THE AVIATORS AND THEIR AEROPLANE. Harold Gatty (right) was the navigator and the late Wiley Post (left) the pilot of the Winnie Mae, a monoplane belonging to F. C. Hall, the sponsor of the flight.
ONE of the most outstanding flights of recent years was that of the Winnie Mae, the small monoplane in which the late Wiley Post and Harold Gatty flew round the world in eight days sixteen hours. Having left New York on June 23, 1931, they flew by way of Harbour Grace (Newfoundland), Chester, Berlin, Moscow, Siberia, Fairbanks (Alaska) and Edmonton (Alberta), and they landed again at New York on July 2. The crossing of the North Atlantic, in itself a considerable feat at the time, was no more than one stage in a great flight, much of which was over unexplored country where a forced landing would have been fatal.
Wiley Post was, in 1930, the personal pilot of F. C. Hall, who had considerable oil interests in the United States. Post had an agreement with his employer that he should be free to make special flights in the interests of aviation. His daily work, in his own words, consisted of “flying from one bad landing field surrounded by oil derricks to another”. When the general business depression in 1929-30 affected the oil interests seriously, Post decided to set about something more interesting than was offered by the prospect of several months of comparative idleness.
At the time the public needed more definite proof of the reliability of the aeroplane in all conditions of flying; but there were few routes left to conquer. Alcock and Brown, Lindbergh and others had flown the Atlantic; the coasts of the United States had been brought within a few hours of each other.
The German airship Graf Zeppelin was the source of Post’s inspiration. She had just flown round the world in twenty-one days seven hours, and the airship was beginning to overshadow the aeroplane in the public mind from the point of view of safety. Wiley Post believed that a good combination of aeroplane, pilot and navigator could improve on the exploits of the Graf Zeppelin. He obtained the backing of his employer, who allowed his private aeroplane to be used.
This machine was a Lockheed Vega with a Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine. Post’s assets were his own personal savings, seven years’ valuable training in flying, and a friendship with Harold Gatty, a navigator who could chart a course that could be followed almost without a map. Gatty was a Tasmanian who ran a navigation school at Los Angeles.
Gatty’s knowledge of flying conditions, landing fields and geographical and meteorological conditions in Siberia and Alaska made his cooperation particularly valuable.
The pilot and navigator charted their way and entered on the long stage of preparation for the flight. The Winnie Mae, named after F. C. Hall’s daughter, was taken to the Lockheed factory in Los Angeles for a thorough overhaul and to have her tanks altered to make her suitable for the completely new conditions in which she was to work. The aeroplane was a standard model capable of carrying six people, and had an overall length of 27 ft 7½-in, with a wing span of 41 feet. She was a high-wing cantilever monoplane.
The new loading plan for the aircraft was a matter of vital importance, as the load was to vary: the weight of the fuel would be constantly changing between landings and refuellings. The personal belongings and permanent equipment, on the other hand, would remain constant.
If this constant load were carried in the nose and balanced out with the fuel load on the other side of the centre of gravity, the aircraft would become “nose heavy” as the fuel was used up. Similarly, were the tail weighted with the constant load, the aeroplane would tend to become “tail heavy” as the fuel load diminished.
Finally, the load was so disposed that the aeroplane, whether it was light or heavily laden with fuel, would fly on an even keel. The tanks were mounted near the centre of gravity; Gatty was given somewhat restricted quarters behind them, Post’s position was in the nose. Gatty had some two feet of leeway in which he had to move, according to whether Post was trying to hold the tail up or get it down. Scrupulous care was given to the cockpit equipment, blind-flying instruments being installed - a bank-and-turn indicator, a rate-of-climb meter and an artificial horizon.
After months of patient preparation and days of impatient waiting for favourable weather conditions, the Winnie Mae took off from the Roosevelt Field, New York, at 4.55 a.m., New York summer time (8.55 a.m., G.M.T.), on June 23, 1931, her course set for Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.
Flying Blind Over the Atlantic
Post and Gatty took six hours forty-seven minutes to make the flight from New York. The Press photographers who met them had taken five and a half days to do the same journey.
Post was amazed at the seriousness with which the Newfoundlanders regarded transatlantic flights. To them they were not just “stunts”; they were the forerunners of a great air service to Europe which would ultimately develop fresh possibilities for their community.
