Will Rogers and Wiley Post May Have Died From a Lack of Patience


Will Rogers and Wiley Post In One of Their Last Photographs Together With The Plane That Would Carry Them to Their Doom

Will Rogers 1879-1935

On This Date in History: Will Rogers was probably the most popular man in America in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He was born in Indian Territory known as Oklahoma in 1879 to parents who both had Cherokee ancestry.  When he was 10, Will Rogers mother died, leaving his wealthy, rancher father to raise him and his two sisters.  His father, Clem, was a tough man and had standards to which he expected his children to live.  In relation to those standards, Clem Rogers thought that his boy Will was pretty wild.  When Will was 20, he left behind any conflicts he had with his father, utlizing his skills as a wrangler and a roper to earn a living as he traveled the country.  Just a year later, he returned to the Oklahoma Territory at his father’s request to show support for the effort to make Oklahoma a state.  While he was there, he met Betty Blake, whom he eventually would marry.  But, his stay at home was short as he once again got into disagreements with his father over how Will should lead his life.  So, Will Rogers left Oklahoma again.

Will Rogers Was An Ace With a Rope

Over the next few years, he took part in numerous Wild West Shows as “the Cherokee Kid” and traveled the country.  Typically, his act included extraordinary roping displays while dazzling the crowds with equally impressive riding tricks.   He and Betty were married when his last Wild West Show in New York closed.  The couple decided to stay there for a few weeks after he was offered a lucrative contract to take his act to Vaudeville.  But, his “Cherokee Kid” act didn’t transfer too well to the vaudevillian stage.  Betty was pregnant with their first child and Will found himself out of work for some time.  He took a replacement job for a vaudeville show in Brooklyn when disaster became a life-altering moment.  His horse was not delivered to the theatre when the show began and he had to take the stage alone.  He messed up some rope tricks and the audience grumbled.  So, he just began to talk.  He told homespun stories of life in Oklahoma and made witty comments about politics and anything else he had read about in the paper.  The audience loved it and a star was born.  To this day, the quotes of Will Rogers appear in the media in various forms on a daily basis. 

Wiley Post Before He Lost His Left Eye

Around that time, Rogers met a pilot named Wiley Post.   Post had a job flying film canisters from movie and newsreel film locations to the studio for production.  Post and Rogers had much in common and struck up a fast friendship.  Both were part Cherokee and both were from the West.  Each man loved travel, adventure and airplanes.  As Will’s fame grew and he traveled throughout the nation, it was often Wiley Post who flew him to the town or city of his next appearance.  Soon, as Roger’s popularity grew, Post’s achievements rocketed him to world-wide fame as well.  Post had begun working in the oil fields and also as a skydiver in barnstorming shows.  But, he wanted to be a pilot, not a sky diver.  That dream seemed to fade when Post lost his eye in an oilfield accident.  Instead, he learned to adapt and not only became a pilot but was so well accomplished that he was one of America’s first test pilots. 

Wiley Post's Third Version of His Pressure Suit

In 1931, Post obliterated the record for an around the world flight when he flew around the globe in eight days, 15 hours and 51 minutes.  He bested the old record by 21 days.  In 1933, he piloted the Winnie Mae to another around the world record by beating his old mark by about a day.  The Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae was a very fast plane and he was convinced that he could set numerous long distance records by flying at extremely high altitude.  No one had done that before as the thin air made flying in the sub-stratosphere difficult, especially when one considers that Post’s plane was not airtight and was not pressurized.

US Military's Version of Post's Suit in 1940's known as a Tomato Worm Suit

  But, Post worked with the B.F. Goodrich Rubber Company to design a pressure suit that would allow him to breath as if he was at 5500 feet instead of the 30,000 to 40,000 feet that he proposed flying his unpressurized monoplane.  On September 5, 1934 Post successfully tested the third version of a suit over Chicago at 40,000 feet, though some histories put the figure at 49,000.  That set the stage for his attempts to set a transcontental speed record.  Mechanical problems prevented him from reaching his goal but he did set a new air speed record of 340 mph during one of his attempts.    Wiley Post’s suit was the earliest version of the suit the astronauts would wear in space.

