Cloud Racers

The story of two rival pilots chasing a dream during the golden age of aviation.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 37


Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University. He has written for a wide array of publications, including Fast Company, Forbes,The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, and Wired.


Editor: Charles Homans

Designer: Gray Beltran

Producer: Megan Detrie

Cover Illustration: Chris Gall

Fact Checker: Riley Blanton

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Images: Corbis, Associated Press, Lockheed Martin, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska State Library, University of Wyoming, Wikimedia Commons, Facebook, Library of Congress

Video: Critical Past, Universal Newsreels, National Archives

A Note on Sources:

All events described and dialogue quoted in Cloud Racers are drawn from contemporaneous newspaper and magazine accounts, newsreel footage, and books. For Wiley Post’s story, these include Forgotten Eagle and Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow, both by Bryan B. Sterling and Frances S. Sterling; Around the World in Eight Days, by Wiley Post; From Oklahoma to Eternity: The Life of Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae, by Kenny Arthur Franks, Gini Moore Campbell, and Bob Burke; and Wiley Post, His Winnie Mae, and the World’s First Pressure Suit, by Bobby H. Johnson, Stanley R. Mohler, and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. For Jimmie Mattern, I relied on an unpublished autobiography he wrote toward the end of his life, which resides in the collection of the McDermott Library at the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as Around-the-World Flights: A History, by Patrick M. Stinson. In addition, thousands of newspaper column inches were devoted to the exploits of both pilots in the early 1930s, and both men published firsthand accounts of their round-the-world exploits in The New York Times.



Published in May 2014. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

July 1, 1931

By 7 p.m., the crowd milling around Roosevelt Field on Long Island had swelled to 5,000. When dusk fell an hour later, twice that many were crowding the half mile of fence edging the runway. The police had organized a cordon, complete with a small battalion of motorcycle cops. A dozen planes buzzed back and forth overhead, carrying sightseers and photographers. Every once in a while, one of them would catch the attention of the onlookers, who would burst into cheers before realizing that this was not the plane they were waiting for—that it was not the Winnie Mae.

On June 23, the one-eyed Oklahoman pilot Wiley Post and his navigator, a spindly Australian named Harold Gatty, had set out from Roosevelt Field in hopes of breaking the record for the fastest flight around the world. For eight days radio broadcasts, newsreels, and newspaper headlines heralded the Winnie Mae’s approach: “AVIATORS OVER SEA, TRYING TO GIRDLE WORLD,” “WORLD FLIERS FACING PERILS IN TODAY’S HOP,” “FLIERS’ WIVES HOPE THIS IS LAST STUNT.” As the Winnie Mae crossed continents and oceans, newspaper editorials lauded Post’s and Gatty’s pluck, and churchgoers prayed for their safe return. Schoolteachers based geography lessons on the aviators’ route as they skimmed the northern latitudes over Europe, Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon. The only people not glued to the latest developments, it seemed, were Post’s parents, busy cutting hay back on their 90-acre farm in Maysville, Oklahoma. “He didn’t have our blessing when he started out in this flying business,” his father groused to a reporter.

Now the duo were completing the 14th and final leg of their 15,474-mile journey, cruising over Ontario, Canada, at 150 miles per hour. There had been times when they thought they might not see Roosevelt Field again—rainstorms so violent that Post wondered if animals might be gathering in twos below, lightning that crackled at their wingtips, crosswinds that threatened to hurl the Winnie Mae into mountainsides, wing-icing cold, clouds so thick that the mist seeped through cracks in the plane’s canvas skin.

A few hundred feet off the runway, Colonel Charles Lindbergh was parked in a limousine. Four years earlier, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, single-handedly ushering in the era of aerial conquest and, in the process, becoming the world’s most famous celebrity. Fans had snapped up Lindbergh china, towels, paperweights, pillowcases, and Spirit of St. Louis weather vanes. A doll bearing his likeness was a big seller at Christmas. Lindbergh had transcended being a man; he had become a tchotchke. Now he looked out at the crowd eagerly awaiting his heirs, two of the many daredevils who had taken to the sky in hopes of outdoing Lucky Lindy.

By 1931, airplane pilots were claiming all sorts of aerial achievements: the first to cross the Atlantic east to west, to traverse the Pacific, to fly from Europe to Australia, to pass over the North and South Poles, to travel to Ireland from America, to zip across the U.S. nonstop from New York to California. But the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe didn’t belong to an airplane pilot at all. It belonged to Dr. Hugo Eckener, who had accomplished it two years earlier in an airship, the Graf Zeppelin, in a journey that took 21 days. The two men winging their way toward New York in a Lockheed Vega that evening hoped to beat “the balloon.”

Post and Gatty were a study in opposites. Thirty-two-year-old Post was short—barely five foot five—and thick, built like a piston, with untamable dark hair framing a moon face, a mustache, caterpillar eyebrows, and a gap between his front teeth. A farm boy with an eighth-grade education, he wore a white eye patch, the legacy of an injury he had sustained seven years earlier while working on an oilfield. He had a glass eye he would pop in for photographs, but otherwise he didn’t bother with it, especially while flying—at high altitudes it froze and gave him headaches. Gatty, by contrast, was a spit-polished wisp of a man who could emerge from the other side of a rainstorm as dapper as he’d entered it. A 28-year-old veteran of the Australian navy, he was, according to Lindbergh, “the best navigator in the country, if not the world,” so gifted that he could mark his location by studying the flight patterns of birds.

Unlike Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, who donned leather jackets and scarves while flying, Post and Gatty wore business suits, though by now theirs were rumpled and stained with oil, mud, and sweat. More than a week into their journey, they were running on little more than adrenaline, lightheaded from gas fumes and the unwavering drone of the engine. Post’s leg was sore from kicking the wooden pedals he used to steer the plane, and his one good eye was bloodshot from sleeping only 15 hours in eight days. Gatty’s shoulder was stiff and purple from a whacking dished out by the Winnie Mae’s propeller in Alaska.

From the cockpit, Post could see the Manhattan skyline. The Empire State Building, completed just two months earlier, nosed up into the clouds, the lights coming on as day retreated into evening. “We had gone all the way around the world,” Post would later recall, “for a glimpse of it from the west.”

Brooklyn, Queens, Mineola blurred into one long run-on sentence before Post’s lone bleary eye. He was coming in over the Roosevelt Field hangars when he saw the crowd massing to greet them. Planes crowded the airspace above the runway, the photographers on board snapping away. Post was anxious to land before one of them smashed into the Winnie Mae. “Make a turn and give them a chance,” Gatty shouted through the vacuum tube they used to communicate, barely audible over the engine’s rasp. “I would rather let them have it up here than be made to walk the plank afterward.”

Post marveled at his navigator’s naïveté. They had been dogged by reporters, photographers, and curiosity seekers at every step of their journey, even in remote parts of Siberia. The closer to New York, the more intense the reception they received. In Cleveland, well-wishers ripped Gatty’s jacket pocket.

Post took a wide, triumphant turn for the benefit of posterity, then, against a southeasterly wind, eased in for the final approach. The Winnie Mae dipped her left wing, and, tail down, landed in a cloud of dust against a sky streaked pink by the sunset. “It was as if messengers had come out of the skies to the earth dwellers with promise of greater victories,” The New York Times gushed, “for man has not yet come to the limit of his striving with the forces of sea and air and land.”

As Post taxied up the dirt runway, he was blinded by lights. Thirty policemen on motorcycles chugged through the dust to form a chain around the plane. Motion-picture trucks gunned their engines and sped toward the Winnie Mae. Radio announcers dragged skeins of wire; cameramen sprinted across the field. Then they came, from the far side of the field: hundreds of people, tumbling over the fence that divided the runway from the old Westbury golf course, running toward the plane.

The spectators cut through the line of motorcycle cops, scrambled up the Winnie Mae’s undercarriage, banged on the windshields, shoved, elbowed, and punched one another. Afraid the propeller might decapitate some unfortunate soul, Post cut the engine, and the blades came to a rest. His ears still ringing, Post called back to Gatty, “Well, here we are, kid.”

Unable to quell the riot, Nassau County police resorted to their billy clubs. The vice president of an airfield-services company was dragged from his car and beaten. A photographer was clubbed unconscious. In the heart of the melee was 21-year-old Mae Post, afraid for her life. She had been separated from her husband for six weeks and cried as her beloved “Weeley” jumped to the ground and swept her up into his arms. Before leaving her hotel to greet the plane that evening, she had told reporters, “I hope he never does anything like this again.”

The airmen were ushered to a waiting automobile and driven to a nearby hangar for an interview with Pathé News, which had paid them for an exclusive. “Do you feel tired?” the reporter asked.

“Oh, not very tired,” Post said. In fact, he was exhausted, his ears still ringing with the roar of the engine. It would take days to get his hearing back.

“What was the worst part of the trip?” a reporter shouted.

“This,” Gatty replied, “is the worst part.”

The men in the Winnie Mae were heroes of a sort that would vanish by the close of the decade, as aviation became normalized with the spread of commercial air travel. In 1931, however, the world was not yet thirty years removed from Kitty Hawk; the sky remained a largely untamed frontier, and long-distance flight remained a dangerous, perhaps foolhardy, endeavor. Navigational instruments were just beginning to evolve beyond the compass and sextant, and the steel fuselage was still a rarity. Planes like the Lockheed Vega were little more than canvas stretched over plywood, powered by a single 420-horsepower engine (about the power you’d get in a present-day sports car). Breakdowns were common, radios had limited range, maps were unreliable, and bad weather could be a death sentence.

But each new boundary-pushing, attention-grabbing flight had the quixotic effect of making the world feel a little smaller, a little less boundless—you could read a lot into the way newspapers described Post and Gatty’s endeavor as a race to “girdle the globe.” Every new first claimed by an aviator focused attention on how few firsts there were left to claim—and by the time the Winnie Mae touched down at Roosevelt Field, there was really only one that mattered. Even as the crowds rained ticker tape upon Post and Gatty in their car rolling through Manhattan the day after they landed, the world’s pilots were wondering who would be the first to do what Post had done, but without a Gatty seated behind him in the cockpit—who would be the first to circle the world alone.

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Wiley Post, left, and Harold Gatty ride through Manhattan on July 2, 1931, the day after completing their record-breaking round-the-world flight. (Photo: Corbis)

Part I: Getting Off the Ground

One

1923

Near Pearl Harbor, a Curtiss Jenny open-cockpit biplane descended from the sky and crash-landed in a sugarcane field. A crowd gathered; the pilot, a U.S. Army second lieutenant, was alive but still trapped in the plane, and a few good Samaritans tried to pull him from the wreckage. “There were two fellows in that plane,” someone said. “Where is the other guy? He must be tangled in the wreckage and probably dead now.”

A teenager on the edge of the crowd, a rail-thin 18-year-old boy, spoke up. “I’m the other one who was in that plane,” Jimmie Mattern said, and promptly fainted.

It figures that the first time Mattern flew, the plane crashed. Later he would become one of the greatest pilots of his generation, and equally famous for walking away from crashes that would have maimed or killed others. Once, after engine trouble forced him down in the wilds of Alaska, he lived off the land for three days until he was rescued. Another time he vanished over the Texas prairie, where he was discovered a couple of days later munching on fried chicken in a farmhouse. Then there was the time he received a telegram in Chicago inviting him to be a judge at an air race in Florida. Borrowing a plane, he started south but plowed into an Indiana cornfield. He scrounged up another plane, making it as far as Georgia before he flopped down into some sand hills. A pair of pilot pals heading in the same direction offered him a lift to Florida, where he arrived the night before the race. Then a friend invited Mattern to tag along to a party on a yacht, which broke down at sea. He didn’t get back to shore for two days and missed the judging.

Mattern was born in Freeport, Illinois, the fourth of four children of a German émigré who owned a small chain of shoe stores. His family enjoyed a modest middle-class existence until he was 15, when his father died. The shoe stores were liquidated, and his mother found herself with no means of support and barely enough money to make it through the year.

The family moved to Calgary, where Mattern was taken out of school and worked variously as a cowboy, limousine driver, window washer, and bus boy before finding his way to Seattle, where he met an Army recruiting sergeant. A hearty meal and one night in a real bed at the local armory was all the convincing Mattern needed. A few days shy of his 17th birthday, he lied about his age and enlisted.

Following boot camp, he heard about an opening in the bugle corps for a drummer and got himself transferred to Hawaii. He was passing the time near Pearl Harbor one afternoon, watching aircraft take off and land, when he met the second lieutenant, who pointed to an approaching biplane and told Mattern, “When that plane up there comes down, I am going to take it up and wring it out.”

“Can I go with you?” Mattern asked.

In those days, plane-crash survivors were rushed back to the air so they wouldn’t develop a fear of flying. That night, Mattern flew in an old bomber, up front in the plane’s transparent nose, peering down on the lights of Oahu. There and then, Mattern decided he wanted to become a pilot.

Three years later, in 1925, he was honorably discharged and given $300. After a hitch with a cruise-ship jazz band, he returned to Seattle and married his girlfriend, Delia, a pretty, curly-haired blonde from Walla Walla, Washington. But Mattern didn’t stick around long after the honeymoon. In 1926, he traveled to San Diego, where Ryan Aircraft kept its headquarters. The place was fast becoming a hotbed of aviation, where would-be pilots like Mattern flocked to learn to fly. The factory had just received an order for a plane from a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh who was preparing for a nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris.

Aviation was so young then that the 500 flying hours that Mattern’s instructor had logged made him a grizzled veteran. (Today, a flight instructor might rack up four times that many hours and a commercial pilot could log 20,000 hours in a career.) The instructor took Mattern up in a surplus Jenny and showed him the basics over Dutch Flats, a dirt airstrip near the Ryan factory. After three hours and 20 minutes, Mattern was soloing. “The biggest thrill of all is the first time you find yourself up there all alone,” he later wrote. “It’s a once in a lifetime feeling. You never had it before but you have it now.”

