Hidden History

Two Men. Two Planes. One Race to Conquer the World.

In the golden age of aviation, a one-eyed Oklahoma farm boy and a handsome Hollywood stunt pilot embark on a historic and daring round-the-world rivalry.

Two Men. Two Planes. One Race to Conquer the World.

Jimmie Mattern returned to Coney Island’s Halfmoon Hotel at seven p.m., a pack of querulous reporters trailing him through the lobby and all the way to his room. He ordered a room service dinner, which the newshounds treated as a solemn occasion, although a few cracked “last supper” jokes under their breaths.

It was June 2, 1933, the night before the twenty-eight-year-old pilot would attempt to fly around the world, alone. If successful, he’d be the first; an inspiring story for a nation reeling from the Great Depression. Mattern tried to clear the room, but the reporters insisted on “just one more” question as photographers’ flashbulbs popped, etching electric blue tracers on the backs of his eyelids every time he blinked.

Six years earlier Charles A. Lindbergh had soared over the Atlantic in “The Spirit of St. Louis,” and single-handedly ushered in the era of aerial conquest. For pilots like Mattern, setting new aerial records became a compulsion that trumped levelheadedness. It was the Golden Age of Aviation, when record-setting attempts were common, albeit downright dangerous and foolhardy. Which was probably why they piqued the public’s imagination. In a race against space and time, reliant on temperamental technology and the whims of weather and terrain, these brave, hardy souls swept through unwelcoming skies in planes made of little more than canvas stretched over plywood, with meager 450-horsepower engines that had to propel thousands of pounds plane, passenger, and petrol.

Mechanical breakdowns were common. Radios had limited range. Maps were unreliable. Bad weather could result in a death sentence. At times fog and clouds forced pilots to fly blind: head off course a degree or two over an ocean and they risked running out of fuel with nowhere to land. Runways were often little more than stretches of sand, gravel or mud, which could tip a craft on its nose. It was no wonder that many aerial daredevils disappeared with nary a ripple in the vast expanse of oceans, or their bodies crushed and seared in flaming wrecks.

After Mattern ushered the last hack out of his room and switched off the lights, he was too jittery to sleep, tossing and turning until his sheets twirled in knots around his ankles. He filled time by running through a mental checklist of his plane’s equipment. Just as he dozed off, the phone rang. It was his meteorologist, Dr. James H. Kimball, who reported clear skies and helping winds for the first 1,200 miles, cold weather with perhaps some clouds to mid-ocean, and then storms the rest of the way to Ireland. There was a good chance Mattern would have westerly winds all the way across the Atlantic.

“That’s good enough for me,” said Mattern, who would fly blind in a blizzard if it meant a steady tailwind. He telephoned the field to order his plane made ready, then went back to bed while mechanics began fueling.

Mattern felt he had been asleep about five minutes when a knock kick-started him awake, followed by a muffled voice from behind the door. “C’mon, Jimmie. This is your big day.” Not one to waste time, he bolted out of bed fully dressed, figuring three and a half hours of sleep was better than nothing. He slipped his flight suit over a leather windbreaker and knickerbockers.

An hour later he was at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, a few steps from his garishly refurbished Century of Progress painted red, white and blue and festooned with a giant, menacing eagle. Well aware of his archrival Wiley Post’s own plans to girdle the earth alone — it had been in all the newspapers — Mattern had bet everything on beating his wily rival to take off.

In 1931 Wiley Post, the one-eyed pilot from Oklahoma, along with his spindly Australian navigator Harold Gatty, had circumnavigated the globe in eight days.

When the two aviators landed at Roosevelt Field they were greeted by 5,000 enthusiastic souls, causing the biggest traffic jam in history and overwhelming the police who took to cracking heads. They were given a hero’s welcome, showered with confetti in a parade up Broadway and invited to the White House. In a heartbeat, Post had gone from obscurity to global stardom. As soon as Mattern heard about it he vowed to try. The following year he and co-pilot Bennett Griffin tried to best Post and Gatty’s round-the-world time but crash-landed near Minsk, where the KGB arrested them as spies. Eventually they were released and what was left of their plane boxed up and sent home.

This time Mattern would go it alone, doubling the danger.

James J. Mattern (everyone called him “Jimmie”) had been dreaming of flying around the world from the moment he rode in his first airplane. 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 described him as “handsome,” “hulking,” “barrel-chested,” “broad-shouldered,” “chestnut-haired” or “flaxen-haired,” all while characterizing his personality as “cheerful,” “friendly,” “down-to-earth,” and, given his accomplishments, “modest.”

Jimmie Mattern right before take-off in 1933. (Photo courtesy: Adam Penenberg)
Jimmie Mattern right before take-off in 1933. (Photo courtesy: Adam Penenberg)

It figures the first time Mattern flew, the plane crashed. He walked away from crack-ups that would have maimed most others. In fact, he was the greatest crash survivor of his time —something for which he would become famous. His wife got used to him disappearing in remote areas. 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. He 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 to judge the race.

At Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, Mattern ran a gauntlet of reporters, telling them, “I’ll see you in about a week, I hope.” Waving, he climbed into the cockpit and shouted, “So long, fellas!”

A representative from Pathé News, which was paying him to shoot photos to distribute exclusively over the wire, leaned in to hand him a 35-millimeter box camera, which Mattern stashed in a small storage bin built into his cramped cabin, joining six oranges, some Japanese green tea, and two gaily painted thermoses holding hot and cold water, one labeled “Happy” the other “Landings” — gifts from artist George Luks.

