Eighty years ago this month, toward the end of the Golden Age of Aviation, two pilots set out in a race to fly around the world solo. To celebrate Independence Day, I want to share with you the stories of these forgotten American heroes. The story is excerpted from Cloud Racers, a multimedia book I wrote and have posted online. (Disclosure: The book is free but I am founder and chairman of eStoryStudio, a do-it-yourself multimedia book platform for authors, which hosts the material.)
In a race against space and time, reliant on temperamental technology and the whims of weather and terrain, these brave souls swept through unwelcoming skies in planes made of little more than canvas stretched over plywood and held together by baling wire and glue, powered by 450-horsepower engines – equivalent to today’s economy cars, although they propelled twice the poundage in plane, passenger and petrol. It was incredibly dangerous. For those who made it, such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart – the first man and woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean – came fame and fortune, tickertape parades up Broadway in New York City, and vast riches. But aerial daredevils who failed often disappeared with nary a ripple in the vast expanse of oceans, or their bodies crushed and seared in flaming wrecks.
During the summer of 1933, in one cockpit, was Wiley Post, the one-eyed pilot from Oklahoma, a grammar school dropout with a 6th grade education. After losing an eye in an oilrig accident he took the insurance money, bought a used open-cockpit turbo prop plane and taught himself to fly. Little about Wiley Post’s appearance bespoke greatness. He was short and squat, as if the Lord told him this is all there is so make the best of it. Reporters described the Oklahoman pilot with the 6th grade education as “stocky,” “stout,” “pudgy” and “plump.” In truth, Post was downright unattractive, and that was before he lost an eye. Only when he posed for photos, which he viewed as a formal occasion, would he pop in his glass eye. Otherwise he didn’t bother, especially while flying because at high altitudes it froze and gave him headaches. Instead he donned a white patch that became his trademark.
Racing through clouds, however, Post was transformed into a swashbuckling hero. As one of his students put it, “He didn’t just fly an airplane, he put it on.” Up there, kissing clouds, Post was a bold risk taker with a need for speed, a pilot, it was said, who could land on a mountain peak. Those who knew him were not only impressed with his piloting skill, but his sheer courage. “He apparently didn’t have a nerve in his body,” said a businessman who flew with him on numerous occasions. “When other people were scared, Wiley just grinned.” Another pilot claimed that Post made cross-country hops without even looking at a compass or a map. He flew strictly by feel, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. His takeoffs could be flashy, almost vertiginous. From a near standing start he would shoot almost straight up then bank right so he could see out of his good eye.
In the other cockpit sat Jimmie Mattern, who had been dreaming of flying around the world from the moment he had taken his first airplane ride. Tall, good-looking and chatty, Mattern could win three sides of any argument. Men wanted to be like him. Women wanted to be with him. Newspapermen touted his charisma, and used almost homoerotic terms to describe his appearance – “handsome,” “hulking,” “barrel-chested,” “broad-shouldered,” “chestnut-“ or “flaxen-haired” – while characterizing his personality as “cheerful,” “friendly,” “down-to-earth,” and, given his vast accomplishments, “modest.” Mattern made for good copy, in part because he seemed to be having more fun than anyone else.
He was also perhaps the greatest crash survivor of his time, something he would become famous for. Mattern’s wife got used to him disappearing in some remote area. 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 prairies of Texas, 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. Mattern scrounged up another ship and this time flopped down into some Georgia 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. 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, too late for the race. But all this would pale in comparison to what would happen to him when he raced Wiley Post.
Two years earlier, in 1931, both had attempted to “girdle the globe,” as 1930’s newspapers put it. Riding with Post in his “Winnie Mae” was Harold Gatty, who had served in the Australian navy and was, according to Charles Lindbergh, “the best navigator in the country, if not the world.” Gatty was so good he could mark his location simply by looking at the sun or moon, or by studying the flight patterns of birds. Later he would become a consultant to the U.S. Navy and pen a book for lost sailors on how to navigate without a map or compass. As the Winnie Mae skimmed over the ocean Gatty folded himself into the cramped space behind a jumble of fuel tanks and spent his time poking his sextant through a port in the roof, scribbling computations, and pumping fuel into the wing tanks.