Top: Rogers and Post At Dawson Creek, AK Bottom: Wreckage of Plane in Lake South of Barrow, AK

In 1935, Rogers was looking for new material for his act and a newspaper column that appeared in papers across the nation.  He decided that a trip to America’s final frontier, Alaska, would provide him an opportunity and inspiration for fresh ideas.  He hired his friend Post to fly him to what was then an American territory. The two friends would make the whole trip and adventure filled with bear hunts and possibly finding a new air route to Europe through Alaska and Siberia.  Post had a new plane that was built using the parts of two Lockheed aircraft.  The fuselage came from an Orion while the wings were from an Explorer.  For some reason, Post was short on cash and it was the most advanced plane that he could afford.  He decided that it would be a good idea to fit the aircraft with pontoons to make water landings in Alaska possible.  But, the pontoons he ordered did not arrive on time.  Patience can be a virtue and a lack of patience can lead to problems; in this case it may have been fatal. 

Tragic Loss of Two Great Americans of the Early 20th Century

Instead of waiting for the specially built pontoons, Post fitted the aircraft with a set that were longer than necessary.  The long pontoons made the plane noseheavy.  On This Date in 1935,  Wiley Post and Will Rogers took off from Fairbanks, Alaska to Point Barrow.  From there, the details are somewhat conflicting.  One version is that they ran into storms and Post used more fuel than anticipated.  He tried to make his way Barrow and ran out of fuel. A problem with this post-event narrative is that Post’s modified plane had an oversized 260 gallon tank.  And,  the initial reports were that, there were issues with the plane and Post put it down south of Barrow for repairs.   Shortly after takeoff, the plane stalled and plunged nose-first into the lake.  Both Will Rogers and Wiley Post were killed and America lost perhaps the most influential voice of the common man in the midst of the Great Depression and one of it’s most innovative aviation pioneers.  Ultimately, if the pontoon story is correct, then the cause of their deaths may have been a lack of patience.

Weather Bottom Line: Previous forecast holds.  Front comes through Sunday evening bringing rain and t’storms.  First day or so of the week should be dry then the front backs up close enough and works with tropical moisture to give us rain chances every afternoon.  We’ll be talking about highs in the upper 80’s to near 90 instead of upper 90’s to near 100. So, it’s a cold front….just not that cold.

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8 Responses

  1. Nice History of “Will Rogers”. Since he was born in Indian Territory, Indians must be very proud of him.

  2. If Americans have any sense of history, then they are not very proud of the Indian Territory. As you know, I’m sure, it was the name of that part of North America at that time and I”m sure that you know the history of why.

  3. Probably lack of patience coupled with Post’s overconfidence in his ability to compensate for the unwieldy pontoons lead to the crash. They made it to Barrow so I doubt that the pontoons alone were the cause. My guess is that the lake that they landed on in Barrow did afford a very long “runway” so the plane stalled because they didn’t have enough room to get going. The pontoons contributed no doubt to that, I would think.

  4. Brilliant analysis, though no one today or back then seem to have all of the facts so it’s really hard to say. As usual, you’re probably pretty close to the mark.

  5. Richie

    Will Rogers spent the night before his fatal crash at a 16th birthday party for my mother Minnie Motschman Dohoney in their home in Fairbanks. He was invited to the party after helping my mother and her sister Jessie carry groceries that they had dropped, when he came to help them. A true gentleman to the end.

  6. Nice article, with spelling errors. What actually happened, mechanically, is the patchwork plane that Post built for the trip, had NEVER actually been tested before the flight. After departure from Seattle, the plane was fully refueled at every stop. Barrow, being the only stop where they did not fuel the plane. When Post took off, in more or less the style of the old barnstormers, giving the natives on the ground a rare show of what an airplane could do, the engine, sucked air, as the fuel sloshed around, and there was not sufficient altitude to overcome the resulting stall. Sure was and is a shame. Will was a great statesman and actor. Treat yourself to one of his films, now available on DVD.
    We Oklahomans, who are descended from the original homesteaders in what was once Indian Territory, are sure enough proud of the fine State it has become.

  7. I have a bad habit of posting without reviewing, so good catch on the lousy typing and thanks for not pointing out that the grammar could probably use some work too. Thanx for stopping by.

  8. Fascinating story – what amazing gentlemen!
    Seems to me as if an element of over-confidence and combined with a lack of patience and that “hot-botch” aircraft increased the risk-factor greatly. Local vagaries of weather may have been a factor too.
    From what you say, it seems like the change in c.g. caused a stall, the large drag from the pontoons aggravated it, and the proximity to the ground, ultimately led to the fatal crash.
    I intend to follow up these “larger than life” characters. Thank you, Symonsez for sharing.

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