off for Point Barrow. Becoming lost in bad weather, they landed in a lagoon a few miles from Point Barrow to ask directions. The engine quit when they tried to take off again, and the nose-heavy plane plunged to the earth, killing both men instantly.

Wiley Post continued to be honored after his death. In 1936 the Gold Medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale was awarded him posthumously. He and Rogers were also honored by having the two Oklahoma City airports named for them. The U.S. Congress awarded Post the Distinguished Flying Cross. Monuments were dedicated to them at Point Barrow and in Oklahoma City. Wiley Post postage stamps were issued in 1979. In 1938, after his round-the-world flight, Howard Hughes said: "Wiley Post's flight remains the most remarkable flight in history. It can never be duplicated. He did it alone…."

Calvin G. Bass

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