The other day I was researching something for an upcoming book when I came across a very brief reference to a plane named the Winnie Mae. Now Winnie is not a very common name so when I see it it of course catches my eye. But the fact that my middle name is also Mae made this doubly relatable to me. So of course I immediately (if temporarily) abandoned my other research endeavor to go down this intriguing rabbit trail. And here is some of what I found out about my namesake.
The Winnie Mae is a Vega six passenger monoplane built by the Lockheed company. Vega aircraft were used by several record-breaking pilots, including Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post. These planes were high-wing aircraft that were beautifully streamlined, unlike the more ‘draggy’ biplanes or planes with exposed wing struts.
In 1928 Florence Hall, a Chickasha, Oklahoma oilman, purchased one of these Vega aircraft so he could fly to important meetings that were some distance away. Hall named the plane after his daughter, Winnie Mae. When the market crashed a year later, Hall was forced to sell the plane back to Lockheed, and he requested they remove the name from it. But one year later, 1930, Hall was ready to purchase another Vega, and he decided to name this new plane Winnie Mae once more.
Hall’s pilot was the one-eyed aviator Wiley Post. Hall had a keen interest in finding ways to further aviation developments and so it was easy for him to agree to let Wiley prepare the Winnie Mae for the LA to Chicago race that was part of the 1930 National Air Races. Several modifications were made to the plane and despite a delayed start, Wiley and the Winnie Mae won the race. In an interesting side note, Art Goebel, who was flying what had been the first Winnie Mae, came in second.
In 1931, Post wanted to make a go at flying around the world. Hall again allowed him to use the Winnie Mae. Additional modifications and improvements were made to the plane and Post recruited navigation expert Harold Gatty to accompany him. Post and Gatty’s route took them from New York, to Newfoundland, England, Germany, Russia, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, Cleveland and finally back to New York. Their official flight time was 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes, a new world record. Through it all, the Winnie Mae performed flawlessly, a testament to both Post’s preparedness and the Vega’s aerodynamic efficiency.
But Wiley Post had even greater ambitions. He decided that, by taking advantage of new and emerging advances in flight and radio technology, he could make a solo around the world flight and maybe even beat the record time he and Gatty had set. He purchased the Winnie Mae from Hall and took off for this second round the world trip on July 15, 1933. He followed basically the same route as he had the first time, but made fewer stops along the way. Post and the Winnie Mae managed to break the previous record by an impressive 21 hours and in doing so, Wiley Post became the first man to fly around the world twice, and the first man to do it solo.
But Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae, were not through with setting records. Looking to push further advances in round-the-world flight capabilities, Post looked for ways to achieve stratospheric flight. Post created a number of aircraft innovations to achieve his dream, including a completely enclosed pressure suit to wear that would still allow him to manuever well enough to pilot the plane. As of late 1954 Post unofficially reached an altitude of an estimated 50,000 feet, which allowed him to confirm the existence of the jet stream.
Post subsequently attempted four transcontinental flights through the stratosphere all of which were unsuccessful. In 1935 the Winnie Mae was retired and sold to the Smithsonian Intuition for $25000.
So what about you? Had you hear of the Winnie Mae before? And are there other famous ‘namesakes’ of yourself you’ve run across?