Having paused only for refuelling and food, Post and Gatty took off again at 3.25 p.m., New York time (7.25 p.m., G.M.T.), for the most exciting stage of the flight. Even including the stop of three hours and forty-three minutes, they had averaged more than 100 miles an hour. With a favourable wind, they were now cruising at 170 miles an hour, their nose headed across the wide Atlantic. Before long the Winnie Mae was flying at 500 feet through hazy, damp air and low-lying clouds. Post pulled up to 1,800 feet in search of a possible ceiling, but then everything disappeared completely.
After about an hour of this, Gatty managed to shoot the setting sun with his sextant and found that they were right on their course. Still making 170 miles an hour, they went on through the night. Later, Post climbed to 9,000 feet and the fliers caught up with the sun before it set behind them. Another sight was obtained, but the weather ahead looked threatening, and Gatty began to plot a course on dead reckoning, to forestall trouble.
The rest of the transatlantic flight was uneventful - if any transatlantic flight can be classified under such a heading. From midnight (G.M.T.) until 2 or 3 a.m. they were flying blind. By 4.25 a.m. it was light, and the fliers found themselves above a thick stratum of rain clouds. By 6.25 they had run into the rain clouds and they plodded on through the greyness until nearly 11 a.m. Twenty minutes later came the first great thrill of the flight; Post saw a “hole” in the cloud, and made a diving turn into a region of blinding whiteness. There, 1,500 feet below them, was a rugged coastline. In less than twenty minutes they sighted an airport.
A FLIGHT ROUND THE WORLD in an official time of 8 days, 15 hours 51 minutes was the remarkable achievement of Wiley Host and Harold Gatty in the Winnie Mae. They left the Roosevelt Field, New York, at 4.55 a.m., local summer time (8.55 a.m.. G.M.T.), On June 23, 1931. Less than seven hours later they were at Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. At 3.25 the same afternoon (7.25, G.M.T.) They set out on the hazardous flight across the Atlantic. At 11.42 a.m., G.M.T., they landed at the R.A.F. Aerodrome at Sealand. near Chester. At 7.30 p.m. they had landed in Berlin. The flight across Russia and Asia was one of the most dangerous stretches of the journey. From Moscow to Novo Sibirsk and Irkutsk the fliers pressed on, thence to Khabarovsk and across the Bering Sea to Alaska. At Nome they were once more upon American soil but they still had the North American continent to cross. They landed at New York at 8.47 p.m., local summer time, on July 1 (00.47, G.M.T., July 2). The official time for the whole flight differed by only a minute from that disclosed by the entries in the fliers’ log - 8 days 15 hours 52 minutes.
Post took one glance at the wind indicator, glided off leeward and turned in for a landing. As they landed, officers of the British Royal Air Force greeted the fliers, who found, after they had recovered from “engine deafness”, that they were in England, at Sealand Aerodrome, near Chester.
The R.A.F. officers had received a message from Bangor, North Wales, that the aeroplane had been heard passing over the town, and they were not therefore surprised to see the Winnie Mae. It was 11.42 a.m., G.M.T., when the aeroplane landed, and the fliers were entertained by the British officers, who also helped them to get away quickly and refuelled the aeroplane sufficiently for a non-stop flight to Berlin.
At 1 p.m. the Winnie Mae took off once more. Post climbed to the ceiling and passed over Norfolk. He left the English coastline behind him an hour and twenty minutes after having left Sealand Aerodrome. They flew across the North Sea, and landed at Hanover. In forty-five minutes they were bound for Berlin, and at 7.30 p.m., G.M.T., they landed at the Tempelhof Aerodrome.
At 6.35 a.m. on the next day they set out for their next “hop” - a flight of 994 miles to Moscow. Weather conditions were reported to be almost ideal. Post climbed to 2,000 feet, set his course on instructions from Gatty and sat back, flying the aeroplane on stabilizer and rudder alone. By 7.10 a.m., G.M.T., the Winnie Mae was encountering masses of overhanging cloud, and Post had to drop to 1,000 feet to clear them. The fliers crossed the German-Polish frontier, flew across the Vistula River, and then rapidly crossed East Prussia. At 11.24 a.m., G.M.T., they crossed the boundary of the U.S.S.R., with 375 miles between them and Moscow.