It wasn’t long before Mattern hopped a train to Troy, Ohio, and plunked down his savings for a Waco 10, a three-seat open-cockpit biplane similar to the Jenny. When the Waco factory representative found out how inexperienced Mattern was, he refused to let him fly it home and arranged for a pilot named Freddie Lund to chauffer him back west. “Fearless Freddie” Lund was a legendary silent-movie stunt pilot and wing walker for the renowned Gates Flying Circus, who was famous for his loop-the-loops. With Mattern as his passenger, he navigated over the Midwest and through New Mexico to California by following railroad tracks—what he called the iron compass. Lund and Mattern both stuck around Los Angeles, and Lund showed his young charge his arsenal of tricks. A couple hundred hours of practice later, Mattern officially became a pilot. His license, only the 576th ever issued by the International Aeronautical Federation, was signed by Orville Wright.

Around this time, Mattern learned that a motion picture called Lilac Time, a romance between an American aviator—played by Gary Cooper—and a French farmer’s daughter during World War I, was about to start shooting. The next day, Mattern flew to the set in Santa Ana and put on a show, auditioning with a few moves Lund had shown him. He uncorked a series of snap rolls, power dives, wingovers, loops, and barrel rolls, the power of the engine urging him on to wilder and wilder acrobatics. Mattern was offered a job on the spot.

His first scene was particularly dangerous: a power dive from 5,000 feet, descending from above the clouds down through a bomber formation of more than 50 planes, a tactic made famous by the Red Baron. His motor running full throttle, Mattern plunged through a narrow space in the formation, struggling with the controls as he battled the wash of the other planes’ propellers. He felt sick when he finally pulled out of the dive, the ground rushing toward him. But when he landed, the other pilots congratulated him; in his first on-camera flight, he had pulled off a rare one-take stunt. Mattern felt like he had aged ten years in ten minutes. Still, he knew he would like this line of work.

A few weeks later, he was hired for another film: Hell’s Angels, produced by Howard Hughes, himself an avid pilot, although Mattern was skeptical of his flying ability; the enigmatic millionaire had even fewer hours in the air than Mattern. One day, near the set, he watched Hughes climb into the cockpit of a plane that Mattern had just test-flown, a Thomas Morris Scout with a rotating engine. Less than 200 feet up, Hughes banked steeply to the right—a maneuver Mattern had specifically warned him against. The plane spun in and went into free fall. Mattern was over the runway fence as soon as Hughes hit the ground, pulling him out of the wreckage. Hughes emerged with only a gash on his forehead. An hour later he was back on the set, a bandage wrapped around his head, yelling, “On with the show!”

As much as he enjoyed the adrenaline rush, Mattern was ambivalent about courting danger. Life was cheap for stunt pilots, he knew. He couldn’t think of anyone who walked away from the job with a bankroll stuffed in his pocket and his body in one piece. One of the pilots on the set tore the wings off an old Fokker and barely got out alive—then had to do it again, because the first take had been marred by glare on the camera lens. Three pilots died during the filming of Hell’s Angels, and Mattern wondered if he would be next.

On the ground, however, life was good. Chumming up to a millionaire had its advantages. Jimmie Mattern and Howard Hughes became fast friends and often went on double dates with starlets Hughes cast in his movies. (Mattern neglected to tell Hughes about his wife back in Seattle. Then again, Hughes was married, too.) Mattern once surreptitiously borrowed a Rolls-Royce from the back lot of a movie set and drove it around Hollywood for months. “It wasn’t the most comfortable for making love,” Mattern recounted later, “but what car is?” When Hughes found out he made him return it, and “the Hollymoon,” as Mattern called it, was over.

Less than a year later, the Depression struck. Money for death-defying aerial stunts was in short supply, and Mattern, until recently one of the most in-demand pilots in show business, found himself barely able to eke out a living. He flew as a bush pilot in Alaska, carted frozen seafood over the Gulf of Mexico, worked for a rich wildcatter on the Texas oilfields, and eventually became chief pilot for Cromwell Airlines, which operated in Texas and Oklahoma. When Carl Cromwell, the airline’s oilman founder, died in a car accident in the fall of 1931, the company went belly-up and Mattern was out of a job again.

The bankruptcy had a silver lining: Mattern inherited one of the company’s planes. As luck would have it, it was a Lockheed Vega, perhaps the most iconic airplane of its time. Amelia Earhart had flown a Vega 5B across the Atlantic, and Wiley Post and Harold Gatty had used the subsequent model, the 5C, to circumnavigate the globe.

The Vega was built for speed and distance, but it was also beautiful to behold. Its outward look was influenced by the curvilinear forms and geometric motifs of art deco. The fuselage was composed of plywood sheets wrapped around a wooden skeleton and covered in canvas. The propeller sported rounded tips and the fenders were shaped like guitar picks. The paint job was tasteful and minimalist, all white except for accents in two shades of blue. In a few years, wooden planes would be obsolete. But in the early 1930s, the Vega was the epitome of technological progress. Mattern wanted to see what it was capable of.


Mattern had keenly followed Post and Gatty’s progress in 1931 as they circumnavigated the world. He dreamed of claiming his own place among the world’s highest fliers, but at the time he was too busy hopping from one Southwestern dust trap to another, ferrying packages and people, trying to make ends meet. Now, suddenly, he was free of responsibilities and in possession of a plane that was up to the task.

But smashing aviation records took money—lots of it. Mattern lost his savings along with everyone else after the 1929 stock-market crash, and he had no way to cover the fuel and maintenance costs that a major aerial expedition would entail. Until he could come up with a plan, he stashed his Vega in a hangar in Fort Worth and joined the Air Corps Reserve—not only to keep his flying skills sharp but also for the three square meals a day.

As it happened, Mattern’s roommate at the Air Corps’s Randolph Field barracks near San Antonio was Bennett H. Griffin, a former World War I flying ace. Once Mattern showed him his Lockheed Vega, the two began hatching plans. “Benny,” Mattern asked, “how would you like to be my partner in an attempt to break the around-the-world speed record?”

It took them ten minutes to agree and ten months to raise the money and overhaul the plane. They installed ice detectors, a new compass, and what were then state-of-the-art communications systems: an internal telephone connection and a tube through which they could pass notes in a small aluminum bucket. In all, it cost them $50,000—a small fortune in 1932.

Mattern and Griffin spent a week at the training center at Randolph Field in Texas learning to fly by instruments—so they could fly blind, if need be—while Mattern tried to work out the logistical challenges. The plane would need to carry 450 gallons of fuel, he figured, which would weigh more than a ton. That easily exceeded what the Vega could hold in its fuselage. Much of it would have to be stored in wing-mounted barrels, which Mattern didn’t yet have. The man who sold him a set of the tanks was none other than the man whose record he aimed to beat: Wiley Post.

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Wiley Post with the Winnie Mae. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

Two

1932

The earthbound life had never treated Wiley Post well. Born in 1898 on a farm in West Texas, he had moved with his family to Oklahoma when he was eight. Life there was precarious—Post’s father was barely able to keep the homestead afloat—and the family treated Post as an afterthought. He was short for his age, shy and unassuming, and did poorly in school, unlike his eldest brother, Jim. But he did have an independent streak and a way with a wrench. By the time he was 11, he was earning money as a door-to-door mechanic, repairing sewing machines and lubricating farm equipment, tweaking gas generators and sharpening reaper blades. At 13, he dropped out of school.

One summer day in 1913, Post convinced his father to allow him to travel with Jim to a county fair in Lawton, Oklahoma, a 50-mile journey from Maysville. They set out after dusk in the family’s horse and buggy and arrived at the fairgrounds the following morning. Post was making a beeline for the farm machinery when he spotted the oddest-looking contraption he had ever seen sitting alone in a field. He figured it must be that “aeroplane” he had been hearing about. “To this day,” he would later recall, “I have never seen a bit of machinery for land, sea, or sky that has taken my breath away as did that old pusher.” Mesmerized, he measured its height in hands, just like he had seen his father do with horses. When his brother found him that evening, he was still sitting in the rickety cockpit.

Post was a teenager when the United States entered World War I, and he joined the Students’ Army Training Corps, where he studied radio, math, and chemistry. His brothers were fighting in Europe, and Post expected to join them. He hoped the Army would train him to fly, and in his spare time he hung around the local military airport, watching the planes come and go. Just as he was set to graduate, however, the war ended, and instead of Europe, Post found himself in Walters, Oklahoma, earning $7 a day as a handyman on the oil patch. He tried his hand at drilling and wildcatting himself, but the price of oil dipped, and soon he was broke, his savings evaporated, without a job in sight.

Desperate, he resorted to armed robbery. He set up a barricade on a quiet country road, and when a car stopped he pulled a gun on the driver. A spate of similar thefts followed for months, until Post stopped the wrong car and was overpowered by four men. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in the State Reformatory in Granite, Oklahoma. There he fell into a deep depression, refusing to speak or eat. A prison doctor diagnosed him with a “melancholic” state that “was steadily growing worse.”

Post was paroled on June 5, 1922, after serving 13 months, and set about distancing himself from the criminal he had become; years later, when he was famous, he lived in fear of his fans learning of his secret past. He returned to the oil fields. But one day, on a drilling job near Holdenville, he saw a plane overhead, and the urge to fly swept over him again. He quit on the spot and headed for Wewoka, Oklahoma, where Burrell Tibbs’s Flying Circus, a troupe of stunt pilots, had decamped.

The three men in charge possessed two beaten, battered planes. The parachutist had taken three successful jumps that week but injured himself on the fourth. Post volunteered to make the next jump. The fact that he had never before been in a plane, let alone thrown himself out of one, seemed of little consequence.

The moment Post stepped onto the wing he forgot the few cursory instructions he had received that morning. When the pilot cut the throttle and shouted, “OK, get ready!” Post just stared at him. The pilot glared back. Post threw a leg over the side and inched his way to the wing’s edge. He buckled his harness to the snap rings of the parachute and dropped to his knees. The pilot turned the plane into position over the drop zone, pointed to his right, and yelled, “Let’s go!”

Post backed off the wing, then found himself swinging helplessly underneath. He hung there for several seconds before he remembered to pull the release cord. Then he was falling, the quilted expanse of central Oklahoma wheeling beneath him. He felt a sharp tug as the chute opened. Off course, he was heading for a field instead of the fairgrounds. When he finally hit, his knees buckled. He tried to run the way he had been told and fell flat on his face. By then, he already knew: the sky was where he belonged.

Within a week, Post became a regular jumper with the flying circus. But the business soon stagnated; airplanes weren’t the rarity they had once been, and fewer and fewer people were willing to pay to see them. If he wanted to live his life in the sky, Post realized, he had to become a pilot himself. To do that, he needed to buy his own plane.

On October 1, 1926, Post was working on the Seminole oil field in central Oklahoma, trying to put together the money, when a roughneck pounding a bolt with a sledgehammer launched a shard of metal in Post’s direction, striking him in the eye. Post lay in the hospital, in complete darkness, for several days. When the bandages were removed, he could make out shapes and light with his right eye but nothing with his left.

After doctors removed his eyeball, Post stayed with an uncle in southwest Texas to convalesce. As the sight in his right eye gradually returned, Post worked on depth perception. He would look at a hill or tree and estimate how far he stood from it, then step off the distance, his four-mile-per-hour gait acting as a guide. Little by little his calculations improved, until he realized he was better at judging distances with one eye than most people were with two. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma State Industrial Court awarded him $1,800 in workman’s compensation, which he spent on a used Canuck open-cockpit airplane. “I bought a plane,” Post said later, “but it cost me an eye.”


Years later, when he had obtained some measure of fame, people would remark that Post seemed more at ease around machinery than men. Machines he could fix—one look at a wheat thresher or car engine and he knew exactly how it worked or why it didn’t. With people, though, he never knew what they wanted. When he addressed a crowd, the best he could do was mumble a few platitudes and skulk away. Reporters did their best to get him to say something, anything, interesting; he rarely obliged. He flew planes and tinkered with cars. What other hobbies he had tended toward mechanical obsession, like synchronizing his collection of wristwatches.

In the clouds, however, Post was transformed. As one of his peers later put it, “He didn’t just fly an airplane; he put it on.” In the air, Post was bold, a daredevil and a speed demon; a pilot, it was said, who could land on a mountain peak. “He apparently didn’t have a nerve in his body,” a businessman who often flew with him later recalled. “When other people were scared, Wiley just grinned.” His takeoffs were a sight: From a near standing start he would shoot up vertiginously and then bank right. It was a risky move, but one born more out of pragmatism than anything else. It helped the one-eyed pilot better orient himself in the sky.

By late 1927, in spite of his natural gifts as an aviator, Post once again fell on hard times. He was living in Oklahoma City, sharing a small apartment with his 18-year-old wife, Mae, whom he’d met and married earlier that year, and barely eking out a living as a pilot. Unable to afford necessary repairs to the Canuck after a minor crash, a desperate Post approached F. C. Hall, a wealthy Oklahoman oilman he had flown for in the past, to see if he’d be interested in employing a full-time pilot.

Hall, a onetime drugstore owner, had demonstrated an almost supernatural ability to strike oil where others hit bedrock. Over a decade, he drilled 300 gushers and only two dusters. When Post made his offer, Hall didn’t need much convincing. His business depended on staying one step ahead of the other oilmen in Oklahoma, and he had recently missed out on a deal because he couldn’t get to the other side of the state fast enough. He offered Post a salary of $200 a month and bought a new airplane, a three-seat Travel Air. There was only one condition: Post had to earn his pilot’s license.

At the time, flight was just starting to become civilized, and there was talk that all pilots would be required to hold licenses. Post feared that his ocular disability would disqualify him, so instead of pursuing a license, he’d confined himself to out-of-the-way airfields where no one would check his credentials, or he’d deplane after dusk in the hopes that airport officials would have gone home by then. But Hall was able to help Post wrangle a waiver for his disability, and eight months and 700 flying hours later, Post received license number 3259 from the Aeronautics Branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Like Jimmie Mattern’s, it was signed by Orville Wright.

