The One-Eyed Barnstormer Who Invented the Space Suit in the 1930s

The space suit has become synonymous with the astronaut, defining the occupation more than any other piece of equipment. Essentially flexible, one-person spacecraft, space suits protect astronauts from the harsh environment of outer space and have been key to countless spaceflight achievements, from walking on the moon to the building the International Space Station. But while humans first reached space in 1961, the technology behind space suits was pioneered some 30 years before in the depths of the Great Depression, by a maverick one-eyed aviator from Oklahoma named Wiley Post.

Wiley Post was an unlikely aviation pioneer. Born in Grand Saline, Texas in 1898 to a large family of farmers, Post moved to Oklahoma at the age of five. Though interested in machines from an early age, Post was not cut out for formal education and dropped out of school after the eighth grade, choosing instead to work on the family farm while teaching himself science and mathematics. Like many pilots of his generation, Post was became enthralled with aviation after seeing a flying demonstration at a local county fair. As he later recalled:

“To this day I have never seen a bit of machinery that has taken my breath away as did that old [Curtiss D] pusher. The old urge to fly came over me, and straightaway I embarked on my aviation career.”

Determined to one day own and fly his own aircraft, Post began studying automobile repair and radio operation in Kansas City, then set off to work as a roughneck during the Oklahoma oil boom of the early 1920s.This work proved less steady than he hoped, and Post briefly turned to armed robbery, serving a year in jail in 1922. Following his release, Post befriended a local barnstorming troupe, Burrell Tibbs and his Texas Topnotch Fliers, and learned that their parachute jumper had been injured and could no longer perform. Figuring that this was as good an entry into aviation as any, Post volunteered to take his place on the weekends, working in the oilfields during the week. Over the next two years Post would perform nearly 100 jumps, often earning $200 a jump (about $3000 today). Then, in 1926, an accident nearly ended Post’s aviation career before it had even begun. A fellow roughneck was pounding a bolt with a hammer when a small metal sliver flew out and embedded itself in Post’s left eye. The eye soon developed a serious infection which threatened to spread, so Post gave his doctor permission to remove the eye. Thereafter he often wore an eyepatch which would soon become his signature. With his depth perception ruined, however, Post had to completely relearn how to gauge distance and altitude while flying:

“I didn’t stay discouraged. I practiced gauging depth on hills and trees. Then I would step off the distance. At first, my mental calculations were far off, but by the end of two months I was a better judge of distance than I had ever been. If they ever changed the height of a phone pole or a two-storey building, Id be in trouble. That’s how I sight myself in.”

Yet what could have been a career-ending tragedy turned out to have a silver lining, as Post was awarded $1800 in workman’s compensation benefits for the accident. He immediately used this to buy an old Curtiss Jenny biplane and went into business as a freelance pilot, flying oilmen to inspect their wells during the week and barnstorming on weekends. In 1927 Post eloped with a Texas rancher’s daughter named Mae Laine, spiriting her away in his biplane. However, the engine failed shortly into their escape, forcing them down near the town of Graham where they convinced the local parson to marry them.

Shortly thereafter, Post head that wealthy Oil Tycoon F.C. Hall was looking for a personal pilot, and camped out outside Hall’s office in Chikasa, Oklahoma in order to land the job. As Hall and his family found flying in an open-cockpit biplane uncomfortable, he sent Post to Burbank to pick up a brand-new Lockheed Vega. Introduced in 1928, the Vega was a highly-advanced design for its day, with a lightweight but durable fuselage made of moulded plywood, a strong high-mounted cantilever wing, and a streamlined NACA cowling over its powerful 450 horsepower Wasp engine. Post immediately fell in love with the aircraft, which Hall named Winnie Mae after his daughter, and began dreaming of using her to break aviation records.

