Friday, November 21, 2014

Around the World in 8 Days with Winnie

Winnie Mae on display after the first round-the-world flight, but
before the second, sometime between June 1931 and July 1933. 
Note: After this article was posted on Nov. 8, the archive acquired the image on the left, which was taken earlier than the other two, so I'm reposting this update to include the new photo.

There are a few planes from Aviation's Golden Age that are undisputed all-stars, and Winnie Mae is certainly in that category. Because of the fame which its pilot, Wiley Post, brought the Lockheed Vega, much has been written about her, and so besides these previously unpublished photos, there isn't much new that I can contribute through my words here; besides the summary and bits of trivia below, if you want to know the detailed history, check the links at the bottom of this post.

Wiley Post set a number of records in Winnie Mae, a Lockheed Vega 5C (some sources refer to it as a 5B), registration NR105W. On August 27, 1930 he flew non-stop from Los Angeles to Chicago to win the National Air Race Derby. In June 1931, he and navigator Harold Gatty flew the plane around the world in eight days. After that, Post became interested in pioneering new aviation technologies, including the autopilot. He modified Winnie May with one and in July 1933, he again flew around the world, this time solo, and beating his previous time by 21 hours. Post next turned his attention to high-altitude flying, and Winnie Mae became a flight testbed, modified the plane with jettisonable landing gear and wearing a pressure suit that he also developed with BF Goodrich (which ultimately let to the suits worn decades later by the X-15 pilots) he explored flight in the stratosphere, discovering the jet stream and reaching between 50,000 and 55,000 feet (the onboard instrumentation failed, which prevented the flight from being registered as an official world record). This led to a jet stream-boosted high-altitude record-setting flight from LA to Cleveland on March 15, 1935. Shortly thereafter, Post, along with Will Rogers, was killed in the crash of his hybrid Lockheed Orion/Sirius in Alaska.

This photo (and detail below) was taken sometime between the
second world flight in 1933 and the high-altitude LA-Cleveland
flight in 1935, based on the records noted on the side of the plane.
Beyond the basics of Winnie Mae's history, there are a few seldom-mentioned tidbits of the story that I'd like to highlight. When people hear the name "Winnie Mae", they typically think of this plane, NC/NR105W, which has survived and is currently ensrined at the National Air & Space Museum (previously displayed at the Hazy center, she has recently been moved to the Mall facility). However, this is actually the second of three Lockheed Vegas to bear the name, all owned by Oklahoma oil tycoon Florence C. Hall; Hall had a penchant for naming his planes after his daughter, Winnie Mae Fain. Wiley Post had come up working the Oklahoma oil fields as a roughneck, and then took to flying, performing as a parachutist with the barnstorming act Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers. In 1928, after having lost one eye in an oilfield accident, he hired on with F. C. Hall as his personal pilot, flying the latest in aviation technology, the Jack Northrop-designed Lockheed Vega.

The first Winnie Mae, Vega Model 5 NC7954, fell victim to the Great Depression, and Hall had to sell it back to Lockheed in May 1929 (with no plane to fly for Hall, Post went to work flying for Lockheed as a test pilot for a short time). Hall's finances weren't troubled for long, though, and in June he picked up NC105W and sponsored Post's entry with it in the 1930 Derby. In a bit of irony, when Post and Winnie Mae #2 won the race, the plane they beat was the original Winnie Mae, flown by Art Goebel (there will be more on Art and WM #1 in an upcoming blog post).

The third WM was Vega 5B NC905Y, also painted white with blue trim, which Hall bought from Ben Wofford in late 1931, after Post and Gatty's around-the-world-in-eight-days record flight. Hall subsequently sold it to the Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles in 1932. It eventually made its way to Mexico, was involved in a number of crashes, the last in 1945 rendered it beyond repair.

At some point (probably about the time Hall bought Winnie Mae #3 after the first world flight), Hall sold NR105W to Post, and in 1936, after Post's demise, the Smithsonian bought the plane from his widow. It has been restored to the configuration it was in during the high-altitude research period, including a small cabin window on the right side, which isn't present in the above photo.

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