Post quickly proved his mettle as a pilot. One day he was flying Hall over the Texas Panhandle when the open-cockpit Travel Air got caught up in a storm; Post was able to make a smooth landing in spite of the conditions. The experience convinced Hall to invest in a new craft that would protect him from the elements. Post flew to California to pick up a Lockheed Vega—one of the first to roll out of the factory in Burbank. Hall named it Winnie Mae, after his daughter.

When the Depression hit, Hall was forced to cut his payroll and sell the Winnie Mae back to Lockheed, where the newly unemployed Post secured a job as a test pilot. The change turned out to be a blessing for Post, who itched to venture into the more glamorous precincts of aviation and had tried without success to persuade Hall to let him try his hand at air races and transcontinental speed-record-setting flights. Now he was rubbing elbows with famous aviators like Amelia Earhart, for whom he tested a used Lockheed plane. (She called it “third-hand clunk”; he called it dangerous and convinced the company to sell her a different one.)

Months later, Hall phoned to tell him that times were better and offered Post his old job back. Sweetening the deal, he told Post he could buy a new plane—“and,” Hall added, “I’ll let you make some of those flights you were figuring on last year.” Post agreed, and Hall asked him to order a new Vega and to make any improvements to it he wanted.

Post later described the day the Vega came off the assembly line as one of the greatest of his life. It was “about the last word in airplanes,” he wrote to his wife. The new Winnie Mae cost $22,000 and could seat seven, with a 420-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine. He had Lockheed set the wing at a slightly lower angle to lessen wind drag at high speeds and took four inches off the tail to prevent it from bouncing on rough landings. The design tweaks made the plane ten miles per hour faster than the factory models, and with an extra 350 gallons’ capacity in its additional fuel tanks, it could travel farther, too.

Post entered his first race in 1930, an air derby between Los Angeles and Chicago that, with a purse of $7,500, had attracted the world’s top pilots. Looking for an edge over the competition, Post sought out Harold Gatty, a navigational savant who Will Rogers once wrote could  “take a $1.00 Ingersoll watch, a Woolworth compass, and a lantern, and at twelve o’clock at night tell you just how many miles the American farmer is away from the poorhouse.” Gatty stayed up all night before the race and handed Post his charts and maps just prior to takeoff. This was Post’s first attempt at flying with navigational tools; until then he had flown strictly by feel. When Post hit Chicago on August 27, beating the second-place pilot—who, as it happened, was flying the original Winnie Mae—by 11 seconds, his victory was so unexpected that race officials didn’t even know who he was. And in Gatty he had found an accomplice for his next great venture.

Hall, who bankrolled Post and Gatty’s around-the-world expedition the following year, predicted that Post would become a rich man if he succeeded. But when they hit the promotional circuit upon their return, Post and Gatty—neither of them known for loquaciousness—had trouble drawing a crowd amid the deprivations of the Depression. The ghostwritten book Around the World in Eight Days, which detailed Post and Gatty’s historic flight, was far from a bestseller. Post and Hall, meanwhile, were arguing over Post’s insistence on using the plane for personal appearances. Post finally demanded that Hall sell it to him, and Hall drew up a bill of sale on hotel stationary. By September, Post had scraped together the agreed-upon $3,000 down payment. The Winnie Mae was his, but it had cost almost every penny he had.

Once again, he scrambled to earn a living. Flying jobs were difficult to come by; people found it hard to trust a one-eyed pilot, even one with Post’s impressive résumé. Post was famous, but not famous enough—not like Charles Lindbergh, with his movie-star looks, or Earhart, with her well-oiled publicity machine, lecture tours, and merchandizing empire that now included everything from books to a line of clothing. Post was still a country boy with rough-hewn manners and a cotton-mouthed drawl. Some newspapermen even suggested that Gatty was the brains of the operation. Meanwhile, F. C. Hall, perhaps out of spite, bought yet another Vega, which he christened The Winnie Mae of Oklahoma, and hired another pilot to undertake a round-the-world flight in it. (The plan never got off the ground.)

By the winter of 1931, Post was downright morose. Sitting on the edge of the bed in a Chicago hotel room, he told a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance, “Our flight didn’t prove a thing. No stunt flying does.” The reporter asked if Post would retire. “That’s a good one!” Post scoffed. “Lindbergh is the only guy who made enough off his flight to retire. The day of moneymaking flights is past.”

When he sold the Winnie Mae’s wing tanks to Jimmie Mattern, Post didn’t have much use for them himself. By 1932, he was so broke he couldn’t afford fuel. Between March and September of that year, he spent just 14 hours in the air. He wasn’t the only struggling airman. That year there would be just five trans-Atlantic flight attempts. When Mattern and Griffin set out on July 5 to break Post and Gatty’s record in Mattern’s own Vega, called the Century of Progress, the skies were virtually empty.


Mattern and Griffin’s journey began less than promisingly. Flying beneath a bank of fog hanging over the Atlantic, they almost plowed into an ocean liner, then got lost over Newfoundland and again outside Berlin, where a crowd of people organized themselves into an arrow pointing toward Templehof Airport. Nevertheless, they managed to break the trans-Atlantic record set earlier that year by Amelia Earhart and were well ahead of Post and Gatty’s time as they crossed into the Soviet Union from Poland.

Fifty miles from Minsk, disaster struck. The entry hatch broke loose and hurtled back into Mattern’s section of the cockpit, shredding the control panel and nearly decapitating Mattern, then flew back against the plane’s tail, clipping off the vertical fin. Mattern struggled to keep the craft level as gasoline sloshed back and forth in the tanks. With so much fuel aboard, he knew, he was piloting a flying bomb. Below, a field dotted with haystacks was visible in the moonlight. He throttled down, gently dropping the plane onto the edge of the field. Mattern was congratulating himself on a perfect landing when the wheels sank into the earth. What had looked like solid ground was, in fact, a peat bog. The plane’s nose hit the ground, propeller spinning, and the fuselage pirouetted in the air.

Mattern revved the engine and the plane flipped over on its roof. Upside down, he was trapped in his seat, straddling the red-hot motor, which seared his knees. A fuel tank had ruptured and gas was streaming down his neck. He could hear Griffin outside the wreck. “Well, Jimmie,” his copilot drawled, “what ocean is this?”

With Griffin’s help, Mattern dug his way through the earth beneath the plane, until Griffin could pull him out by his ankles. Mattern emerged covered from his face to his knees in mud and lacerated by the twisted metal and sharp rocks. Griffin looked worse; a five-gallon fuel can had left a deep gash on his forehead. Griffin screamed obscenities as Mattern poured iodine over the wound. The sun was rising, and Mattern could see that the plane was not just upside down but also broken in two.

After the engines cooled and the threat of fire passed, the two men crawled onto the upside-down wing and lay there. Before long they found themselves surrounded by a platoon of armed soldiers, who poked bayonets into their chests and shouted at them in Russian. For several hours, Mattern and Griffin remained prisoners on the wing of the wrecked plane, unable to communicate with their captors. Eventually, an officer appeared, trailed by a pack of reporters who had been waiting for the fliers at the airport in Moscow. The two Americans were placed under house arrest. Before a military tribunal in the Kremlin, they were accused of spying, questioned for a day and a half, and then suddenly freed. When they returned to the United States, an invitation awaited from President Herbert Hoover to visit the White House.

Mattern’s mother told a niece that when “your Uncle Jimmie gets back this time, we’re going to tie a ball and chain to him so he can’t ever get away again.” But Mattern was already trying to recover his plane so he could prepare for an even more daring adventure. He would try the same route again, but this time he would fly it like no pilot had flown it before—all by himself.

Part II: Lost

Three

June 3, 1933

Jimmie Mattern felt as if he had been asleep about five minutes when he heard the knock. “C’mon, Jimmie!” said the muffled voice behind the door. “This is your big day.”

The 28-year-old hadn’t even undressed from the night before. He had returned to Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel at 7 p.m., hoping to make it an early night, but a pack of reporters chased him across the lobby and all the way to his room. He tried to clear them out, but they kept pushing for one more question, the room filling with popping flashbulbs and cigarette smoke. After what happened on his last expedition, who knew if they’d get another chance at an interview? When Mattern ordered dinner from room service, a few of them cracked Last Supper jokes.

Finally, Mattern switched off the lights, but he was too jittery to sleep, tossing and turning until his sheets twirled in knots around his ankles. Just as he was dozing off, the phone rang. It was his meteorologist, Dr. James H. Kimball, who informed him that he would have clear skies for the first 1,200 miles. Then, midway across the Atlantic, the weather would turn cold and possibly overcast, and there would be storms the rest of the way to Europe. On the bright side, Kimball said there was a strong chance of westerly winds all the way across the Atlantic.

“That’s good enough for me,” Mattern said. He would fly blind through snow, rain, or molasses if it meant a steady tailwind. He telephoned the field to order his plane made ready and went back to bed while mechanics began fueling. Three and a half hours of sleep, he figured, was better than nothing. He rose and slipped his flight suit on over the same leather windbreaker and knickerbockers he wore on his flight with Griffin the year before. An hour later he arrived at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, where a completely retooled Century of Progress was waiting.

The plane had come back from the Soviet Union in two crates a year earlier, and Mattern had set out to rebuild it. An engineer at Standard Oil, Ed Aldrin, whom Mattern had befriended, offered up three spare Vegas he had in a hangar for parts. (Aldrin had a son named Buzz, whom Mattern would bounce on his knee; when the younger Aldrin traveled to the moon 36 years later, he had Mattern’s pilot’s license with him aboard Apollo 11.)

Mattern refurbished the engine and pulled the tanks from his plane while salvaging a fuselage, wings, and a tail from another that had once made a record flight to Buenos Aires. He visited Vincent Bendix, of the Bendix Corporation, and arranged to have everything on his console overhauled. Mattern lowered his landing gear and added shock cords to handle the weight of 702 gallons of fuel—enough to stay aloft for 28 hours—and aid in rough landings. He installed a controllable pitch propeller, which not only enabled him to start the engine from inside the cockpit without help but also improved fuel efficiency and speed. The final touch on the new Century of Progress was a patriotic paint job: red, white, and blue, with a menacing eagle running the length of the fuselage.

There were things that Mattern would’ve liked to have added and didn’t: a radio, deicers, an automatic pilot. His Vega was a single-engine monoplane, so if the motor—well, he didn’t want to think about it. But Mattern considered technology less important than the man behind the throttle. Sheer force of will, he believed, would make all the difference.


After the Soviets released Mattern in 1931, he wasn’t home more than a few days before his marriage unraveled. Delia was tired of being married to an absentee husband, and she was especially leery of his new venture. The way Mattern saw it, it was either his wife or his airplane. He chose the plane. Delia moved back to Walla Walla to live with her sister, though she would continue to play the dutiful wife whenever reporters came knocking.

Mattern had plenty to worry about beyond his personal life. He had to find financing for his solo round-the-world expedition, and he had to do it quickly. Rumors abounded that Wiley Post was also mulling a solo circumnavigation. Whoever could raise money first would take off first.

Mattern’s failed circumnavigation with Griffin might have been a disaster, but it granted him enough minor celebrity to open doors. Once he got people face-to-face, his natural charm took over. Even at the nadir of the Depression he was able to sell his new expedition idea to Hayden R. Mills, of the Mills Novelty Company, a manufacturer of slot machines, jukeboxes, and player pianos, and Harry B. Jameson, a partner in the Arrow Mill Co., a maker of wooden plates for storage batteries. Together they put in the lion’s share of the $50,000 Mattern needed to get off the ground.

His plan was to fly across the Atlantic and beat Lindbergh’s solo record to Paris—the technology had improved enough in the past six years that he was sure he could do it—then continue around the world to Moscow, make a few stops in Siberia, and cross the Bering Sea to Alaska and arrive home by way of Canada. Even if he didn’t break Post and Gatty’s speed record, he would still be the first to circumnavigate the world alone. And since he had heard that Post had pegged July 1 as his departure date, he hoped to beat him to the air by a month.

The reporters gathered at Bennett Airfield to see him off. “I’ll see you in about a week, I hope,” Mattern told them. Pathé News was paying Mattern to shoot exclusive photos for the agency during his flight, and as he made preparations to leave, a representative handed him a 35-millimeter box camera. In a small storage bin built in his cramped cabin, he also packed six oranges, some Japanese green tea, and two thermoses holding hot and cold water, one labeled “Happy” and the other marked “Landings”—gifts from the artist George Luks, a fan of his.

Mattern’s mechanic had warmed the engine and parked the Century of Progress at the far edge of the runway, its tail resting on the grass so that every possible inch would be available for takeoff. The plane held almost double its weight in fuel, and Mattern wanted to be sure he could clear the expressway. Glancing around the airfield, he half expected his one-eyed rival to sidle up next to him, but last he heard Post was still in Oklahoma City, struggling to retrofit his plane with finicky new technology. Mattern, who had kept the fact that he was flying solo secret until the last minute, had won this stage of the race.

He revved the engine and nodded to the mechanics, who pulled away the wheel chocks. At 5:21 a.m., the Century of Progress started down the runway. At 60 miles per hour, the wings bit into the westerly headwind and the tail came up. The plane lifted clear of the runway. Mattern pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, and the plane struggled to clear Flatbush Avenue by 30 feet. By the time he was over Jamaica Bay, he was at 1,000 feet. He banked a wide left turn and flew back over the airport, above the cheering spectators, who watched the Century of Progress disappear into the Long Island haze as the sunrise bled across the horizon.


On his way north, Mattern hugged the Eastern Seaboard, reveling in the clear weather and 15 mile-per-hour tailwind. By the time he hit Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, he was ten minutes off Post and Gatty’s pace from two years before—but since he didn’t need to refuel, he was actually a couple hours ahead. Seven hours and 49 minutes after leaving New York, Mattern’s plane was heard near Lewisporte, Newfoundland, then over Fogo Island, in Notre Dame Bay, where his engine’s roar startled several fishermen. By late afternoon, he was sighted over the tiny Wadham Islands, off the extreme northeastern coast of Newfoundland, the last scrap of land Mattern would see before the Continent.