But it was not to be. After barely a year, Hall decided that Post’s salary and Winnie Mae’s upkeep was too expensive, and ordered Post to return the aircraft to the Lockheed factory in Burbank. For the next year Post worked a sales representative and test pilot for Lockheed, until on June 5, 1930, Hall unexpectedly called and asked Post to return along with Winnie Mae. When Post revealed the original aircraft had been sold to Nevada Airlines, Hall simply bought another one. With Hall’s blessing, Post upgraded the aircraft with a supercharger and a larger fuel tank in order to compete in the 1930 Men’s Air Derby, a prestigious air race between Los Angeles and Chicago. Amazingly, despite losing 40 minutes due to a compass error, Post won the race by over an hour. Hall was elated, and not only allowed Post to keep the $7500 prize money, but agreed to bankroll any future flight records he wanted to attempt. Thinking big, Post set his sights on a round-the-world flight. At the time, the record was held not by a heavier-than-air aircraft but the dirigible airship Graf Zeppelin, which had accomplished the feat in 1928 in 21 days. Post was determined to change that.

In the early morning hours of May 23, 1931, Post and Navigator Harold Gatty took off from Roosevelt Field in New York in the heavily-modified Winnie Mae and headed northeast towards Harbour Grace in Newfoundland. What followed was an epic 24,903 km journey that would take Post and Gatty across the Atlantic to Liverpool and Hanover, across the vast Russian steppe from Moscow to Khabarovsk, across the Pacific Ocean to Fairbanks Alaska, and back to New York via Edmonton and Cleveland. When  they landed back at Roosevelt Field, 8 days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes after taking off, their reception rivalled that of Charles Lindbergh three years before, with Post and Gatty being honoured with lunch at the White House and a ticker tape parade through New York City.     

But all was not banquets and tributes. Though Post and Gatty had collaborated closely on planning the flight, the press painted Gatty as the real brains of the operation and Post as merely a hired pilot. Stung by this snub, Post decided to repeat his round-the-world flight – but this time flying solo. To accomplish this feat, Post needed two brand-new pieces of technology. The first was an autopilot, which would help reduce fatigue on the longer legs of the journey. Though none were commercially available at the time, Post convinced the Sperry Gyroscope Company to let him install their prototype in Winnie Mae. The second piece of equipment was an automatic radio direction finder that would allow Post to navigate  using civilian radio stations. This had been developed by the U.S. Army, who were more than happy to let Post to test it under actual flight conditions.

Post set off alone from Floyd Bennet Field, New York, on July 15, 1933. 26 hours later he landed at Tempelhof airport, becoming the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Berlin. Post had planned to make only four more refuelling stops at Novosibirsk, Khabarovsk, Fairbanks, and Edmonton, but mechanical trouble with the autopilot forced him to land in Moscow to have it repaired. Over the trackless wastes of Siberia  and the Pacific Ocean the autopilot proved invaluable, even allowing Post to lightly doze off. To prevent himself from falling asleep, Post tied a wrench to his finger with a string; if his grip loosened the wrench would fall out and jolt him awake. Yet despite this the flight was fraught with difficulties. On several occasions Winnie Mae became stuck in the Siberian mud and the locals had to drag her out, while just outside Fairbanks the engine failed, forcing Post to crash-land in the town of Flat, Alaska, and wait for mechanics to arrive. But when Post finally landed back at Floyd Bennet Field on July 22, his reception exceeded that of his previous flight, with 50,000 New Yorkers breaking through fences and gates to mob the famous aviator. Post’s solo journey had taken only 7 days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes – smashing his previous record by almost an entire day.

But while Post had secured his place in the history books twice over, he was far from finished, and immediately began casting about for new challenges. The perfect opportunity came in 1934 when the Australian city of Melbourne organized an epic transcontinental air race to celebrate its 100th Anniversary. Sponsored by the MacRobertson Confectionary Company, the MacRobertson Air Race challenged pilots to fly from RAF Mildenhall in England to Flemington Race Course outside Melbourne – a distance of some 18,000 kilometres – with mandatory refuelling stops at Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin, and Charleville. The thrill of the race and the £15,000 prize money proved irresistible to Post, and he immediately began preparations to enter the race. Unfortunately, by this time Winnie Mae was beginning to show her age, and would be seriously outclassed by the advanced aircraft types flown by the other competitors. But Post had a plan: he would fly at an altitude of 9,000 metres, where the air was thinner and he could fly faster. Furthermore, his research indicated that there were powerful high-altitude winds at these altitudes that would help him on his way. Today these winds are known as Jet Streams.

