Don Lee: The one-eyed pilot who flew around the world

Published 1:50 am Sunday, August 23, 2020

I don’t want us to forget Wiley Post.

He was one of the great pilots in the 1930s. He broke many records.

He also found the jetstreams, but no one would believe him. He was on track to use them to establish a non-stop mail route from Los Angeles to Chicago, but had mechanical trouble on his first attempt and then he took some time off to take Will Rogers on a trip to Alaska.

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Their flight proved that flying is not forgiving when some rules are broken.

The pair were flying in a pontoon plane that Post had put together from two different planes. It was very nose heavy and if the engine shut down, the pilot becomes a passenger, there is nothing he could do. The well-designed planes we fly nowadays can usually be controlled into a survivable crash, if they are in one piece, you don’t lose your cool.

To describe the situation that lead to their deaths, they landed on the water in a lagoon near Point Barrow, Alaska to ask directions. There was no GPS in those days. They found some people and got directions that pointed them toward the town. When they took off, they lost power in the engine and plunged into the water and perished.

There were two well-known people to die. I am an old guy and remember Will Rogers. Every day in our local paper, one of his pithy quotations would be printed right on the front page. Although this quotation was not in my remembrances from the paper, it seems to fit me pretty well.

Will Rogers said, “My wife raised three children, two by birth and one by marriage.”

Now a little more about that amazing pilot, Wiley Post. He only had one eye, he lost one when he was working as a “roughneck” in the Oklahoma oil fields.

If he tried to get a license nowadays, he would have to jump through many hoops, if he could get one at all.

When he was 23, he tried to supplement his income by armed robbery, which caused him to live at the state’s expense for a year in a reformatory. He never mentioned it on his own.

He flew a Lockheed Vega for most of his records. The plane was bought by a wealthy oilman named F. C. Hall.

The first record with it was a race from Los Angeles to Chicago in 9 hours, 8 minutes, 2 seconds. He also flew the Winnie Mae, which was named after Hall’s daughter, around the world in 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes. This beat Graf Zeppelin, the dirigible, which did it in 21 days in 1929.

You can see the Winnie Mae in the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington, DC.

He was awarded many honors, there is a monument near Point Barrow where he crashed.

He received the Distinguish Flying Cross in 1932. There were two airmail stamps issued by the postal service honoring him.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at