Airfields in Europe eagerly awaited news of his whereabouts. Finally, at 8:15 a.m. the following morning, Western Union operators on Valentia, an island off the southwestern coast of Ireland, claimed to have seen the Century of Progress overhead. At 9:30 a.m., the steamship Hastings reported an eastbound plane overhead in the English Channel; another report from Ireland’s County Kerry had the plane flying in the opposite direction. But as one claimed sighting after another receded into ambiguity, the truth became harder and harder to ignore: Mattern, it seemed, was nowhere to be found.

Crowds maintained a ceaseless vigil at Le Bourget Field in Paris. As the hours ticked away, anticipation turned to fear, and fear turned to despair. The Le Bourget dispatcher reluctantly switched off the floodlights that had burned through the night. Weary newsmen at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport dragged themselves off to bed. English telephone operators made last efforts to raise remote stations.

MATTERN MISSING ON WORLD FLIGHT,” cried a June 5 New York Times headline. “Eighteen hours overdue on the first stage of his world flight, James Mattern is feared to have been lost somewhere in the Atlantic.” “MOSCOW HAS NO WORD FROM AMERICAN FLIER,” read the Boston Globe’s headline; “SILENCE SWALLOWS AMERICAN AVIATOR HEADED FOR PARIS,” declared the Spartanburg Herald Journal. Mattern’s manager, Jack Clark, ventured that his exhausted client might have landed in a remote corner of Ireland or France and fallen asleep in his plane, but when almost 48 hours had passed, even he began to fear the worst.

“I never give up hope and I won’t,” Delia Mattern told an Associated Press reporter, her “light brown eyes showing just a hint of anxiety.” Her husband had landed in rough places before. She had never understood his daring air escapades. She would ask if he was afraid and Mattern would reply, “Of course I’m not afraid. If I were I wouldn’t be going.” He didn’t seek her counsel. He did things his own way.

Four

June 3, 1933

As long as land was near, Mattern didn’t bother to mark his position on the map; he had flown the same route less than a year earlier. Now that he was over open sea, however, his compass informed him that he was several degrees off course. Sipping green tea, he realized that the thermoses might be magnetized, drawing the iron compass needles toward them. He smashed both containers and stuffed the shards through one of the plane’s tiny windows. Still, the compass remained off kilter.

Then Mattern remembered the Pathé News camera. He snatched it up and passed it from his left hand to his right, watching the compass needle follow the camera’s path. He rapped the heavy camera body with his knuckles: Metal! But the windows were too small to ditch the camera. He was stuck with it. All he could do was move it from one side of the cockpit to the other every 15 minutes and hope he didn’t veer too far off course. Forget Paris, he thought. He would be lucky to find the Continent.

Less than a third of the way across the Atlantic, the Century of Progress smacked into whiplash turbulence, gale-force winds, and pelting rain. Trying to evade the storm, Mattern climbed higher, but that soon proved equally untenable. The temperature in the cockpit plummeted. With ice forming on the wings, slowing and weighing down the plane, he veered south and then north in search of calmer, warmer air. He dove back into the heart of the storm, close enough to the water that he worried he might plow into the surf.

Then there was a bolt of lightning and a sickening noise from outside. From the sound of it, Mattern assumed his wing had cracked. Heart racing, he thought: I guess I’m going to join all of the others who tried and didn’t make it. He thought of his mother, sitting by the radio, waiting for word of her son, and his father, long gone from this earth. But miraculously, the wing held. The wooden frame complained but didn’t break, and the Century of Progress flew on.

For ten hours he battled the swirling North Atlantic storm, struggling to keep the plane on course as he hurtled through rain, sleet, snow, and wind. Soon darkness enveloped him. He was flying blind, relying solely on his instruments, and cursing himself every time he was a minute or two late repositioning the camera. The night felt like a year.

Sleep deprivation posed as great a danger to Mattern as any lightning storm. It could lead a good pilot to make bad decisions. Lack of sleep had almost been Charles Lindbergh’s undoing on his trans-Atlantic flight six years earlier. Seventeen hours after leaving New York, he began to hallucinate. “My back is stiff; my shoulders ache; my face burns; my eyes smart,” Lindbergh wrote in The Spirit of St. Louis, his account of the journey. “It seems impossible to go on longer. All I want in life is to throw myself down flat, stretch out—and sleep.”

The Washington Post, in its coverage leading up to Mattern’s flight, reported that he did not fear falling asleep: “If he dozes off, and the plane falls, a gadget fastened on to an altimeter squirts water when the plane tumbles down to a minimum altitude of safety.” Perhaps this was Mattern having fun at the expense of a gullible reporter. In reality, his system was much more prosaic. When he needed to sleep, he attached rubber bands to the stick from his console, so the plane would list slightly to the right, and then he crossed his legs and pushed down on the left rudder with his right foot to equalize the drift. This kept the Century of Progress on an even course while Mattern took quick catnaps—but he couldn’t risk it in weather like this.

Twenty hours after takeoff, Mattern finally made it to the other side of the storm, but now a new problem presented itself. Fighting his way through the squall had cost him precious fuel, and he knew he would be cutting it close with what was left in his five main tanks. He still had the reserve 70-gallon tank Amelia Earhart had given him as a going-away present. But when he tested it, the engine quit—something was blocking the fuel from injecting into the motor. He switched back to one of the main tanks until it ran dry and tried again. Still the engine couldn’t draw the fuel from the reserve. Mattern was going to need that tank, and it wasn’t like he could pull off to the side of the road to repair it.

Leaning into the rising sun, Mattern finally spotted land on the horizon. His last main fuel tank was almost dry, and in desperation he flipped the switch to the reserve. The engine coughed, stopped, and, this time, kicked on again. Later he would learn that a small piece of felt had lodged in the line. When he turned on the gas this time, it was finally forced out. As sea gave way to land, Mattern looked down at the landscape of mountains and glaciers and wondered how far north he had ventured.

With no airfields in sight and only a few minutes’ worth of fuel left in his emergency tank, he searched for a place to land. He spotted a small island with a sandy beach where sunbathers frolicked and cut the engine to bring the Century of Progress down in a glide. As he approached, he saw too late that he was coming down on a patch of pebbles and large stones. It was a bumpy, teeth-chattering ride; Mattern thanked his foresight in installing shock cords. Even so, the rough landing knocked the tail out of alignment and blew one of his tires.

Mattern checked his watch. He had shaved ten hours off the 33 Lindbergh had taken to cross the Atlantic. Elated, he squeezed through the hatch and sank to his knees on the beach. “I just flew nonstop from New York,” Mattern told the first people to arrive to greet him, two boys and two fishermen. “I need your help.”

None of them spoke English, so the boys ran to fetch someone who did. They returned with a man who introduced himself as Jens Søre, a mechanic who had lived in the United States, who informed Mattern that he was in Jomfruland, Norway—80 miles from Oslo and 1,000 miles north of Paris. Mattern told Søre that all he needed was some gas and oil and he would be on his way, but Søre urged him to rest while he dispatched a message to Oslo. While Mattern napped, a seaplane arrived with the chief of the airport in the nearby town of Horten, who was astonished that anyone could have set a plane down on that beach without wrecking it. In addition to the misaligned landing gear and blown tire, one of the Century of Progress’s wingtips had been damaged by flying stones. There was also a more serious gash in one of the wings—caused, Mattern surmised, by the lightning strike.

The airport chief had brought along a couple of mechanics and supplies of fuel and oil. It took them four hours to mend the plane and fill it with enough gas to make Oslo, where Mattern could refuel for the long haul to Moscow. Mattern was determined to return to the sky, but his hosts convinced him to grab a little more sleep and wait for dawn.

When the sun rose, Mattern made his way back to his plane, which had been pulled by horses up onto a grassy hillock so the mechanics could make their repairs. Overnight the wings had been covered with graffiti: the scrawled names of female admirers in Jomfruland.

Mattern revved the engine, the airport chief and the mechanics pulled the rocks they had used as makeshift blocks away from the wheels, and the Century of Progress started rolling. The beach was too rough for a takeoff, so Mattern taxied down the knoll. The improvised runway was pocked with sandpits large enough to swallow a wheel. As the plane picked up speed, however, Mattern saw them: A handful of Norwegians were waist deep in the holes, waving their arms frantically, operating as human traffic cones. Brave people, Mattern thought as he climbed into the sky.

Five

June 5, 1933

It wasn’t until Mattern swooped out of the clouds over Moscow’s muddy airfield that the world—save for a handful of Norwegian sunbathers and a few airport personnel in Oslo—learned of his whereabouts. It had been a short hop from Jomfruland to Oslo, where Mattern had handed his troublemaking camera to the airport manager to ship to New York. At 6:40 a.m., he started on his 1,100-mile flight to Moscow, over Sweden, the Baltic Sea, Estonia, and Latvia. He had completed the first third of his journey in 51 hours and 31 minutes, three hours faster than Post and Gatty’s record time.   

A reporter told him that many feared he had been lost. Mattern grinned. “Fooled ’em, didn’t I?”

In the reception room at the Moscow airdrome, a physician took his pulse and told him he needed to rest. Mattern brushed him off, promising to take a two-hour nap before taking off again. He ate sparingly from the spread of caviar and steak laid out in his honor. After a shower, a shave, and a nap, he joined the Soviet mechanics who were working on his plane. Later, back in the airdrome, a group of Soviet pilots advised him on the best route over Siberia; his maps—which showed only a few lakes, mountains, and settlements—were almost useless.

At one point, Mattern looked outside and saw people swarming over the Century of Progress; a guard was supposed to be watching the plane but was nowhere to be seen. The fans seemed particularly enamored with the metal propeller. Mattern ran out, gunned the engine, and took off shortly after midnight, bound for Omsk—a large city in southwestern Siberia, just east of the Ural Mountains, about a third of the way across the Soviet Union.

Over the Urals, the Century of Progress got caught up in a lightning storm. Once he was in the clear again and dawn broke, Mattern followed the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway as Post and Gatty had two years before, battling stiff headwinds. At full throttle, he managed only 120 miles per hour, at least 40 miles per hour below his usual cruising speed. It took 12 and a half hours to cover 1,400 miles. Dropping out of the sky in Omsk, he was too tired to realize that he was coming down harder than he should have. The plane hit the runway with a jolt, cracking the right landing strut.

On solid ground again, Mattern took a sauna, then fell asleep for three hours while mechanics fixed the strut and refueled the plane. When he awoke, he called a New York Times reporter in Moscow, who informed him that he was only a few hours behind Post and Gatty’s time. “That’s great!” Mattern shouted through the static, his voice hoarse. “I’ll beat ’em yet.”

But the pace was wearing on him and his plane. A third of the way to Irkutsk, a smaller city 1,600 miles east, just north of the Mongolian border, his eyelids began to droop. He was having trouble breathing, too. His head was spinning. He caught a whiff of gasoline and began to retch. His last conscious thought was that a fuel line had broken, but he couldn’t let go of the controls. The Century of Progress plummeted to earth as its pilot blacked out.


Mattern regained consciousness as the ground rushed at him. He pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, and the plane nosed laboriously up from its free fall. Below, the landscape was an unbroken expanse of trees. Mattern opened his window, then turned the plane on its side to let in more air, trying to keep himself from vomiting all over the cockpit.

Finally, Mattern spotted a field that looked smooth enough for landing and coaxed the Century of Progress down onto the dirt. By the time the plane rolled to a stop, he was unconscious again. The next thing he knew, Russian peasants had climbed into the plane and were trying to yank him out of his safety harness.

Coughing from the fumes and shouting obscenities, Mattern staggered from the plane, but once his feet touched earth his legs buckled. One of the peasants, about Mattern’s height and twice as wide, caught him. “You keep those boys from jumping all over that plane, see,” Mattern told him, “and don’t let them take any souvenirs.”

The man seemed to understand. He tapped another man to guard the plane and dragged the wobbly flier into a small wooden shack. Lying down on a bunk there, Mattern once again felt his world whirl out of control. He retched until there was nothing left in his stomach, then retched some more. Finally, toward evening, he felt well enough to stand.

Outside, he found his plane where he had left it, in the middle of a cow pasture, surrounded by dozens of people marveling at the machine. One of them was a short, stocky man who looked about 50; with his gray beard, he reminded Mattern of General Ulysses S. Grant. He was a foreman at a metal-refining plant in the town of Belovo, a few miles from where Mattern had landed, but he had spent time in the United States and spoke fluent English. When Mattern told the General what he needed, the man enlisted members of the crowd to pull the airplane out of the mud.

Mattern could see that the Century of Progress, especially its tail, was in bad shape. With tools and materials from a nearby factory, the newly deputized ground crew tacked sheet metal to the tail until early the next morning, when a plane arrived with the chief engineer from the airport in Novosibirsk, 140 miles away, and his assistant.

The two mechanics worked in pouring rain inside a roped-off square. Soldiers with bayonets on their rifles arrived to guard the plane while a crowd of locals watched. Toward dusk the rain stopped; the crew continued working by the light of torches made from cotton waste soaked in oil. The crowd grew, as if this was their evening entertainment. Mattern tried to eat but nothing would stay down; he could still feel the gas fumes sweating out of his system.

When the repairs were complete, the Century of Progress looked two-thirds airplane and one-third junkyard heap. Mattern figured it would fly lopsided but hold together long enough to get to a city where more-professional repairs could be made. The rain-sodden field, however, was another matter. Mattern walked a couple hundred yards with the General and the mechanics from Novosibirsk shaking their heads.

After unloading as much gas as he could, Mattern started the motor, but the wheels wouldn’t bite. His ad hoc crew laid down ashes and sacking, mobilizing the entire crowd. Still, he couldn’t pull the plane out of the slop.

Mattern suggested they move the plane to higher, drier ground. It would be a very short runway, terminating in a copse of tall trees, but it was better than nothing. “Nyet,” grunted a Russian pilot—not for a plane of the Century of Progress’s size. But Mattern insisted. After they towed the craft uphill, Mattern hopped in and started the motor. With no brakes, he would either get aloft or crash into the trees; there were no other options. He picked up speed and pulled back on the stick. The Century of Progress left the ground just in time, the landing gear brushing the tops of the trees. Six days after leaving New York, Mattern was back in the air.