But Post faced a major problem: how to breathe and remain conscious at such altitudes. The ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen from a gas mixture like air is dependent not on its proportion but rather its partial pressure – the contribution that the oxygen makes to the overall pressure of the mixture. As altitude increases, the proportion of oxygen in the air remains steady at around 21%, but its partial pressure decreases along with the overall air pressure, meaning that above 3,000 metres humans not acclimatized to high altitudes begin to suffer from hypoxia or oxygen starvation. But such altitudes are not inherently fatal, and over time the body acclimatizes by producing more oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood. In this manner residents of mountainous regions like the Himalayas and the Andes are able function normally at altitudes up to 5,000 metres. But there is a limit to such acclimatization: above 8,000 metres – an altitude known to mountaineers as the death zone, sustaining life for any useful period becomes all but impossible.

Thankfully, this barrier is easily overcome by breathing pure oxygen. While the overall pressure of the oxygen remains low, the fact that its proportion in the gas mixture is now 100% brings its partial pressure up to breathable levels. Breathing oxygen is effective up to altitudes of around 12,000 metres, above which atmospheric pressure is so low that even pure oxygen has insufficient partial pressure to sustain life. While it is possible to breathe pressurized oxygen, this introduces a new problem: the difference in pressure between the outside atmosphere and the inside of the lungs makes it very difficult for a pilot to exhale. Fighter pilots are trained to exhale forcefully or “pressure breathe” at high altitudes, but this quickly becomes exhausting and is only used in emergencies for short periods to allow the pilot to descend to a safer altitude.

But hypoxia and difficulty exhaling are not the only dangers pilots face at high altitudes. Above 12,000 metres low pressure can cause nitrogen bubbles to escape from the tissues, leading to decompression sickness – AKA the Bends. Expansion of gas in the inner ear and digestive tract can also cause extreme pain and tissue damage. Above 19,000 m the pressure is so low that any exposed moisture – including that in the mouth and lungs – will start to boil away, destroying the lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen. This is known as the Armstrong Limit, after Major General Harry Armstrong, the U.S. Air Force flight surgeon who first described this phenomenon.

For these reasons, aircraft flying at altitudes above 3,000 metres typically feature pressurized cabins. To prevent unnecessary stress to the aircraft structure, most aircraft are pressurized not to sea level but a higher but tolerable altitude – typically 2,100 for most commercial airliners. Unfortunately, however, the Winnie Mae’s plywood fuselage could not be made airtight, and installing a pressurized capsule around the would have made the aircraft far too heavy. For Post, there was only one solution: he would pressurize his own body instead.

The idea of the pressure suit was not an entirely new one. In the late 1920s and early 1930s researchers like Oxford professor Dr. John Haldane and American adventurer Mark Ridge had experimented with modified diving suits to allow pilots to make high-altitude balloon flights. However, none of these early suits ever made it past the prototype stage. To help build his suit, Post partnered with engineer Russel S. Colley of the B.F. Goodrich Company. Together, Post and Colley constructed a serious of three prototype pressure suits, each more sophisticated than the last. The first was constructed from an airtight rubber bladder covered in a rubberized-canvas outer later to protect the bladder from damage and prevent it from ballooning under pressure. The suit was split into upper and lower halves connected and sealed by a metal clamp at the waist. This was topped with a cylindrical aluminium helmet with two bulges to accommodate headphones, a rectangular glass viewing port, and a small door over Post’s mouth to allow him to eat and drink. Unfortunately, this prototype ruptured while being pressure-tested at Wright Field in Ohio. The second prototype fared little better, as it proved so tight that Post could not get it off, forcing the suit to be cut away from his body.