The two aviators made it in a little over eight days, with newspapers trying to cover their every landing and takeoff. They had suffered several mishaps along the way – treacherous weather and fog so thick over the Atlantic that Post would later declare, “I don’t think we can honestly say we were lost, but we just didn’t know where we were.” Two inches of rain covered the airfield at Blagovyeschensk, Siberia, and the Winnie Mae was trapped in mud for fourteen hours until it could be rescued. Their most serious mishap occurred on day seven in Solomon, Alaska, when the Winnie Mae’s propeller bent. Post hopped out with a wrench, broken-handled hammer and round stone, straightened out the blades and jumped back inside the cockpit. Gatty yelled “all clear” and swung the prop to restart the motor, but the engine backfired. Before he could jump out of the way the blade opposite spun into his shoulder. He was fortunate he had been hit by the blade’s flat side otherwise he might have been sliced in two. As it was, he twisted his back and suffered a deep bruise.
When they dropped out of the sky in New York, they were greeted as conquering heroes. A mob scene broke out as well-wishers tried frantically to get to their plane, and the cops busted heads trying to keep order. The next day they rode in a tickertape parade up Broadway, which blanketed the city in three million pounds of confetti and was attended by more people than saw Lindbergh and Admiral Byrd upon his return from the South Pole. At City Hall Mayor James “Jimmy” Walker awarded them medals and told them they must have looked at the Winnie Mae as the “Winnie Must” when they were over Siberia and the “Winnie Did” when they landed at Roosevelt Field. They then visited the White House as honored guests of President Herbert Hoover.
A few months later, accompanying Mattern in his “Century of Progress” was World War I flying ace Bennett H. Griffin, who split the flying duties with his friend. Mattern and Griffin had spent a week at the Air Corps training center at Randolph Field in Texas to learn to navigate by instrument so they could fly blind, if need be. The plane toted four hundred and fifty gallons of fuel weighing more than a ton, much of it in the wing-mounted barrels Wiley Post loaned them. Mattern had asked Post this favor because they owned identical planes, so the tanks could be attached without any customization. Amelia Earhart said, “It was just like Wiley to let them take the extra tanks out of his plane and put them in their Lockheed.” Harold Gatty donated navigation advice, maps and charts, recommending that Mattern and Griffin stick to Post and Gatty’s original route, hugging the earth’s northernmost latitudinal rings. All were rivals, of course, yet they belonged to the same informal club of pilots pushing boundaries. It would never have occurred to any of them not to help.
Mattern and Griffin made it as far as Russia, where they crashed into a peat bog, their plane destroyed. They were lucky to get out alive. The KGB arrested the two aviators and placed them under house arrest at a hotel in Minsk. Before a military tribunal in the Kremlin they were accused of spying, questioned for a day and a half then suddenly informed they were free to go. The authorities helped them cart up the wreckage and send it home, while the two of them returned to America via Europe, stopping in several capitals along the way as tourists. Waiting for them at home was an invitation from President Herbert Hoover to visit the White House. Mattern’s mother told a niece, 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 would have none of that. He vowed to try again, alone, just as soon as he could scrounge up a plane. On June 3, 1933, Mattern, this time going alone, took off from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field in his rebuilt Century of Progress. He would become more famous for this flight, except it wouldn’t be for flying solo around the world or beating Post and Gatty’s record. It was because he failed, crashing in Siberia, where he was marooned, alone, forced to live off the land. He kept diaries and I gained access to them. His situation looked bleak and he was close to death.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, a month’s worth of American newspaper headlines told Mattern’s tale of trepidation and dashed hopes:
- MATTERN MISSING ON ALASKA FLIGHT: BAD WEATHER ON ROUTE FOR AND NEAR-FREEZING TEMPERATURE CAUSE ALARM AS FUEL TIME LIMIT PASSES (New York Times)
- FISHING VESSELS ON LOOKOUT FOR WORLD AIRMAN; FOGS IN BERING SEA HIDE FATE OF JIMMIE MATTERN (Washington Post)
- NAVY SENT IN SEARCH OF MATTERN; ALL SHIPS IN VICINITY ORDERED TO HUNT FOR LOST WORLD FLYER (Los Angeles Times)
- NO WORD IS RECEIVED (New York Times)
- MATTERN SEARCH HELD UP BY FOG (Chicago Tribune)
- MATTERN REMAINS UNREPORTED (Hartford Courant)
- JAPAN KEEPS UP HUNT FOR MATTERN (New York Times)
- MATTERN HUNT PARTY FORMED; REWARD OF $5000 OFFERED (Los Angeles Times)
- STORMS HALT PLANE ON WAY TO HUNT FOR MATTERN (Chicago Tribune)
- RUSSIANS SEEK MATTERN; SEARCH TO BE INTENSIFIED (New York Times)
Given up for dead, Mattern was rescued by Eskimos in the nick of time. He eventually made his way to Anadyr, a Siberian outpost above the Arctic Circle, and sent a telegram. His message consisted of six words: “Safe at Anadyr, Siberia. Jimmie Mattern.” (You’ll find much more detail, including excerpts from Mattern’s actual diaries, in Cloud Racers.)
Shortly after, with Mattern a captive guest in Anadyr, Wiley Post took off from the same airfield that Mattern had used. Using a Sperry autopilot he had nicknamed “Mechanical Mike” and a state-of-the-art navigation system, Post took off across the Atlantic. While the polished and culturally attuned Mattern trusted his gut when he flew, Post, the farm boy, traded up to the latest and greatest technology. It would prove to be the difference maker, as Post conquered the globe in an even better time than he had with Gatty.
Post once again received a hero’s welcome, feted at the White House (this time by President Roosevelt) and given his second tickertape parade up Broadway, while Mattern limped home a couple of weeks later. But Post never was able to capitalize on his record-setting accomplishments. He barely eked out a living as a flier, even after breaking altitude records and inventing the modern day space suit.
Meanwhile, through failure, Mattern became a bigger celebrity than if he had actually succeeded. After visiting the White House he opened a two-week engagement at New York’s Paramount Theater, earning an eye-popping $17,000 a week – roughly $250,000 a week in today’s dollars. Audiences lined up to hear him talk about surviving the Arctic tundra until Eskimos rescued him. He followed that with another two weeks at the Chicago’s State and Lake Theater. Mattern forgot flying for a while and lived the high life, moving into a suite at the Sherman Hotel in the Loop in Chicago.
The following year he starred on a radio show, sponsored by the Pure Oil Company, that dramatized his life. During its run, Mattern embellished much of his early life for the sake of entertainment. He claimed he had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and graduated as his class’s top cadet, rescued a woman and her baby who were trapped in a forest fire, went on tour with a famous wing walker who died after jumping from his plane, worked as a private pilot for a wealthy businessman in Hawaii, and increased the number of films he worked on as a stunt pilot from one to three. But he never exaggerated his round-the-world flying adventures and Siberian crash landing. These needed no doctoring. The company pumped $1 million into the development of the show, called “The Diary of Jimmie Mattern.” Seventy-two stations across the nation carried it five nights a week for 23 weeks.
Mattern rode out the next few years of the Great Depression living the high life, dating starlets and chorus girls, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, including Will Rogers, who never met an airman he didn’t like.
As for Post, despite his record-shattering achievements, he is perhaps and unfairly remembered for one thing, and it also involves Will Rogers, the famous actor, writer and comedian. In 1937, Post and Rogers were flying in Alaska when the engine cut out and Post’s plane plummeted into a lake, killing both men instantly.
“They are not forgotten,” Mattern wrote in his diary. “They were my friends.”
You can read the whole gripping yarn in Cloud Racers, which also has newsreel footage, photos, and schematics of the planes.