Then came a driving rainstorm which reduced visibility to a few yards and sent clouds of steam off the hot exhaust pipes. Once more Gatty’s resource as navigator came to the rescue. He used the old trick of urging Post to keep to the left of the true course, so that, when visibility improved or when the goal was being approached, it would be certain that they would have to turn towards the right. By keeping all the errors on one side it is obvious that the goal must be on the other side.
Hazardous Flight Across Russia
After various deviations from the course to pick up certain landmarks, Moscow appeared on the horizon. The fliers landed on the commercial air field at 2.40 p.m., G.M.T., left the Winnie Mae to be refuelled, and were escorted to the city as guests of the Ossoaviakhim (Society for Aviation and Chemical Defence).
Three days earlier the fliers had left New York: now they were nearly halfway round the world and well ahead of schedule.
The next stage of the flight began the really hazardous part of the journey. The Ossoaviakhim had provided Gatty with an excellent set of maps, and he was looking forward to an interesting voyage. At this point, however, a misunderstanding caused some delay. The Winnie Mae had been refuelled, but the Russians had used the wrong unit of measurement - Imperial gallons instead of U.S. gallons. The U.S. gallon is 231 cubic inches and the Imperial gallon 277 cubic inches. The difference had made the Winnie Mae’s load so heavy that Wiley Post doubted whether he could take off from the Moscow runway.
A siphon arrangement was started up, and the tanks were “bled”. Finally, just after 2 a.m. (4.30 a.m. local time) on June 26, the Winnie Mae taxied off across the Moscow field and headed for Novo Sibirsk, Siberia. The run should be possible in daylight. The next few hours were uneventful, but at 6.03 a.m. the fliers crossed Sarapul, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. These mountains, against which the fliers had been warned, gave them no anxiety whatever, and they crossed them with ample clearance, the altimeter reading 4,500 feet. They dropped down over the eastern slopes and passed Chelyabinsk, an important railway junction on the line from Moscow to Siberia. Having followed the Trans-Siberian Railway for about three hours, the fliers finally set their course for Omsk, an important town on the route to Novo Sibirsk.
At 11 a.m. they sighted Omsk, and the mileage from Moscow worked out at 1,588, giving an average speed of 176 miles an hour. By 1.32 p.m. they were at Novo Sibirsk - an hour and a half before their scheduled time. And they had to wait for that hour and a half before the Ossoaviakhim officials arrived with a car, in which they were given a rough ride over four miles of highway.
The time was now 3 p.m., G.M.T., and 8 p.m., local time. Thus a good night’s sleep fitted in admirably with the schedule. Although conditions were somewhat primitive, a good meal and a night in a bed were possible, and Post and Gatty were up early next morning, ready to resume their adventurous journey. They took off at 9.45 p.m., G.M.T. (2.45 a.m., local time), the Winnie Mae having been refuelled. Their immediate business was to find a course for 2,300 miles through strange country.
Once more the Trans-Siberian Railway line was useful to them. Weather reports were scarce, the country was mountainous, and forced landings were even more undesirable than they had been during the earlier part of the flight over Siberia. The country was rugged and thickly wooded, but various landmarks were recognizable.
Soon the fliers had to climb to 9,000 feet to avoid rain clouds, but even at that altitude they began to encounter clouds. Post therefore dived to 1,500 feet and resigned himself to flying blind for another period. Before long, however, he discovered the fog thinning at 500 feet, and sighted the town of Krasnoyarsk. Another violent rainstorm was encountered just beyond this point, but Post decided that it would be quite easy to follow the railway line to Irkutsk, and Gatty managed to snatch a short period of sleep, until he was awakened to perform his task of moving back to “hold the tail down” while Post landed. They landed at Irkutsk at 3.50 a.m., G.M.T., six hours five minutes after having left Novo Sibirsk.
A Mudhole in Siberia
A large crowd greeted the fliers at the airport, but they had great difficulty in finding English-speaking Russians. Eventually, however, a girl of sixteen saved the situation and held them spellbound with an extraordinary mixture of pidgin English and Cockney. She served as interpreter, and fuel and oil were soon forthcoming. After a stay of slightly more than two hours, the Winnie Mae was off again at 6.9 a.m., G.M.T. This time corresponded to 2.9 p.m., Irkutsk daylight time, and 2.9 a.m., New York time: the fliers were just halfway round the world.
