Wiley Post Unexpectedly Drops In To Visit Pancho at Rancho Oro Verde

In early January 1935, Pancho Barnes and her young son, Billy Barnes, moved to Rancho Oro Verde (later known as The Happy Bottom Riding Club), where they planned to live full time. On February 22nd of that same year, Wiley Post, who was world-famous for being the first pilot to fly solo around the world, “belly” landed his Lockheed Vega, the ‘Winnie Mae,’ on Muroc Dry Lake, which was close to Pancho Barnes’ Rancho Oro Verde.

The Vega was a six-passenger monoplane built by Lockheed starting in 1927. It became famous as a result of being flown by record-breaking pilots such as Wiley Post, who were drawn to its sturdy and long-range design. At the time, airplane cabins could not be pressurized, so Post had helped design a pressurized suit that would allow him to fly his Lockheed Vega for extended periods in the sub-stratosphere.

On that day, Post was attempting to set a record for a transcontinental high-altitude flight in the sub-stratosphere from Burbank, California, to New York. In the very early morning, wearing his pressurized suit, he departed from United Air Terminal in Burbank, headed for New York. However, the flight was short-lived. After flying for only 31 minutes and traveling about 57 miles, his engine started throwing oil, and he prepared for an emergency landing.

Post was quite concerned about making an emergency landing because his gas tanks were near full, holding over 300 gallons of gasoline. However, being an experienced, expert pilot, he was able to skillfully glide the ‘Winnie Mae’ to a safe “belly” landing on the Muroc Dry Lake bed.

Post had to “belly” land because he could not risk using his landing gear, as the wheels hitting a soft spot in the sand would cause the plane to flip over, explode and burst into flames. His plane came down so quietly that a man testing a wind-sail car about 400 yards away on the dry lakes did not hear the plane land. Indeed, the man almost collapsed in fright when Post, still wearing his strange-looking pressurized suit, approached him asking for help unscrewing the helmet’s rear wing nuts.

Wiley Post in his pressurized suit

While his plane was being picked up and returned to Burbank for repair, Post paid a surprise visit to his old friend, Pancho Barnes. Barnes had been an early test pilot for the Loughead brothers (founders of Lockheed) and had flight tested the Lockheed Vega several years earlier. Pancho and Wiley shared stories about their experiences in the Lockheed Vega and celebrated life with several rounds of drinks at her home bar. Post told Pancho that the oil leak issue was probably due to a broken oil line. However, a few days later it was discovered that the plane had been deliberately sabotaged by a fellow disgruntled pilot who was upset that Post’s successes were jeopardizing his own sponsorship.

Three weeks later, on March 5, 1935, Wiley Post attempted another transcontinental record, flying from Burbank to New York. The flight was going smoothly until he was about 100 miles east of Cleveland when his oxygen supply ran out. He had to turn back and land in Cleveland. Despite this setback, Post found out on landing that he had arrived in just 7 hours and 19 minutes, setting a new record. On that 2,035 mile flight he had averaged 279 miles per hour and, at times, even reached a ground speed of 340 miles per hour, which was about 100 miles per hour faster than the normal maximum air speed rating for the plane. Wiley Post had also discovered the previously unknown jet stream!

Later that year, in August 1935, Wiley Post became interested in surveying a mail-and-passenger air route from the West Coast of the United States to Russia. His friend, American humorist Will Rogers, often visited him at the airport in Burbank and asked Post to fly him through Alaska in search of new material for his newspaper column. While Post piloted an experimental aircraft specifically built for this adventure, Rogers wrote his columns on his typewriter. Unfortunately, tragedy struck on August 15, 1935, when both men were killed when their plane crashed during takeoff from a lagoon near Point Barrow in the Territory of Alaska.

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Dr. Louis F. D'Elia is the custodian of the Estate of Pancho Barnes and a Trustee of the Flight Test Museum Foundation at Edwards Air Force Base.