As he gained altitude, Mattern’s plane flew steadier than the pilot himself felt. Four hours out of Belovo, the rain and fog abated and he saw sunshine for the first time in practically a week. He slid open the window for fresh air and saw a large sugar-loaf-shaped mountain, which he had been told was near where he was headed. Mountains looked awfully good to Mattern after thousands of miles of plains.

Mattern stayed just long enough in Novosibirsk to fuel up for the long haul to Irkutsk and, 2,000 miles later, Khabarovsk, one of the principal cities in the Soviet Far East, near China, his last major stop before the Pacific Ocean. On the way the weather turned nasty over the Zeya River, northeast of the Mongolian border, and Mattern lost his bearings and set down near the river to spend the night. By the time he arrived in Khaborovsk the next day, he was too tired to talk. He rested for a day at a hotel while mechanics readied his battered plane for the haul across the Bering Sea to Nome, Alaska.

Leaving Khabarovsk the next morning, Mattern ran into more foul weather: a mixture of headwinds, rainstorms, and dense clouds. As night fell and the sky turned dark, he lost his way. He realized that he was running low on oil, too; the Russian product was cruder and burned much faster than what he was used to. Without any idea of how to get back to Khabarovsk, he had no choice but to bring the plane down again, regardless of what lay below. He stacked pillows around his head and began his descent, hoping for the best.

Six

June 12, 1933

It proved to be a surprisingly smooth landing. After shutting off the engine, Mattern climbed out of the hatch and jumped eight feet down to the ground, where he promptly fell asleep. At dawn, he awoke to find his plane teetering on a sandbar overlooking a river, across from a small village.

A boat full of peasants rowed across the river and gave him eggs, fish, and black bread. But Mattern was anxious to get flying again and pantomimed that his plane needed oil. No one spoke English, but one of the peasants turned out to be a former pilot in the Soviet army. He dispatched a couple of men to a nearby collective farm, where they found what Mattern needed. He started his abused Wasp engine, which smoked from the change in diet—the oil was intended for tractors, not airplanes—but turned over all the same, and held out long enough for him to return to Khabarovsk.

At four the next morning, June 12, Mattern tried again. On his first stopoff in Khabarovsk, he had eaten dinner with a group of Soviet pilots, who had advised him to take a more southerly route where he would likely come by better weather, but Mattern had opted for a more direct path. This time he heeded the pilots’ advice, heading southeast over the Sea of Okhotsk. Five hundred miles out over open water, however, ice gathered on his wings. He couldn’t shake it off even after dropping so low that he was practically skimming the water. Worse, the Century of Progress was once again mired in thick fog. Mattern decided to return to Khabarovsk yet again. He had flown 1,400 miles over the past three days but hadn’t gained an inch.

Once more in Khabarovsk, he restored himself with a couple of hearty meals and eight hours’ sleep. He was far behind Post and Gatty’s time now, but he was still on track to be the first pilot to fly solo around the world. All he had to do was make it this last leg across Russia and the 500-mile expanse of the Bering Sea. Once he hit Alaska, he figured, he would be home free. Shortly after his Hollywood stunt-flying days, Mattern had spent several months in Alaska working as a bush pilot. He knew the terrain and the weather there well.

Mattern waited through two more days of dirty weather before revving his engine again. The third time was the charm. Several hours later, he was on the far side of the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kamchatka Peninsula below him. The thumb-shaped peninsula, which separated the Okhotsk from the Bering Sea, resembles Alaska, a sparsely inhabited wilderness of thick boreal forest and mountain ranges. Some of the peaks rise as high as 8,000 feet, and Mattern knew he couldn’t fly over them. At that altitude his wings would ice up, and the Century of Progress would come crashing to earth. Winding his way north and shivering in the high-altitude cold, Mattern warmed himself with the knowledge that once he was out of the mountains, he could turn east. At that point, Nome would be just four hours away.

Then Mattern noticed that his oil pressure was dropping perilously low. The low-grade Russian oil was giving the finely tuned Wasp heartburn. Although he had a reserve oil supply stashed in the back with a bicycle pump jerry-rigged to push it to the engine, the pump had frozen. He was losing engine power, with hundreds of miles of open water ahead of him.

Below lay an almost endless expanse of tundra, most likely uninhabited, certainly inhospitable. Drawing on his bush-pilot experience, Mattern looked for little streams and tried to follow them; streams, he knew, usually led to rivers, and rivers led to settlements. Consulting his maps, he reckoned his best bet would be to get within limping distance of the Arctic outpost of Anadyr—but he was still 80 miles away. He would have to find a safe place to land. During the summer months, the Arctic tundra is in many places a soggy patchwork of marshes, bogs, lakes, and streams—not bad terrain for a crash landing. Still, the crash near Minsk the year before flashed through his mind. If Mattern flipped over this time, there would be no one to dig him out.

There was only one thing he could do. Mattern opened the throttle all the way and accelerated to the Vega’s top speed, 200 miles per hour. Skimming over the tundra, he deliberately sheared off his landing gear, then brought the plane down, belly-flopping on the soft ground. The plane bounced and shook. Mattern heard one of the wings crack; he was afraid that the entire undercarriage would tear apart. Feeling a sharp pain in his ankle, he realized that the impact of the landing had forced the engine back against his body. Finally he came to a complete stop. Somehow the Century of Progress—and Mattern—had held together.

The marooned pilot leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. He said a quick prayer and freed his wounded ankle. It wasn’t a full break—the bones didn’t look like they had pulled apart—but he was sure it was fractured. After staggering out of the hatch, he looked around: barren tundra, tufts of brush and grass, and rocky soil. His plane was a wreck. Wind whistled by his ears and he shivered. Never had he felt so alone.

Seven

July 15, 1933

Before dawn crept over Jamaica Bay, Wiley Post ambled over to the outgoing-flight register at Floyd Bennett Field and signed his name. In the next box he scribbled “Destination same.”

Post had remained cagey about his plans, but word had leaked out in a February 19 New York Times article that he was considering a second round-the-world journey—this time alone—but that he had to conduct “exhaustive tests” before making up his mind. When the morning of his departure from Floyd Bennett Field finally arrived, he watched the mechanics tend to the Winnie Mae and fingered a medal that another pilot had given him as a good-luck charm. It had once been owned by Count Felix von Luckner, a German naval officer who was famous in World War I for never suffering casualties on the ships under his command.

Mae Post watched him. “Are you about gone?” she asked.

“Pretty soon,” he said.

“Be careful.”

“I will.”

Jimmie Mattern’s disappearance a month earlier had set Mae’s nerves on edge. Post tried to reassure her. His plane had every possible modern innovation. He had delayed his departure to wait in Dayton, Ohio, for Army engineers to install a radio receiver. It would enable him to fix his position from broadcasts on ordinary radio frequencies if he knew the call letters of the station doing the transmitting. Post was also counting on his automatic pilot, affectionately nicknamed Mechanical Mike, to do much of the flying for him—it was the first time a civilian aircraft had been outfitted with one—and his controllable-pitch propeller to shorten takeoff runs and squeeze every last mile out of his fuel. Additional wing tanks increased his range, and he planned to complete the journey with just five stops, starting with a direct flight from New York to Berlin.

All these careful preparations, he believed, were what separated him from Mattern. Post was eager to try new technology; Mattern flew by the seat of his pants. In his rush to take off first, Mattern had not considered the effects that sleep deprivation could have on a man, nor had he properly outfitted his plane to address them. Post reckoned his friend had likely crashed in some remote corner of Siberia before he got to the Bering Strait, his demise accelerated by fatigued decision-making.

Seeking to avoid a similar fate, Post had adopted a rigorous training regimen designed to attune his body to the deprivations of his journey. He took short naps instead of sleeping through the night, sometimes sitting up until dawn in the cockpit of the Winnie Mae with his lone eye open. He restricted himself to one meal a day. He worked to attain a Zen-like state, clearing his mind of all thoughts except flying.

Wearing a natty new gray suit and blue shirt and tie, Post climbed into the cockpit. “I’ll be back as quick as possible,” he shouted. He gave the word and the motor jumped to life, the propeller scattering the gravel on the airfield. On board were 645 gallons of fuel, quart-sized thermoses of water and tomato juice, three packages of chewing gum, a package of zwieback bread, a knife, a hatchet, a raincoat, a cigarette lighter, mosquito netting, a sleeping bag, and a flashlight. He also brought fishing tackle; that way, if he ended up marooned in Siberia, he could always fish for food. He had a suitcase containing a few changes of clothes, including three fresh eye patches that Mae had sewn for him, and a piece of equipment he hadn’t bothered with on his last adventure: a parachute.

Post’s Wasp engine crescendoed, spewing exhaust. The white and blue monoplane picked up speed over the concrete runway and, despite the heavy load, quickly climbed, receding into a silhouette against the dawn, a half-moon gleaming overhead. It was 5:10 a.m.

After settling in at a comfortable altitude, Post turned on the autopilot. Later that day, as he approached the British Isles, he encountered tempestuous weather, just as Mattern had the month before, but he kept his radio on until he heard “a special broadcast for Wiley Post” from station G2L0 in Manchester, England, cutting through the static. Post adjusted his radio-compass needle to get a fix on the station; others popped up on the dial as he flew over the Irish Sea, England, the Continent. He was flying blind, but he had never felt so secure in his location.

By the time Post passed over the Elbe River, the weather had improved, and he could finally see where he was. Ahead was Berlin’s skyline. When he landed at Templehof, 25 hours and 45 minutes after leaving New York, he had not only broken Mattern and Bennett’s time by almost four hours but also completed the first nonstop flight from New York to Berlin. As he taxied up the runway, the American flag and German national colors floated above the field. Steel-helmeted Nazi storm troopers with rifles kept 2,000 cheering Germans at bay. Among those in attendance was the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring.

Post, assisted by a policeman, climbed down from the plane while a band played “The Star Spangled Banner” and Nazi anthems. He wanted to get his plane gassed up and get going as quickly as possible. His new record notwithstanding, he had hoped that he could make it to Berlin in 22 hours; the weather had added three and a half hours to his time. “I don’t want to eat,” he told the reporters gathered at the airdrome. “I don’t want to shave. I just want to clear out of here. I flew here on tomato juice and chewing gum, and that’s enough for me.”

Post was whisked off to the same room he had rested in on his first flight. He took a cold shower and stretched out on a bunk, trying to clear his mind, but he was restless. A lot of people were depending on him. Earlier that year, Post had inked an agreement with a local Oklahoma City businessman to line up investors in exchange for a 10 percent cut of whatever fees he earned from post-trip appearances. Wary of reliving his troubled relationship with F. C. Hall, he insisted on a pool of investors this time around. That way no single person could amass too much influence. The Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, eager to assist a homegrown celebrity aviator, had eagerly formed a committee. Eventually, 41 businesses and individuals contributed, and several aeronautical companies came through with donations of equipment, support, and supplies.

Too antsy to nap, Post returned to the airfield to supervise the plane’s refueling, vexed by the slow pace and antiquated equipment. The airport maintenance crew in Berlin were using hand pumps, which Post calculated would add an hour to his time, leading The Washington Post to quip:

The Winnie Mae, the Winnie Mae

She flies to Berlin in a day

And then complains of the delay!

Two hours and 15 minutes after landing, Post climbed back into his plane, with weather charts prepared by Lufthansa sticking out of his pocket. He had planned for Novosibirsk, Siberia, to be his next stop. But as he crossed the Soviet border, he couldn’t find his maps. He tore apart the cabin looking for them, but it was no use. He had no idea where they were. Worse, the autopilot had sprung a leak in its oil line.

Frustrated, he turned back and brought the Winnie Mae down to Königsberg, a city in eastern Germany. Sweat streamed down his face as he climbed out of the cockpit. He found another set of maps at the airport, but the mechanics in Königsberg weren’t able to fix the autopilot; the closest place to get it repaired was Moscow. Should he risk flying the 3,000 miles to Novosibirsk without it, or stop in Moscow for repairs? No one believed in Post’s piloting skill more than Post did, but he was afraid he might lose his way over Siberia. With broadcasting towers few and far between, the radio navigator would be useless for vast stretches. He took the safe bet: Moscow.

Then he went to sleep. When he awoke five hours later to a dawn wakeup call, he learned that the weather between him and Moscow was “quite bad”: heavy rain and fog, according to official reports. He slept for a few more hours. By the time the weather cleared, he was so anxious to leave that he forgot his suitcase, leaving him with only the clothes on his back.

The flight to Moscow was mostly uneventful, and soon he was looking down on the Kremlin, sparkling in the sun. Meeting Post at the airport was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty. Because Moscow had not been on Post’s planned itinerary, no official was on hand to translate for him, so Duranty conveyed his autopilot repair request to the airport director.

Meanwhile, a doctor examined Post and ordered him to get some sleep. Post told the doctor he wasn’t tired and tried to decline the meal offered to him, too; “Being hungry helps me stay awake,” he explained. The doctor later told Duranty, “I have had 12 years of experience as an aviation doctor, but I never met a pilot with such steady, solid nerves and such a regular pulse after an exhausting effort and such balanced control. When I first heard he was trying to fly around the world in four or five days, I thought it was madness—now I believe he will succeed.”

The forecast called for clear skies all the way to Novosibirsk and then cloudy beyond, with a light southeast wind. Radio stations in Kazan, Sverdlosk, Omsk, and Novosibirsk, briefed on Post’s itinerary, would call every ten minutes on a special wavelength and provide weather updates in English. Post climbed back aboard the Winnie Mae, and at 5:10 p.m. he took off down the runway, the plane, Duranty later wrote, “gleaming like a seagull” as it disappeared into the distance.

The weather forecast, however, turned out to be inaccurate. After five hours of clear skies, Post, flying over the Ural Mountains, ran into the thickest clouds he had ever seen. Taking advantage of the deicers he had installed, Post climbed to 21,000 feet—four miles between the Winnie Mae and the ground. Post stayed at that altitude for two hours, but the lack of oxygen made him woozy, and ice was beginning to overwhelm the deicers. He descended into the fog—a dangerous maneuver while crossing the mountains, but he had little choice.