The next objective was Blagoveshchensk, and the Winnie Mae went directly across Lake Baikal, a beautiful expanse of water which took nearly an hour to cross. Before long, however, the fliers had to cross the Yablonoi Mountains, near the frontier of Manchukuo. Over that country they flew for 270 miles without seeing a sign of habitation of any kind, until, having crossed the Amur River, they sighted the aerodrome at Blagoveshchensk, resembling an expanse of sea more than a landing field. This, too, was a night landing, but the lights merely gave the outline of a rectangle and shone on a sheet of water.
Post made for a dry “hump” and missed it by some ten feet. Spray flew all round; mud clogged the wheel-spats. They had landed at some eighty miles an hour, but as soon as the Winnie Mae slowed down, the left wheel sank deep in the mud. The ten-days’ schedule seemed doomed to end in a mudhole in Siberia.
CHECKING THE AEROPLANE OVER at the Roosevelt Field, New York, before the start of the flight round the world. The Winnie Mae was a Lockheed Vega with a Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine. She was a high-wing cantilever monoplane with an overall length of 27 ft 7½-in and a wing span of 41 feet. Special care had to be taken with the loading of the machine, as the weight of the fuel was constantly changing between landings and refuellings.
Frantic attempts were made to prevent the aircraft from “settling” farther in the mud, but a car merely threw up a murky fountain while its wheels span helplessly and the Winnie Mae under her own power merely dug herself more deeply into the slimy ooze.
One of the airport officials suggested sleep as an immediate way out of the situation, and promised the services of a tractor and a gang of men the next morning. Hospitality and assistance were offered by two employees of the Danish telegraph company which owned a line through Siberia to the East. A few more hours of precious sleep were snatched by Post and Gatty, in spite of their premonitions that the flight was doomed to failure, and in the early hours of the next morning the tractor was still expected. The landing ground was draining quickly, but it was five hours before two horses were able to move the aeroplane, the tractor still not having appeared.
Twelve hours and twenty-one minutes after the disastrous landing, the Winnie Mae took off once more, refuelled, and ready for the flight to Khabarovsk, which was the “jumping-off ground” for Alaska. The distance was only 363 miles, and no entries were made in the log save the bare details of times. The Winnie Mae touched down at Khabarovsk at 3.56 a.m., G.M.T., some sixteen hours’ flying time from Novo Sibirsk, but more than thirty hours in total time.
Post and Gatty now felt that the American continent was almost in sight. The aircraft was in splendid condition, although it had received little or no attention. Post had doubts, however, about the qualities of some of the lubricating oil he had been forced to use, and changed his set of plugs. Weather reports seemed favourable for the next stage of the journey, and the tanks were filled up once again without loss of time, so that the first favourable moment could be seized. After an interval of five hours the fliers were off again, holding the aeroplane down to 75 feet over the water to minimize the effect of a head wind. They found they could average a ground speed of 140 miles an hour in these conditions, and Post decided to keep flying north and to head straight for Solomon, Alaska.
The next and only chance of refuelling on this part of the flight was at Kamchatka, but an analysis of the first four hours’ run indicated that they should be able to reach Alaska in less than eighteen hours, and they kept ahead with that end in view.
Still flying low, Post encountered bad weather and was forced down to within a few feet of the sea. Normally, flight over water is smoother than over land, but apparently the water north of Japan did not behave in accordance with the rules. Post therefore decided to climb and fly blind. He pulled up to 1,500 feet and levelled off at that altitude.
A little more than an hour later, the fliers ran into the heaviest rain they had ever experienced. They climbed to 6,000 feet and flew at that height between two layers of cloud, and came down later to try to pick up landmarks, as they should be over Kamchatka. Land was sighted when they were at 3,000 feet, and much of it was of a mountainous nature. Several peaks rose to a height of 4,000 feet or more, although the Russian maps did not show them. The aeroplane was taken over a snow-covered range into brilliant sunlight. Gatty took a bearing, and a new course was set for Alaska, heading off across the Bering Sea for St. Lawrence Island.
Soon after this the Winnie Mae cheated the calendar of a day by crossing the International Date Line, passing from 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 30, into 11 a.m. on Monday, June 29. Fog and rain continued for the next three hours, but St. Lawrence Island was sighted - the first glimpse of land belonging to the United States which the fliers had had since they had left the coast of Maine a week before.
