By Neil Taylor
June 30, 1931 the weather was bad – very bad. It had been raining in Edmonton off and on for days, and overnight two-thirds of an inch of rain had fallen on the city. Everything was soaked, including the crowds who had gathered at Blatchford Field awaiting the winged arrival of American pilot Wiley Post and his Australian navigator Harold Gatty, the adventurous aviators who were in the homestretch of their historic around-the-world flight.
Post and Gatty, in their high-wing monoplane Lockheed Vega named Winnie Mae, had left New York City on June 23, 1931 headed east along the Atlantic coast to Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, the first stop on the their epic journey. Over the following seven days, the pair successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean and stopped in England, Germany, and several points in Russia, before reaching Solomon and Fairbanks, Alaska.
Their flight had come close to disaster in Solomon. While taking off from the beach the Winnie Mae became trapped in the sand, nosed over and bent a propeller. Post managed to straighten the propeller tips with the aid of a hammer, wrench and stone, but Gatty, while attempting to start the engine by a hand pull, was struck by the propeller leaving him with a bad bruise and a wrenched back. Still the two men soldiered on, arriving in Fairbanks sore and exhausted.
While the Winnie Mae was being refueled, Post and Gatty grabbed some sleep before departing Fairbanks at 3:25 am local time bound for Edmonton. Almost immediately they flew into rain and fog, less than desirous conditions as they needed to overfly several mountain ranges along the route. Fortunately, during one patch of clear weather, they spotted the Canadian National Railway line west of Edmonton and followed into the city.
Meanwhile, the crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 people gathered at Blatchford Field anxiously scanned the sodden skies for any sign of the Winnie Mae. Finally they spotted it, a tiny speck bearing down on the airfield in the midst of a heavy downpour. Although it was only mid-afternoon, landing field lights had been lit as a guide. The Vega passed directly over the airfield before turning into the wind at the southern edge of the property. Post executed a perfect landing, and the Winnie Mae came to a halt at 4:35 pm Edmonton time having travelled 1,450 miles from Fairbanks.
Post was the first to emerge from the aircraft cabin, and while the wet, eager crowd pressed in from all sides, his priority was to make sure the Winnie Mae was okay. Gatty joined him and the two aviators were in the midst of hand shaking when a car pushed through the admiring throng and drove them over to Blatchford’s hangar. Here they were welcomed by the Hon. Vernon Smith, provincial minister of railways and telephones, and Mayor James Douglas.
Post and Gatty were anxious to have their aircraft refueled and continue their journey, but after conferring with Jimmy Bell, the airport manager, they decided the seriously soaked airfield was unsafe for takeoff. Instead, they were whisked off to the Hotel Macdonald, where they were soon sound asleep exhausted from their long flight.
At 2 am on July 1, Post and Gatty awoke, dressed, ate breakfast then headed back to the airfield. The damp weather had cooled the Winnie Mae, and at first the engine refused to catch. It was only after a rope was tied to a boot that fit over the end of the propeller and a team of men pulled with all their might that the engine sputtered, then caught hold.
One problem still remained. The incessant rain had soaked the airfield grass so thoroughly that Post was afraid the Winnie Mae would be damaged if a takeoff was attempted. But Jimmy Bell had already thought about this problem, and while Post and Gatty slept, he arranged for workmen to remove the overhead wires along the two-mile concrete stretch of Portage Avenue (now Kingsway) that bordered Blatchford Field. The Winnie Mae was moved to Portage Avenue and at 3:39 am local time, Post and Gatty took to the air for the final two legs of their historic flight.
They flew 1600 miles to Cleveland where they refueled before continuing on to Roosevelt Field at New York City, the starting point for their around-the-world flight eight days earlier. An estimated ten thousand people were on hand to welcome Post and Gatty, and they were immediate celebrities. A ticker tape parade through the streets of New York was held in their honour, and they met President Herbert Hoover at the White House.
Wiley Post and Harold Gatty had set a new world record of 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes for an around-the-world flight beating the previous record holder, the Graf Zeppelin airship, by more than twelve days. For Edmontonians, it had been a chance to be a part of history, and despite the atrocious weather, they would have fond memories of the moment for years to come.