Post knew how fragile life was. He had learned that lesson the moment the sliver of steel pierced his eye. Still, he had taunted death on plenty of occasions. During his wing-walker days, he had made a habit of pulling his rip cord at the last possible second to see how far he could free-fall, basking in the adulation of the crowd. When he flew with passengers, one of his favorite practical jokes was to let his first fuel tank run dry, stalling the engine, and only then switch to the next and restart the propeller, relishing how much it scared his guests.

Now, however, Post took no such chances. Eye trained on the altimeter and compass, he flew by dead reckoning. His plane might have been flush with the latest gadgetry, but at the moment his safest option was to rely on his own piloting skills. Once he was beyond the Urals, he could bring the plane to a lower altitude and once again follow the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway until they spidered off in divergent directions.

When Post finally descended into Novosibirsk, he was met at the airfield by Fay Gillis, a 24-year-old American aviator and journalist living in Moscow, whose help Post had enlisted in organizing logistics. Three weeks earlier, Gillis had hitched a ride in the back of a mail plane from Moscow, wedged between bales of letters, and had been waiting in Novosibirsk ever since. She had scared up 660 gallons of gasoline and 150 gallons of oil, more than enough to slake the Winnie Mae’s thirst. She made sure that the landing field was mowed every other day and that qualified mechanics were on hand, and she collected maps and arranged for a room, so that Post could rest while his plane was refueled. “I am saving my last piece of American soap for him, which he ought to appreciate,” she said in an interview.

Gillis had her own motives for assisting Post. She was a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and hoped to secure a scoop for the paper about Post’s arrival. But as Post reclined on a couch at the airport, eating the bouillon and fruit she had provided him, Gillis learned that he had an exclusive contract with The New York Times. Gillis had to wait to file her own story until after she had helped him file his.

Post stayed in Novosibirsk long enough to refuel, then pushed on to Irkutsk. “The chief marvel of Wiley Post’s spectacular flight around the top of the world,” a July 19, 1933 editorial in The Washington Post declared, “is not the endurance of the machine, but the endurance of the man.” But, it warned, “the most dangerous stretch of Post’s route lies between Khabarovsk and Nome. The Sea of Okhotsk, Kamchatka and Bering Sea are rarely clear of storms and fog.”

The truth was that Post was dead tired. Gillis could see the fatigue etched in his face as he left Novosibirsk—and he had almost half a world to go.

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Jimmie Mattern’s and Wiley Post’s progress as of July 18, 1933.

Eight

June 16, 1933

Jimmie Mattern cried a lot the first two days he was marooned. His plane was crushed and broken. He was 100 miles into the Arctic Circle, equipped with only a set of maps, a tool kit, pliers, a hatchet, three chocolate bars, and the clothes he was wearing. He also had a gun, which had been hidden in a secret compartment for emergencies just like this, and a top-of-the-line Wittnauer watch; the company co-sponsored his trip, and the watch was somehow still ticking after the crash.

He axed a hole in the fuselage to create a makeshift shelter, lining the walls with maps to help insulate against the cold, and jerry-rigged a cookstove and heater from a fuel container and engine cylinder. To give himself something to do, he kept a journal. Someday explorers might find his body, he figured, and he wanted them to know what kind of man he was.

The landscape was bleak—the soggy sod and heather of the Arctic tundra in summer—and his prospects bleaker. Each day, Mattern dragged his injured ankle behind him three miles to the Anadyr River and prayed that a boat would pass. Each night, he trekked back to his plane. He was still bruised and sore from his improvised landing, and soon he had blisters on his feet as well.

anadir-1401475046-71.jpg
The Anadyr lowlands in northeastern Russia. (Photo: F.A. Kondrasho)

He was fortunate, he knew, that he had crashed during summer, when the Arctic weather was reasonably warm and the daylight hours extended well into the night. If it had been autumn, he might already be dead of exposure. Even so, the temperatures dipped into the twenties after dark, and it was only going to get colder. His leather flight suit was a godsend, but it would keep him only so warm. His makeshift heater had its problems, too—there was no ventilation in the back of the plane, and he could only run it briefly before the compartment filled up with smoke.

Game was hard to come by. The animals of the tundra steered clear of Mattern, as if they intuited his desperate intentions. On the third day, however, he managed to shoot a duck. He stashed it in the river to keep it cold, resolving to hold off eating it until the following day, after he finished constructing a raft out of driftwood and baling wire. Anadyr, an outpost for fur traders and explorers en route to the North Pole, was within 100 miles, if his calculations were correct. Without adequate food, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to make it there on foot. But by taking a raft down the river, Mattern figured he could be there in four days, perhaps five, depending on the current.

After another frigid night in the carcass of his plane, he pulled a piece of iron from the Century of Progress’s tail to use as a griddle for roasting the duck, then limped down to the river. He was heartbroken to discover that seagulls had poached his kill; scattered bones and feathers were all that remained.

Glassy and weak from hunger, Mattern was afraid that he was losing his mind. No rational man would have left a dead duck in a stream and expected it to be there the next morning. At six that evening, he returned to the Century of Progress. He thought about making tea but had nothing to boil water in. The wind howled. A storm was brewing.

It rained throughout the night and the following day. Mattern stayed inside, listening to the drops beating against the skin of the plane. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. The ghost that stared back was gaunt, his hair a cubist mess, his face darkened with stubble and grime. The eyes had lost their pilot’s alertness; they were the eyes of a man who might not be long for this earth.

Scrounging around the wreckage of the plane, Mattern found a bag of cookie crumbs. He ate them slowly; it was all he had for the day. Then he wrote in his diary:

I have been thinking about a lot of things lately. I pray every day. I think of my mother and hope that she is not worrying so much that it would affect her health. I, of course, think of so many things. I could have done better with my life. I have always tried to do what is right. I did want to make money. Well, now I realize how useless money is and of no value in the Arctic wastes of Siberia. I have over one hundred dollars in my pocket, and it won’t even make fire to keep me warm… My only hope is to get out of here and back to civilization. That’s all I want. My foolish days of records is over and I want to settle down to a quiet life.

The more he wrote, the more tired he felt. Fog settled over the plane, the air thick and cold. Mattern set out hunting again, his ankles weak and uncertain, his feet cold, wet, and numb. He wasn’t able to bag anything, and the little food he had left—half a chocolate bar, some cookie crumbs—had almost run out. By the river, he lit a fire with green bushes, which smoked and smoldered, hoping someone would see it, either from the air or heading down the river. No one came.

Pilots are taught to stay with their planes in the event of a crash, but Mattern knew his circumstances were different. While he was sure people would be searching for him, the land was so vast and remote that there was little chance they would find him. His only hope was the raft.

The next morning he penned a note, which he left inside the fractured fuselage. He explained how he had crashed and that he was almost out of food, and gave his best guess as to his coordinates: latitude 64’35” west, longitude 175’30” north. I have made a raft and am going down the river, he wrote.

If you locate the airplane and I have not been found, I will be between here and a hundred miles down stream. I will stay to the right bank out of the wind going down… I have a map and a compass so to establish landmarks as I go along. Keep looking, boys, as I want to get out of this mess. I will never give up. Will be looking for you.

The weather was gorgeous, warmer than it had been. Mattern carried his maps, his flight suit, and his gun down to the river. Weak from hunger, he fell several times and had trouble getting back on his feet. He loaded the raft and, after saying a prayer, pushed it into the stream.

It sank.

Mattern jumped into the icy water to save his maps, battling the current as he dragged everything back to shore. Soaked and shivering, he knew he needed to build a fire—a big one, right away. Hovering over the flames, he forgot about the fuel that had soaked his clothes in the plane crash. Suddenly he was on fire, screaming in pain, staggering back into the river.

After he took his clothes off to dry, he crouched in his underwear next to the fire. The burns stung, and his teeth ached from the cold. I am now very discouraged and don’t know how things will turn out, he wrote in his journal. Then he fell asleep, warm for the first time since he’d crashed.

As one week in the wilderness became two, Mattern chronicled his mounting hopelessness in his journal. I have kept the fire going all day and just been looking for a boat, he wrote. I don’t know whether to start walking or not. Really don’t think I should. I would get weak and then if the airplane was located I would not be found. Yesterday I shot a muskrat and ate him. It made me sick but filled my stomach. He camped by the river in the event that a boat floated by, but he was running out of wood for fires—he’d picked clean the entire area.

He set about building another raft. When he was sure it was river-worthy, he piled his few belongings on board and settled facedown on the deck, paddling with his hands, cold water breaking over his head. For several hours he kept at it, until a strong current pushed him back the way he had come. He washed up on a small island across the river from his camp. The tide must have come in from the Anadyr Gulf, he figured. Ten days trying to float his way out of this wilderness and he had barely moved an inch.

On the 15th day, give or take—Mattern had lost count—he was trying to build a fire from grass when two specks a great distance down the river caught his eye—so far away he couldn’t make out what they were. He set his compass on them and went away for a few minutes. When he returned, the specks had moved. Oh God, he wrote in his journal. I hope it is what I think it is. He watched for what seemed an eternity, but this time the specks remained in the same position. Sinking into disappointment, he figured he had been hallucinating.

Then the sky opened up ever so slightly, and a ray of sunlight shone down. Now Mattern could see oars striking water. They were coming straight toward him. He was overcome with excitement. He screamed as loud as he could: “I’m saved! I’m saved!”

Two boats pulled up to shore carrying people who looked to Mattern like Eskimos. In the larger vessel were three men in furs, accompanied by a woman, two teenage girls, a young boy, and two sled dogs. In the other were two adolescent boys rowing a man, a woman, and three small children.

Mattern looked at them. They looked at him. Mattern grabbed a few threadbare possessions and piled into the boys’ boat.

Nine

June 30, 1933

Mattern thought of them as Eskimos, but they were in fact Chukchi: an indigenous people who had come to Siberia after the Eskimos, the largest Native nation (today numbering about 15,000) on the Asian side of the North Pacific. The word Chukchi was derived from chauchu, a Chukchi word meaning “rich in reindeer.”

Not long after Mattern settled into the boat, two ducks floated downstream. One of the men in the other boat imitated their quack and the ducks turned toward the boat, at which point another man shot them. They scooped the carcasses out of the water. Mattern had practically starved for weeks because he couldn’t catch a duck; in half an hour, his new traveling companions had killed two.

The Eskimos never stop rowing, Mattern wrote. How strong they are. They are all dressed in raw furs, the outside of a fox turned inside. The mother is nursing the baby. The boys play with it. They seem very affectionate. The mother makes a noise like a rattlesnake to keep the baby quiet. The dogs sleep all the time. The girls seem bashful. It has started to get cold. I put on my flying suit. You should see them watch me use those zippers. It was wonderful to them, you could tell. They offered Mattern bread, which tasted glorious, especially after his previous meal of half-cooked muskrat.

The two teenage boys paddled until they found a place to pitch camp. The men trudged out onto the tundra looking for geese, while the boys unfurled bearskins and pitched tents made of reindeer hide, and the women built a fire and made biscuit dough from flour and river water. They picked herbs and roots—plants that had surrounded Mattern during his days of starvation but that he had no idea he could eat.

Malnourishment had left his hands clenched and his teeth loose and achy. A woman handed him herbs boiled in water and indicated that Mattern should swallow it; hours later he was feeling better. The children ran up and down the riverbank and played on the damp tundra. Soon the men returned with two of the fattest geese Mattern had ever seen, their necks tied together and draped over one of the men’s neck. The women scooped bear fat out of half a five-gallon fuel can and fried the biscuit dough. They all sat around on their haunches and ate biscuits and honey and drank tea. It was Mattern’s first real meal in weeks.

Later, Mattern would learn that these were actually three families of Chukchi, and he was lucky to have been found by them; they were the only people for miles around. They maintained a trap line 200 miles long, where they collected game, honey, and furs. Once a year they traveled down this river with their furs to trade for flour, guns, and ammunition. They were on their way home when they came upon Mattern.

As Mattern wrote in his journal by the fire, his new companions looked over his shoulder with curiosity.

Mattern produced his map kit and offered two of the boys pliers and another a hunting knife. One was enamored with his Pratt & Whitney tool kit, and Mattern gave that away, too. I feel that God has been great to me, he wrote. My only thoughts of sorrow are my wonderful airplane put to sleep on the frozen tundra north forever.

It took four days and nights before they reached a settlement, a cluster of large reindeer-hide tents. The Chukchi were soon at work in the river, fishing for salmon. They carved out the guts, tossed them in a barrel, and hung the rest of the fish in strips to dry. Mattern slept peacefully that night under furs, with a fire burning in the center of the tent and the smoke drawn up through a small flue in the roof.

The next day he was paddled across the river to meet the tribal chief, who invited Mattern to stay in his tent. They are amazed at seeing me, a white man, dressed in a tanned leather zippered flying suit, he wrote. They gather around as if I were a sideshow attraction. As a matter of fact I am just that. Everyone wants to come to the tent to look at me. If I fall asleep the Eskimo squaws wake me up zipping my flight suit.

When Mattern returned to the other bank of the river days later to visit the families that had rescued him, they were gone. He asked other members of the tribe where they were. Through pantomime he learned that they were traveling to Anadyr, and Mattern grew frantic. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get his point across. Finally, he pulled out the $100 in cash he had. Within a few hours he was bound for Anadyr. I am writing this in the boat with six Eskimos, he wrote that afternoon.

Three rowing, two others and myself in the middle and a very old one steering in the rear with his cape up over his head and the sun setting at his back. What a great feeling to again be moving and what a great picture. The land has sloped gradually to the shore and snow is along the beach with a pink sky, a smooth lake and a boat full of very picaresque people. Every stroke of the oars says, ‘AMERICA.’

Several hours later, they stopped for tea and biscuits and waited until a motorboat pulled in further down the riverbank. Mattern walked down the shoreline to meet it. A few hours after that he arrived in Anadyr, 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where Mattern spoke English to another human being for the first time in more than a month. After he took a bath and devoured a meal of canned beef and beans, he went to the telegraph office. His message to his manager consisted of six words: Safe at Anadyr, Siberia. Jimmie Mattern.