ON THE FLOODED LANDING FIELD at Edmonton, Alberta, the Winnie Mae landed after the 1,300-miles trip from Fairbanks, Alaska. To ensure a good take-off for the last lap of their flight, Post and Gatty had the aeroplane towed into a main road, from which the machine successfully took off. On their way to New York they made a brief stop at Cleveland, Ohio.
They flew on over Nome and landed at Solomon for refuelling. Here more bad luck overtook them. As they were taking off, the Winnie Mae began to sink into the sand. Post opened the throttle to pull through it, but succeeded only in raising the tail. The propeller cut into the sand and bent both blades. Post managed to effect a temporary repair with a hammer and a round stone, but as Gatty was swinging the propeller for a restart the engine backfired and the propeller gave him a violent blow on the shoulder which knocked him out. The damage was not serious, however, and he quickly recovered and climbed into the cockpit. The Winnie Mae took off without a third mishap. At 7.26 a.m. on June 30 she landed at Fairbanks, Alaska, and was left in charge of the mechanics of Alaskan Airways, who, luckily, had a new propeller of the right size.
As Post remarked, the two-days’ flight to New York might have seemed a great adventure a year or two before, but at the end of what he and Gatty had been through it seemed like a short training flight. After six hours’ rest at Fairbanks, the fliers, now within reach of their goal, were off again.
From Fairbanks onwards, however, they felt the strain of the preceding days, and the 1,300-miles trip to Edmonton, Alberta, seemed to be the longest part of the trip.
An hour and fifty minutes out from Fairbanks the fliers crossed the Yukon River near its source and flew down the colourful shelf of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. More rain was encountered, however, and the next stage of the flight was nerve-racking for pilot and navigator, neither of whom could, at that stage, raise any enthusiasm for the record which they were almost bound to set up when they reached New York.
Once again they had to land on a sea of mud at Edmonton, but Post half taxied, half flew across to the hangar, where a huge crowd was waiting to greet the Winnie Mae. Post and Gatty were apprehensive about the possibility of taking off from the flooded field in the morning, but the Canadians came to the rescue and suggested that the aeroplane should take off on one of the main roads that ran straight for about two miles. They even set emergency crews to work taking down the electric-light wires bordering the street. Post and Gatty, no longer fearful of the morning, turned in early and had a good night’s sleep.
Early next morning the whole town had assembled to see the departure of the Winnie Mae. At 3.37 a.m., local time (10.37 a.m., G.M.T.) they took off, the aeroplane hurtling down the main street towards the centre of the town and gradually rising above the level of the surrounding roofs.
In a few minutes the Winnie Mae had caught up with the rain, but the wind was on its tail. Alberta and Saskatchewan were crossed in rain, but it cleared as the fliers started across Manitoba for the Great Lakes.
The last lap of the flight took them over Michigan, Pontiac and Detroit, and Post opened up so that it might be possible for them to reach New York in daylight.
EXTRACT FROM THE LOG BOOK kept by Harold Gatty, navigator of the Winnie Mae on the flight round the world in eight days. In the original log book, on the page opposite to that reproduced, were entered the times and positions. The page reproduced shows the “remarks” entered on the flight from Edmonton to New York. The times are G.M.T., on the 24-hour system, and they cover the period from 10.37, July 1, to 00.47, July 2, 1931, when the Winnie Mae landed triumphantly at Roosevelt Field, New York.
A brief landing at Cleveland, Ohio, for a new load of fuel, did not cause unnecessary delay, and the biggest thrill of the fliers’ lives came when they sighted the familiar skyline of New York from the west - for which they had encircled the world. Post said: “The air was filled with ’planes, and I wanted to get down before we spoiled the whole trip by running into one of them.”
These aeroplanes were filled with photographers, and Gatty suggested “Make a turn and give them a chance; I would rather let them have it up here than be made to walk the plank afterwards.” But he did not know how hard it was to satisfy photographers. He and Post finally landed on the Roosevelt Field at 8.47 p.m., local summer time on July 1 (00.47, G.M.T., July 2). Their official time was announced as 8 days 15 hours 51 minutes.
The flight had been a tremendous and triumphant success, and had proved that the right combination of aircraft, pilot and navigator could reduce Jules Verne’s famous Eighty Days to little more than one-tenth.