The third prototype, however, would form the template for nearly every pressure suit to come. Like the previous two it was made of rubber covered in canvas, though it was constructed in one piece, with Post entering through the rubberized collar like a diving suit. Pigskin boots and gloves protected the hands and feet from damage, and the suit was topped by a cylindrical aluminium helmet with a circular viewport. The suit was pressurized using air bled off Winnie Mae’s engine supercharger and heated by a coil wrapped around the exhaust manifold, enriched from a portable bottle of liquid oxygen. The whole affair was custom-made for Post, the helmet’s viewport being offset to the right to align with Post’s good eye and the oxygen inlet positioned to vent the cold oxygen onto his eyepatch.

Though more advanced than any suit that had come before, Post and Colley’s creation suffered from a problem that has dogged pressure suit designers ever since: when the suit was inflated, the joints became stiff and immovable, limiting Post’s range of motion. The helmet also tended to ride up atop the suit, obscuring his vision. Though modern pressure address this issue using accordion-like convolutes at the joints and a system of restraining cables, the best solutions Post and Colley could come up with were aluminium hinges to help the knees and elbows bend and bandolier-like straps to hold the helmet down. The suit was also tailored to fit Post in the sitting position, which made walking to and from the aircraft extremely awkward.

Yet despite these problems, the suit worked. Following preliminary testing in an altitude chamber, on September 5, 1934, Post made the world’s first flight using a pressure suit, reaching an altitude of 12,800 metres over Chicago. Post reported that the suit was reasonably comfortable and did not interfere with his ability to pilot the aircraft. Later that year Post made eight flights over Bartlesville, Oklahoma in an attempt to break the world altitude record. Though he reported reaching an altitude of 15,200 metres (about 50,000 feet), on every attempt the official altitude recording equipment installed by the National Aeronautic Association and National Bureau of Standards failed, and Post was denied an official record. On the bright side, these flights did allow Post confirm the existence of the high-altitude winds he was so eager to exploit.

By this time, however, Post had missed out on competing in the MacRoberston Air Race due to a broken supercharger, and instead he turned his attention to breaking the transcontinental speed record between Los Angeles and New York. Once again his plan was to fly in the stratosphere, using the high-altitude jet stream to speed his progress. Sponsored by Phillips Petroleum and TWA Airlines, Post modified Winnie Mae for the attempt by fitting her with detachable landing gear that could be jettisoned after takeoff to reduce drag, and a wooden skid under the fuselage for landing. After making five flights over Burbank to test the aircraft and his pressure suit, on February 22, 1935, Post took off on his first transcontinental attempt. Unfortunately, his engine began leaking oil barely 30 minutes into the flight, forcing Post to land on Muroc Dry Lake Bed in the Mojave desert only 90 kilometres away. Unable to remove his pressure suit, Post walked to the nearest house for assistance, reportedly causing the occupant to faint at the sight of him. Later, Post’s mechanics determined that the leak was caused by emery powder poured into the engine; someone had deliberately tampered with the aircraft.

Undaunted, Post repaired his aircraft and on March 5 he tried again. This time he made it as far as Cleveland before his oxygen supply ran out. Encouragingly, his calculations revealed that flying in the jet stream had given him an average ground speed of 446 km/h – nearly 160 km/h faster than Winnie Mae’s regular top speed. Post tried again on April 14 and June 15, but was brought down by engine failure both times. Post decided that Winnie Mae was too old and tired for future attempts and sold her to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where she remains on display to this day.

Wiley Post’s record-breaking days were also at an end. On August 15, 1935, Post and humorist Will Rogers had just taken off from Point Barrow, Alaska in a Lockheed Orion-Explorer floatplane when the engine suddenly failed, sending the aircraft plunging into the lake and killing both men. Post was only 36. But in his short time on earth, he left an indelible mark on the world of aviation and pioneered technologies that would help mankind explore beyond the confines of planet earth. Nearly every modern space suit – from the A7L suits the Apollo astronauts wore on the moon to the EMUs used by the crew of the International Space Stations – can trace their origins to a rubber-and-canvas contraption built by a one-eyed barnstormer from Oklahoma.

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Expand for References

Nevin, David, The Pathfinders, The Epic of Flight, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1980

Young, Amanda, Spacesuits – The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Collection, Powerhouse Books, New York, 2009

Jenkins, Dennis, Dressing for Altitude, NASA, Washington DC, 2012

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