Jimmie Mattern’s mother, Caroline, reads a telegram from her son, July 10, 1933. (Video: Universal Newsreels)

Ten

July 5, 1933

From Anadyr, Jimmie Mattern traveled by barge back up the river, accompanied by a score of Chukchi men and two dogsled teams. At the crash site, they salvaged what they could of the Century of Progress. Mattern chopped the motor off the plane’s wooden frame with an ax. He and the other men lifted it onto a platform atop the two dog sleds. There were six ropes and three men to a rope, pulling like mad and bent close to the ground. After half an hour they managed to drag it all the way to the barge, then sailed back to Anadyr, where Mattern boxed up the remains of the plane and sent them to the United States.

All Mattern had to do now was get to Alaska and locate another plane he could pilot to New York. After what he had been through, this didn’t sound impossible. In Anadyr, he waited for an exit visa and a ride to Nome; one of the Soviet Union’s top pilots, Sigizmund Levanevsky, was on his way from Khabarovsk to pick him up. In the meantime, Mattern telegraphed his manager in New York, who set about searching for another plane so that Mattern could complete his flight. The 505-mile hop from Anadyr to Nome aboard another pilot’s plane would mean that Mattern’s accomplishment, if he beat Post, would always carry an asterisk. But at least he could finish the job.

In New York, a group of Mattern’s friends from his time at Floyd Bennett Field were determined to locate a plane for him. While trying to scrape together the money, they met Irving Friedman, the president of Brooklyn’s Kings Brewery. (Prohibition wouldn’t end until December that year, but Kings was doing a brisk business selling low-alcohol “near beer.”) Friedman was not particularly interested in aviation, but Mattern’s friends sounded so sincere that he donated the money to buy the sturdy plane that the pilot Clyde Pangborn had used to fly over the Pacific from Tokyo to the West Coast two years earlier.

The rescue party set out for Alaska in the hopes that they could then leave for Siberia and bring Mattern the plane. But an American plane required Soviet permission to land; Levanevsky, meanwhile, needed U.S. permission to touch down in Alaska. And Moscow and Washington were not on speaking terms. The United States, which cut off diplomatic ties with Russia following the October Revolution 16 years before, did not formally recognize the Soviet Union, so Friedman found himself serving as an informal ambassador, sending and receiving messages that the two countries couldn’t officially exchange with each other. It took a fair amount of wrangling before a deal could be reached that allowed Levanevsky to land in Nome, where Friedman’s rescue plane would be waiting for Mattern. Back in Anadyr, Mattern killed time by taking Russian lessons, learning how to play “Home Sweet Home” on the balalaika, and filing stories about his adventures with The New York Times, which held exclusive rights.

Levanevsky’s plane was delayed by bad weather, and as the days dragged on, Mattern became increasingly agitated. Then he received a devastating message from Nome: Wiley Post was in Siberia, making great time on his way around the world. His rival was in Irkutsk, about to leave for Khabarovsk. Mattern knew he was lucky to be alive, but he was having trouble containing his desire to get back in the race.

Still, there was honor among pilots. If he couldn’t have the record, Mattern figured he might as well assist Post in some small way. He went to the Anadyr wireless station and put his basic Russian to use, working with the operators to translate their weather reports, which were then forwarded to the United States Signal Corps through its station at Nome. Judging by the chatter over the radio, Post was practically overhead.

Eleven

July 20, 1933

Wiley Post motored over eastern Siberia and then turned up toward the Arctic Circle, following a path similar to Mattern’s before he had tumbled out of the sky five weeks earlier. Post was now 3,000 miles east of Novosibirsk. The weather had turned foul, forcing him to fly blind for seven hours. The maps were unreliable and, anyway, were impossible to follow with zero visibility. Post relied on his compass, calculating drift from the way the clouds swirled around mountain peaks, practically the only land he saw.

Piloting a plane under such conditions would have been challenging even for a well-rested pilot, and Post had barely slept since Moscow, 3,700 miles ago. He picked up radio transmissions from WAMCATS—the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, on the far side of the ocean—while making his way over the Bering Strait. Zeroing in on the signals, he was able to navigate with almost no visibility. When he hit Alaska, he dropped low and edged back toward the coast, following the shoreline around Cape Prince of Wales to Nome, where he buzzed the radio station and airport.

Instead of stopping in Nome, Post decided to keep going to Fairbanks. Although he was dog tired and way ahead of his 1931 time, he felt a tremendous urge to press on. He had heard over the radio that Jimmie Mattern was not only alive but back in the air and on his way to Nome. Post didn’t have a minute to spare. It wasn’t simply man versus machine or man versus nature anymore. It was once again man versus man.

Not long after hitting the Alaskan interior, Post ran into thick fog and his automatic direction finder quit. Radio stations continued to broadcast to him, but he wasn’t receiving any signals. Climbing over the clouds, he expected to pick up Fairbanks, but all he got was static. He was wandering all over the interior now, dodging mountains and following rivers that led nowhere, completely lost.

The husband-and-wife Alaskan bush pilots Noel and Ada Wien happened to be flying to Fairbanks, too, when they spotted the Winnie Mae over the Yukon River. Recognizing the plane, they tried to radio Post with directions to Fairbanks, but Post didn’t respond; he didn’t seem to see them, either. The couple’s Bellanca couldn’t keep pace with Post’s Lockheed, so they continued on to Fairbanks, expecting to see Post there. When they didn’t, they assumed the One-Eyed Wonder must have put his plane in a circling pattern so he could nap. In fact, Post—seven hours after hitting Nome, barely able to keep his eye open and running dangerously low on fuel—was looking for a place, any place, to land.

Midway through the afternoon, he spotted a tiny village with a short, primitive airstrip. He could pick out the wireless masts; wherever this place was, at least he wouldn’t be completely cut off from civilization. Swooping down for a closer look, he estimated that the uneven, pockmarked runway was perhaps 700 feet long, ending in a ditch. He wouldn’t be able to use his brakes; the strip was too bumpy. There really wasn’t enough real estate for him to land safely, but he was desperate. He had been in the air for 22 hours and 42 minutes and hadn’t had a wink of sleep in close to 40 hours.

The Winnie Mae’s wheels bounded over the unpaved surface, and the plane jounced and swerved. Then the right landing-gear support collapsed. The plane’s nose pitched forward, and the propeller dug into the ground. The Winnie Mae tipped forward, tail in the air, and came to a stop.

A man ran over to help the pilot, who miraculously had gotten through the landing unscathed. Recognizing the great Wiley Post, he asked if the Winnie Mae could be repaired.

Post didn’t know. All he knew was that he was a thousand miles from nowhere with a plane that wouldn’t fly, hobbled by a busted propeller and splintered landing gear. He was angry with himself for not stopping in Nome to rest and gather fresh weather reports. If Gatty had been with him, this accident would never have happened. But Post had been impatient, and now he was paying for it.

The man led the exhausted pilot to a nearby shack. Post, almost too tired to care, curled up on a cot and passed out.

Twelve

July 18, 1933

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(Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks)

After two and a half weeks trapped in Anadyr, Mattern was napping in his room one day when he woke up to the whine of an engine. He put on his boots and raced outside. A two-engine seaplane was circling above him. When the craft landed on its pontoons in Anadyr Bay and pulled up to a boat dock, Mattern went to greet Levanevsky, a lithe, taciturn Soviet war hero and a personal favorite of Joseph Stalin. Levanevsky had set out from Khabarovsk five days before, skirting Japan and flying up over the Pacific to Anadyr. It was supposed to be a one-day journey, but he had run into a typhoon.

Levanevsky didn’t speak English, but he had brought a bottle of whiskey and indicated that Mattern should join him and his small crew. Five hours later, Mattern stumbled back to his room. As he passed out on his bunk, he wondered how Post was doing. He figured he was either right on his tail or perhaps a little ahead. But with a trip like this, a lot could go wrong.

Even if Post got to Alaska first, that didn’t ensure victory. Mattern vowed that just as soon as the room stopped spinning, he and the Russians would leave for Nome.

The next morning, Levanevsky refueled his seaplane—the mosquitoes were so thick that they clogged the funnel his crew was using to change the oil—and, with Mattern aboard, taxied to the center of the bay and opened the throttle. A hundred yards later, however, Mattern knew that they wouldn’t get off the water; there was simply too much weight onboard. Levanevsky dumped 100 gallons of gasoline, and after a few more tries the plane finally staggered into the air. The weather, for once, was all sunshine, and by evening they were over St. Lawrence Island, the westernmost piece of Alaska, directly below the Bering Strait.

As Levanevsky closed in on the final 125-mile leg to Nome, however, fog forced him to turn back to St. Lawrence, where he landed near a remote beach to camp for the night. Mattern was becoming fatalistic, wondering what else could possibly go wrong. He got his answer the next day, when he learned that Levanevsky had dumped too much fuel in Anadyr and didn’t have enough to get to Nome. The nearest land was more than 100 miles off.

Fingers crossed, they took off anyway. To conserve fuel, Levanevsky stayed close to the water, surfing over the waves. Then more fog descended and the Russian pilot struggled to see where he was going. Mattern checked the gas gauges. They had maybe five minutes of gasoline left.

Moments later, Levanevsky spotted land. He followed the beach until he found Nome—an amalgamation of wind-scoured clapboard buildings sprawling along the pebble beach of the Bering Sea coast. The motor quit as he approached, and the plane came down with a splash on its pontoons. They were close to shore, a few miles up the beach from Nome. Mattern almost had to be restrained from jumping in the water to swim the last bit. Levanevsky told his crew to inflate a rubber life raft, and he and Mattern joined him to go ashore, leaving many of the crew aboard. Walking down the beach, they saw several launches heading toward them. A tugboat picked them up and towed the plane to the harbor, where Mattern was greeted as a conquering hero.

A couple of journalists informed him that Wiley Post had crashed in Flat, a gold-mining town 268 miles southeast of Nome. Mattern expressed his condolences, hiding his excitement. He was still in the race. Once he had a plane, he figured, he could be back in New York in two days.

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Jimmie Mattern’s and Wiley Post’s progress as of July 20, 1933.

Thirteen

July 22, 1933

Wiley Post awoke and emerged from the shack to find the Winnie Mae mounted on a wooden derrick, with mechanics working on it. The man who had greeted him as he emerged from the wreck turned out to be the Flat Mining Company’s manager, and he had organized the men from his work crew into a repair team. Being a mining company, it had a full complement of tools.

He told Post he had called over the radio with the news of the crash, and a pilot named Joe Crosson had radioed back. Crosson was famous in the Alaskan bush, highly regarded for his piloting and navigation skills. He was the first pilot ever to land on a glacier, and two years earlier he had flown a shipment of diphtheria serum up to the far northern village of Barrow to head off an outbreak, braving the still-frigid March weather in an open-cockpit biplane. Both Post and Mattern had met him on their travels in Alaska and counted him as a friend.

Crosson told the mine manager that he was bringing a new propeller and tools from Fairbanks and that he’d persuaded the chief mechanic from Pacific Alaska Airways, the regional Pan American subsidiary, to accompany him. By dawn, they had arrived and had gotten the Winnie Mae air-worthy enough to make the short flight to Fairbanks for more significant work. Post followed Crosson’s plane to Weeks Field in Fairbanks, where he asked for “a bath, a shave, a big feed, and some civilian clothes.” While Post slept, Crosson and the mechanics he’d rounded up swarmed over the plane and mended the landing gear, patched the fuselage, replaced a tube in the direction finder, tuned the instruments, and replaced the tires. Post had lost a whole night in Flat and another eight hours in Fairbanks, but at least he was well rested and the Winnie Mae was in fine shape—and he was still ahead of his record.

Out of Fairbanks, at 21,000 feet over the Alaska Range, the temperature in the cockpit plummeted to minus six degrees and ice formed on the wings, the extra weight gradually forcing Post down. He had the motor wide open, but he still couldn’t correct his gradual descent, and soon he was dodging 15,000-foot mountain peaks in the thick clouds. But by Whitehorse Junction in the Yukon, the weather and terrain had improved, and Post needed only nine hours and 22 minutes to make Edmonton.

It was raining when he arrived, as it had been two years earlier when he and Gatty had landed in Edmonton. The runway had been so swamped then that the Winnie Mae was forced to take off from Portage Avenue, a paved road that ran two miles from the airfield to town; Edmonton’s mayor, aware of the international attention, put emergency crews to work pulling down the electric lines strung alongside the road. When Post and Gatty flew over the Hotel MacDonald, where they had stayed, the maître d’ and his platoon of bellhops stood on the roof and offered a salute. This time, Post stopped just long enough to ice his head—it was aching from flying at high altitudes with insufficient oxygen—drink some water, catch a half-hour nap, and refuel. Then it was on to the homestretch, 20 hours and 12 minutes ahead of his record.

Post flew the final 2,000 miles prodded along by a stiff tailwind. He was sighted ten miles northeast of Winnipeg in the late afternoon, and a forest ranger in a fire tower tagged him 28 miles north of Orr, Minnesota, at 5:45 p.m. Post crossed over Marquette, Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior, at 7:50 p.m. The next report came from Toronto at 9:47 p.m. By 10:28 p.m., he was coming up on Niagara Falls.

After Toronto, Post dozed off several times, letting the autopilot take over. In his waking moments, the full weight of what he was about to accomplish began to settle on him, and he felt the crush of depression. He was a man more comfortable in motion than sitting still—and after this, what aerial expeditions were left for him? Later he confessed that he had considered landing so he would arrive a day later and miss out on besting his record, just so he could do it again—but better this time.


Tens of thousands of onlookers massed at Floyd Bennett Field early in the day on July 22, 1933. Cars clogged the roads leading to the airport, the worst traffic jam in the city’s history. As night fell, searchlights beamed above the field. At 9:35 p.m., a shrill whistle warned planes to keep clear until Post had landed. Harold Gatty, now an aerial navigation instructor and adviser to the U.S. Army, arrived in a bomber from Washington. “I am tickled to death at the prospect of Wiley beating our record,” he told a newspaper reporter. “After all he’s gone through on this trip, he certainly deserves it.”

