Will Rogers might not have died if Wiley Post had taken my advice about his airplane
When I was a licensed “ramp rat” at the Pacific Airmotive Company in Burbank, California, during the thirties, a parade of American flying legends brought their equally famous airplanes to us for servicing and maintenance. As one of the two at PAC who knew how to take care of any kind of aircraft that came in, I worked with many celebrated pilots—Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, Howard Hughes, and Wiley Post among them.
We frequently had Post’s white Vega, the Winnie Mae, in the hangar. Wiley was such a congenial character that we mechanics felt we could talk to him as though he were one of us. One time I was assigned to re-skin the lower-right stabilizer on the Winnie Mae, and when I finished, I burned in my initials and the date. Years later, when I saw the bird hanging from the roof in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, the initials were still there, barely distinguishable under the paint.
In 1935 Wiley combined a Lockheed Orion fuselage with Sirius wings for a goodwill flight during which he and Will Rogers planned to go island hopping in Alaska and possibly continue to Japan and around the world. He wanted to install pontoons for the over-water sections of the flight, but Lockheed had refused to fit the pontoons Wiley brought to it, claiming they would make the plane tail-heavy. So he brought the bird to PAC, and I was told to fit the pontoons and ready them for shipping to Alaska.
I didn’t know about Lockheed’s stand, but to me the pontoons looked like a pile of junk. When I asked Wiley where he had picked them up, he said, “If you must know, they’re off a Fairchild Razorback.” I told him that installed the way he wanted them, the pontoons would be too far aft on the Orion fuselage and would make it tail-heavy. He responded, “That’s none of your business. Just do as you’re told.”
A cocky twenty-two-year-old with a short fuse, I lost my temper and called Wiley a few choice names. He started for me, stopped short, laughed, and said, “Look who I’m getting mad at! You’re the guy I depend on for giving my engine a good final service. Come on, Art, let’s get those fittings made.”
Wiley had signed a statement accepting full responsibility for the installation. Nevertheless, I was not comfortable about it and told him I was going to tell PAC’s manager, Edwin O. (“Eddie”) Cooper, how I felt. Wiley said that was fine, but he still wanted it done his way. Even the inspector who came to certify the plane seemed unconcerned. He figured a great pilot like Wiley Post knew what he was doing.
After Wiley and Will Rogers were killed, the villagers who had given them directions to Point Barrow reported that he hadn’t spent much time warming up his engine. On takeoff he went into a steep climb, the engine coughed a couple of times, and he lost power. At the slow speed he was flying, Wiley couldn’t get the nose down. He went into a spin and hit the water upside down within half a turn.
I know that Wiley chose to use the lighter of the two Pratt & Whitney engines the company suggested, because I serviced it. Had he selected the heavier one, perhaps he and Rogers might have survived.
The bodies were returned to Burbank by air, and we put them in a hearse to be taken to the funeral parlor. Eddie Cooper had received a telegram from Wiley the day before he died. It said, “Everything going fine.”