On August 15, 1935, famous aviator Wiley Post and popular humorist Will Rogers were flying together in a Lockheed hybrid airplane when they crashed just 15 miles outside of Point Barrow, Alaska. The engine had stalled just after take-off, causing the plane to nose-dive and crash into a lagoon. Both Post and Rogers died instantly. The death of these two great men, who had brought hope and lightheartedness during the dark days of the Great Depression, was a shocking loss to the nation.
Who Was Wiley Post?
Wiley Post and Will Rogers were two men from Oklahoma (well, Post had been born in Texas but then moved to Oklahoma as a young boy), who broke free from their ordinary backgrounds and became beloved figures of their time.
Wiley Post was a moody, determined man who had started life out on a farm but dreamed of flying. After a brief stint in the army and then in jail, Post spent his free time as a parachutist for a flying circus. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the flying circus that cost him his left eye; instead, it was an accident at his day job—working at an oil field. The financial settlement from this accident allowed Post to buy his first aircraft.
Despite missing an eye, Wiley Post became an exceptional pilot. In 1931, Post and his navigator, Harold Gatty, flew Post's trusty Winnie Mae around the world in just under nine days—breaking the previous record by nearly two weeks. This feat made Wiley Post famous around the world. In 1933, Post flew around the world again. This time not only did he do it solo, he also broke his own record.
Following these amazing journeys, Wiley Post decided to take to the skies—high in the sky. Post flew at high altitudes, pioneering the world’s first pressure suit to do so (Post’s suit eventually became the basis for spacesuits).
Who Was Will Rogers?
Will Rogers was generally a more grounded, genial fellow. Rogers received his down-to-earth beginnings on his family ranch. It was here that Rogers learned the skills he needed to become a trick roper. Leaving the farm to work on vaudeville and then later in movies, Rogers became a popular cowboy figure.
Rogers, however, became most famous for his writing. As a syndicated columnist for The New York Times, Rogers used folk wisdom and earthy banter to comment on the world around him.Many of Will Rogers’ witticism are remembered and quoted to this day.
The Decision to Fly to Alaska
Besides both being famous, Wiley Post and Will Rogers seemed like very different people. And yet, the two men had long been friends. Before Post became famous, he gave individuals rides here or there in his airplane. It was during one of these rides that Post met Rogers.
It was this friendship that led to their fateful flight together. Wiley Post was planning an investigative tour of Alaska and Russia to see about creating a mail/passenger route from the United States to Russia. He was originally going to take his wife, Mae, and aviatrix Faye Gillis Wells; however, at the last minute, Wells dropped out.
As a replacement, Post asked Rogers to join (and help fund) the trip. Rogers agreed and was very excited about the trip. So excited, in fact, that Post's wife decided not to join the two men on the excursion, opting to go back home to Oklahoma rather than endure the harsh camping and hunting trips the two men had planned.
The Plane Was too Heavy
Wiley Post had used his old but trusty Winnie Mae for both his round-the-world trips. However, Winnie Mae was now outdated and so Post needed a new aircraft for his Alaska-Russia venture. Struggling for funds, Post decided to piece together a plane that would suit his needs.
Starting with a fuselage from a Lockheed Orion, Post added extra-long wings from a Lockheed Explorer. He then changed out the regular engine and replaced it with a 550-horsepower Wasp engine that was 145 pounds heavier than the original. Adding an instrument panel from the Winnie Mae and a heavy Hamilton propeller, the plane was getting heavy. Then Post changed out the 160-gallon original fuel tanks and replaced them with the larger—and heavier—260-gallon tanks.
Although the plane was already getting too heavy, Post was not done with his changes. Since Alaska was still a frontier territory, there were not a lot of long stretches on which to land a regular airplane. Thus, Post wanted to add pontoons onto the plane so that they could land on rivers, lakes, and marshes.
Through his Alaskan aviator friend Joe Crosson, Post had requested to borrow a pair of Edo 5300 pontoons, to be delivered to Seattle. However, when Post and Rogers arrived in Seattle, the requested pontoons had not yet arrived.
Since Rogers was anxious to start the trip and Post anxious to avoid the Department of Commerce inspector, Post took a pair of pontoons off a Fokker tri-motor plane and, despite them being extra long, had them attached to the plane.
The plane, which officially had no name, was quite a mismatch of parts. Red with a streak of silver, the fuselage was dwarfed by the huge pontoons. The plane was clearly too nose-heavy. This fact would lead directly to the crash.
Wiley Post and Will Rogers, accompanied by supplies that included two cases of chili (one of Rogers’ favorite foods), set off for Alaska from Seattle at 9:20 am on August 6, 1935. They made a number of stops, visited friends, watched caribou, and enjoyed the scenery. Rogers also regularly typed up newspaper articles on the typewriter he brought along.
After partially refueling at Fairbanks and then fully refueling at Lake Harding on August 15, Post and Rogers were headed to the very small town of Point Barrow, 510 miles away. Rogers was intrigued. He wanted to meet an elderly man named Charlie Brower. Brower had lived for 50 years at this remote location and was often called the “King of the Arctic.” It would make a perfect interview for his column.
Rogers was never to meet Brower, however. During this flight, fog set in and, despite flying low to the ground, Post got lost. After circling the area, they spotted some Eskimos and decided to stop and ask for directions.
After landing safely in Walakpa Bay, Post and Rogers got out of the airplane and asked Clair Okpeaha, a local sealer, for directions. Discovering that they were only 15 miles away from their destination, the two men ate the dinner offered them and chatted amiably with the locals, then got back into the plane. By this time, the engine had cooled.
Everything seemed to start okay. Post taxied the plane and then lifted off. But when the plane reached about 50 feet into the air, the engine stalled. Normally, this would not necessarily be a fatal problem since planes could glide for a while and then perhaps restart. However, since this plane was so nose-heavy, the nose of the plane pointed straight down. There was no time for a restart or any other maneuver.
The plane crashed back into the lagoon nose first, making a big splash, and then tilting onto its back. A small fire started but lasted only seconds. Post was trapped under the wreckage, pinned to the engine. Rogers was thrown clear, into the water. Both died immediately upon impact.
Okpeaha witnessed the accident and then ran to Point Barrow for help.
Men from Point Barrow got on a motorized whale boat and headed to the crash scene. They were able to retrieve both bodies, noticing that Post’s watch was broken, stopped at 8:18 pm, while Rogers’ watch still worked. The plane, with a split fuselage and a broken right wing, had been completely destroyed.
When the news of the deaths of 36-year-old Wiley Post and 55-year-old Will Rogers reached the public, there was a general outcry. Flags were lowered to half-staff, an honor usually reserved for presidents and dignitaries.The Smithsonian Institution bought Wiley Post's Winnie Mae, which remains on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Near the crash site now sits two concrete monuments to remember the tragic accident that took the lives of two great men.
Sources and Further Reading
- Elshatory, Yasser M. and R. Michael Siatkowski. "Wiley Post, around the World with No Stereopsis." Survey of Ophthalmology, vol. 59, no. 3, 2014, pp. 365-372, doi:10.1016/j.survophthal.2013.08.001
- Fox Long, George. "Where’s Wiley’s wily friend when we really, really need him??? ...an Expression of Post-Departum Depression." Sound & Vision, September, 2008.
- Jenkins, Dennis R. "Mark Ridge, Wiley Post, and John Kerby." Dressing for Altitude: U.S. Aviation Pressure Suits, Wiley Post to Space Shuttle. National Aeronatics and Space Administration. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 2012.
- Rogers, Betty. "Will Rogers: His Wife's Story." Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979
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