The Winnie Mae swung over Newark, across the lower tip of Manhattan, and over the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Post, arriving on a moonless night, had his motor throttled down so low that he was on top of the airfield before anyone heard him approach. “There’s a plane!” someone yelled.

Lee Trenholm, Post’s manager, sitting in a car with Mae Post and Harold Gatty, cried, “It must be Wiley!”

Earlier that day, Mae Post had posed for pictures, pretending to study a map of North America. “I think,” she said, smiling, “that I would have to kill him if he tried it again.”

Now the floodlights illuminated Post’s white-and-blue plane against the dark sky. There would be no victory lap for posterity like last time. Post set the Winnie Mae down gently in a textbook three-point landing. He was 21 hours ahead of his time with Gatty two years earlier.

A New York deputy police commissioner was the first to reach the plane. As Post sat hunched in the cockpit, he reached up to shake the pilot’s hand. “Where have you been all week?” he asked.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Post replied.

From “Look to Lockheed for Leadership,” a 1940 promotional film. (Video: Lockheed Martin)

Fourteen

July 22, 1933

The Bellanca that Irving Friedman had purchased for Mattern’s rescue group had crashed en route, in Hazelton, British Columbia, near Prince Rupert. Mattern would have to pick it up there, but he had to wait to take off from Nome until the same weather that had vexed Post had cleared. When Mattern finally left Nome aboard a seaplane bound for Fairbanks, Post was in Edmonton, one hop from New York. Just like that, the race was over.

But Mattern was determined to finish his flight, record or no. After three days in Fairbanks, he was flown to Hazelton, where the Bellanca sat on a short field, fixed. The plane’s puny 225-horsepower engine was overmatched by its size, and Mattern unloaded every pound he could do without and still only barely cleared the trees on takeoff. He made it to Prince George, British Columbia—about halfway to Edmonton—and stopped for the night.

Even now, stripped of its world-historical potential, Mattern’s journey seemed to hit every possible obstacle. The Bellanca’s engine stalled as Mattern pulled up from the runway in Prince George. In Edmonton, he picked up another plane, which promptly blew a gasket. After an emergency landing, he was forced to take a car to Toronto and borrow yet another plane. He wondered if, as he later put it, “someone was trying to tell me something.” Relief finally came in Buffalo, where his old friend Ed Aldrin was waiting for him with another Lockheed Vega, an eagle much like the one on the late Century of Progress painted on the side.

When he touched down on Floyd Bennett Field at 4:41 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, Mattern quietly sobbed in his cockpit. Post had arrived ten days before, but it scarcely mattered now—how many times had Mattern wondered if he would ever see this airport again? His sense of humor intact, Mattern quipped to a reporter that his rival might have bested him, “but I beat Magellan by a few days.” The “Robinson Crusoe of the air,” as The New York Times dubbed him, was 15 pounds lighter than when he had taken off from New York nearly two months earlier. He limped gingerly forward to shake hands.

But celebrity is a funny thing. Mattern might have failed in his round-the-world quest, but in the process he had acquired a spectacular story, and he soon found himself to be far more famous than the rival who beat him. Like Post, Mattern was invited to the White House, and he soon signed on for a two-week engagement at New York’s Paramount Theater, where he earned $17,000 a week—roughly $250,000 in today’s dollars—regaling audiences with tales of his ordeal in the Arctic. The following year he starred in a 23-week radio series, sponsored by the Pure Oil Company, that dramatized his life. (There were more than a few embellishments; the radio version had Mattern rescue a woman and her baby from a forest fire.)

It was enough to enable Mattern to ride out the rest of the Depression in style, dating starlets and chorus girls—including a showgirl named Dorothy J. Harvey, who became his second wife. Their courtship was somewhat complicated by the fact that Mattern was technically still married to Delia, who remained in Walla Walla, though they had been separated for almost the entirety of their marriage. Filing for divorce in Chicago in 1937, Mattern charged Delia—not without considerable irony—with abandonment. He rarely if ever talked about her after that; in his unpublished autobiography, which he wrote a few years before he died, in 1988, he scrubbed out any mention of her.

A celebrity in his own right now, Mattern hobnobbed with the rich and famous—including the humorist and actor Will Rogers, the biggest star of his generation. In early 1935, Rogers asked Mattern if he’d fly to Alaska with him. But Mattern was too busy with his radio program and recommended another pilot whom both men knew well.


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Wiley Post in Fairbanks, Alaska, in August 1935. (Photo: Alaska State Library)

Though he had outflown Mattern in his round-the-world expedition, Post fared worse back on solid ground. After returning to Oklahoma, he tried to capitalize on his fame with a cross-country promotional tour sponsored by an oil company. His first stop was Quincy, Illinois, where, immediately after takeoff, the Winnie Mae’s engine cut out 50 feet above the ground. Post lost control, and the plane crashed. The cockpit was a crumpled mess, and Post suffered a fractured skull. Souvenir hunters made off with pieces of the plane while its pilot was taken to a nearby hospital.

After the rest of the tour fell apart due to a lack of interest, Post sank into another depression. He considered other aerial distance records, but none seemed as compelling as the one he had just completed. The only other direction he could go was up, and for a time he focused on setting new altitude records. In 1934, with the assistance of B.F. Goodrich engineers, he designed the first pressurized aviation suit, the direct predecessor of the modern-day spacesuit. With its rubberized fabric exterior and repurposed deep-sea-diver’s helmet, it made Post look like a cross between the Michelin Man and a Cyclops. After one crash landing in the Mojave Desert, he had to calm down a passing motorist he approached for help; the man was convinced he was in the presence of a Martian.

But the Winnie Mae was not built for the high-altitude abuse Post was heaping on it, and in 1935 he was forced to retire the plane, selling it to the Smithsonian Institution. Casting about for work, he approached Pan Am to offer his services as a company pilot. The airline’s executives, however, believed that stunt pilots like Post were good for front-page news but too unreliable for steady commercial work. Lyman Peck, Pan Am’s director of Alaskan development, tried to soften the blow with another suggestion. He pointed Post to a recent weekly column by Will Rogers, in which Rogers mused, “I never been to that Alaska. I am crazy to go up there some time.”

Rogers and Post had met a decade earlier when Post gave him a lift in his plane. They were both Oklahomans who had scrambled up to stardom from nothing, and they became fast friends. Rogers was a strong advocate of aviation at a time when most Americans were still leery of it. Although he got airsick whenever he got in a plane, he flew hundreds of thousands of miles every year and dedicated numerous columns to flight. “Was out at daybreak to see Wiley Post take off,” he wrote in a syndicated column published on February 23, 1935. “Was in the camera plane and we flew along with him for about thirty miles. We left him 8,000 feet over the mountains. He soon after had to land. He brought her down on her stomach. That guy don’t need wheels.”

When Rogers approached Post with his idea for a trip to Alaska, Post grabbed it immediately. Rogers agreed to finance the journey and pay for a new aircraft. Post mixed and matched parts to create his own “bastard” plane, with a wing from a used Lockheed Explorer and the body from a Lockheed Orion 9-E Special, and added pontoons. It was ugly, and it turned out to be nose-heavy, too; Joe Crosson, whose opinion Post generally respected, flatly told him it wasn’t safe and advised him against flying it.

But Post was undaunted, and in August 1935, he and Rogers set off for Alaska, camping, fishing, and hunting whenever the urge struck them. Along the way, Rogers continued to file his weekly columns. Late on the morning of August 15, Post and Rogers climbed into the plane, which was docked on the Chena River, deep in the Alaskan interior. Post taxied to the middle of the river, turned to face the wind, and gunned the engine, climbing rapidly until he disappeared over the trees.

He and Rogers were bound for Barrow, 500 miles north on the Arctic coast. Post hadn’t bothered to check the weather in Barrow. If he had, he would have heard that a thick fog bank had rolled in, obscuring the local airfield. By 7:30 p.m., Post was lost above the clouds and near the end of his fuel supply. He dropped down low enough to spot a family of Alaska Natives camped on the shore of a lake.

The Okpeaha family were surprised when a plane splashed to a stop nearby. Post and Rogers emerged to ask directions, and the father, Clair Okpeaha, pointed to the north and said that Barrow was about 30 miles away. Rogers asked how the hunting had been. It had been good, Okpeaha replied: walrus, seal, caribou, enough food for the winter. Post and Rogers stretched their legs and discussed their situation. The fog made it hard to see where they were going, but Barrow—and a warm bed and hot meal—was only a few minutes away. They decided to go for it.

Post jump-started the engine and took off across the water, rising steeply and banking sharply as he always did. At 400 feet, the engine backfired and the plane stalled in midair. It somersaulted down, hitting the shallow water nose-first, driving the motor halfway up through the cabin. The right wing sheared off, shattering the floats. The plane came to rest upside down. The only sounds were the wind sweeping over the tundra and the hissing of hot steel in the icy water.

Okpeaha ran to the water’s edge. “Halloo, halloo!” he called out. There was no answer.

Fifteen

August 16, 1935

Newsreel report on Wiley Post and Will Rogers in Alaska, August 1935. (Video: Critical Past)

Jimmie Mattern awoke to the sound of a telephone sometime after midnight. A reporter for United Press International was on the line.

“Have you heard the news?” the man asked.

As the reporter told him what had happened in Barrow, Mattern sat on the edge of his bed, numb, and wondering if somehow there could be a mistake. Then another thought came to mind: He had almost taken Rogers on that flight. Would things have ended differently if it had been him in the cockpit?

The nation’s flags flew at half-staff the next day. Charles Lindbergh paid to have the bodies flown back to Oklahoma; Joe Crosson volunteered to do the flying. Crosson’s wife received Post’s and Rogers’s personal effects, which were delivered to her in Fairbanks. Their wallets were still wet, so she placed them by the cookstove where she had prepared their last home-cooked meal two days earlier, when they had stayed overnight. In Rogers’s wallet, she recognized the family photos he had showed her during the visit, and she began to weep.

Post’s funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Sentinel, Oklahoma. It was a simple service—as simple as Wiley Post the man. In New York City, pilots gathered to pay tribute; a squadron of 24 planes flew over Floyd Bennett Field, into Manhattan, and back to Brooklyn. Rogers’s funeral was the largest in Oklahoma history, and 20,000 people attended a ceremony in Hollywood. “Will Rogers hadn’t a living peer in the affection of millions,” the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “and Wiley Post ranked next to Lindbergh as their hero of the air.”

Two years later, Mattern flew to Alaska for another grim occasion: he was joining the search for Sigizmund Levanevsky, the Soviet pilot who had brought him from Anadyr to Nome, whose plane, it was believed, had gone down somewhere between Barrow and the North Pole. (He was never found and later presumed dead.) In Barrow, Mattern stopped in on Charlie Brower, an Alaskan folk hero whom Post and Rogers were on their way to meet when they crashed.

Known as the King of the Arctic, Brower had lived on Alaska’s northern coast for 50 years as a trader and whaler. He took Mattern to meet Clair Okpeaha, the last man to see Post and Rogers alive. Okpeaha described their final minutes: “We watched from the shore. We heard the motor rev up to a deafening pitch and saw the plane begin moving, faster, faster, pontoons spraying behind as the plane came up on the steps of the floats. Lifting off and starting to climb, it banked to the right, making a turn toward Barrow.”

Of course ol’ Wiley banked to the right, Mattern thought. He only had one eye. Post’s style of banking hard to the right on takeoff was fine in a sleek Lockheed Vega but was precisely the wrong approach to take in a plane like the one he had mashed together from odd parts. His plane was also nose-heavy, and the engine wasn’t fully warmed up. The fog would’ve created condensation in the carburetor. Under those conditions, a steep bank of the sort Post was prone to attempt during takeoff would’ve been a recipe for stalling.

After the plane crashed, Okpeaha went on, “there was a dull explosion, a flash of fire, and then dead silence. Our first instinct was to run away. Then I went a little closer. I went as close as I could and shouted over and over but got no answer.” Okpeaha took off running, 12 miles across the tundra, to find Charlie Brower, who served as the local magistrate. Five hours later, he collapsed at Brower’s feet, so out of breath he could hardly speak. Finally he got out “crash.” One of the men had tall boots, he said; the other had a “sore eye, rag over eye.” Brower knew immediately who he was talking about.

Mattern shook his head. He was confident Post could have handled any situation in any airplane. He believed his friend could have flown to Mars, if he’d wanted to. But the truth was, that “bastard” plane of Wiley’s should have never left the ground.

Charlie Brower gave Mattern the seatbelts that had hugged Post and Rogers when they died, along with the plane’s throttle and some papers Rogers had on him.

That night Mattern opened his journal.

They are not forgotten, he wrote. They were my friends.

Epilogue

Wiley Post’s round-the-world speed record wasn’t broken until 1938, when Howard Hughes—flying a jet with a crew of four—managed to make the trip in three days, 19 hours, and eight minutes. But Hughes maintained that “Wiley Post’s flight remains the most remarkable flight in history. It can never be duplicated. He did it alone! … It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half.”

Mae Post used the $25,000 she received from the Smithsonian Institution for the Winnie Mae to buy a small cotton farm in Texas, where she lived for the rest of her life. She never remarried and always wore the wedding band Post gave her.

In 1969 Wiley Post was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and ten years later the U.S. Post Office issued two commemorative airmail stamps bearing his likeness. As the years have worn on, however, he largely faded from the public memory, and is now best known as a character who pops up throughout the Broadway revue Will Rogers Follies, with one recurring line: “Let’s go flyin’!” Eventually Rogers does, and the play ends.


Jimmie Mattern joined Lockheed as a test pilot in 1938. In 1946, after developing spasms and shakes, he was diagnosed with a ruptured blood vessel in his brain, which was blamed on his many vertiginous dives from high altitudes. Doctors gave him only a few years to live; they were off by more than 40. But Mattern never flew again. He and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Phoenix, where they worked as real estate brokers and opened a travel agency, while Mattern operated as an aviation consultant. Jimmie Mattern died on December 17, 1988, two days before he was to be the honoree at Texas Aviation Pioneer Day.