Mattern’s mechanic had warmed the engine and parked the Lockheed Vega at the extreme edge of the runway, its tail resting on the grass so that every available inch would be available for takeoff. The plane held almost double its weight in fuel, making it a flying bomb, and Mattern wanted to be sure he could clear the expressway. If he couldn’t, he would set the record for the shortest round-the-world attempt in history. Glancing around the airfield, he half expected his one-eyed friend and nemesis to sidle up next to him on the runway, but last he heard Post was still in Oklahoma City, struggling to retrofit his plane with finicky new technology. Mattern had won this stage of the race but knew his relief would be short-lived.

He revved the engine and nodded to the mechanics, who pulled away the wheel chocks. At 4:40 a.m. the Century of Progress rolled down the runway, gradually gaining speed. At sixty miles per hour the wings bit into the westerly headwind and the tail came up. Mattern yanked the stick and the plane lifted clear, needing a little more than half of the 4,000-foot runway. The fuel-laden ship rose fifteen feet as it crossed a parking lot. Mattern pulled back on the stick as hard as he could and the plane inched up to thirty feet, struggling to clear Flatbush Avenue. He coaxed it higher, and by the time he was over Jamaica Bay he was 1,000 feet up, traveling at three miles a minute. He took a wide left bank turn and flew back over the airport and into the dawn sky. The cheering spectators below watched the Century of Progress fade into the Long Island haze as the red rim of the sun bled into the horizon.

On his way north, Mattern hugged the Eastern Seaboard, the weather joyously clear, a fifteen-mile-per-hour tailwind urging him along. By the time he hit Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, he was ten minutes off Post and Gatty’s pace, but since he didn’t need to refuel he actually picked up a couple of hours.

But something wasn’t right. Over open sea, his compass told him he was several degrees off course. Sipping hot tea, it occurred to him the vacuum-packed thermoses might be magnetized. Scowling, he smashed the one labeled “Happy” then the other labeled “Landings,” stuffing the shards through the tiny window. The compass remained off kilter.

He couldn’t figure out what could be causing this directional confusion until his eye settled on the boxy 35mm camera Pathé News had given him. Mattern snatched it off the shelf and passed it from his left hand to his right, watching the compass needle follow the camera’s path. The needle tracked it when he passed it the other way, too. Mattern rapped the camera body with his knuckles. Metal! He had run through what he thought was every possible detail and now this? The windows were too small to ditch the camera. He was trapped with it. All he could do was move it from one side of the cockpit to the other every fifteen minutes and hope he didn’t veer too far off course, run out of fuel, and vanish without a trace.

He might as well forget Paris. He would be lucky to locate the European continent. Less than a third of the way across the ocean, he smacked into whiplash turbulence, gale force winds, and pelting rain. He climbed to 6,000 feet to rise above it. Inside the cockpit Mattern was shivering; if he spit the gob would freeze before it hit his shoes. With ice forming on his wings, he pushed his plane’s nose down, seeking warmer air. He tried different altitudes and directions, veering south, and when that didn’t work, turning north. He dove deeper into the storm’s heart to within 100 feet of the water, afraid he might plow into the surf.

Suddenly there was a sickening sound from outside. Lightning struck one of his wings, cracking it. Heart racing, Mattern’s face went white. I guess I’m going to join all of the others that tried and didn’t make it. He thought of his mother, sitting by the radio in Dallas, waiting for word of her son, and his father, long gone from this earth.

And Mattern did the only thing he could do under the circumstances: keep piloting a wounded bird a thousand miles off course with no place to land.

Before dawn crept over Jamaica Bay on July 15, 1933 Post ambled to the airport register that logged every outgoing flight and signed his name. In the next box he scribbled, “From Floyd Bennett Field. Destination same.”

On his way past throngs of well-wishers held back by police tape to the Winnie Mae, Post fingered an old red medal another pilot had given him that had once been owned by Count Felix von Luckner, a World War I German naval officer famous for never suffering casualties. As Post watched mechanics pour five gallons of heated oil into his plane’s engine, Mae, his wife, slender and silent, stood nearby while a throng of people behind ropes cheered.

“Are you about gone?” she asked.

“Pretty soon,” he said.

“Be careful.”

“I will.”

These few words and a kiss were all the parting. She tried not to let her fears get the best of her. Mattern’s disappearance six weeks earlier had set her nerves on edge, but her husband reassured her. His plane had every possible modern innovation. One reason it had taken so long to get off the ground was the Army Air Corps installed a radio transmitter so he could fix his position from radio broadcasts just by knowing the stations’ call letters. He was also counting on his Sperry automatic pilot to do much of the flying for him — the first time a civilian aircraft had been outfitted with one — and a new propeller to shorten takeoff runs and squeeze every last mile out of his fuel. By secreting additional gas tanks in the wings, he dramatically increased his plane’s range.

Wiley and Mae Post pose for a newspaper photograph. (Photo courtesy: Adam Penenberg)
Wiley and Mae Post pose for a newspaper photograph. (Photo courtesy: Adam Penenberg)

This, he believed, was what separated him from Mattern. Post courted new technology, which was odd when he thought about it, given his rural upbringing, Oklahoma drawl, eighth-grade education, and down-home ways. Mattern, on the other hand, flew by the seat of his pants, as loquacious in flight as he was in life. In his rush to take off first, he had not considered the effects that sleep deprivation could have on a man, nor had he properly outfitted his plane to address this. Post reckoned his friend’s plane had crashed, accelerated by the poor decision-making that was the inevitable byproduct of saturating fatigue.

To most people, Post knew he came across as an uneducated hick, but he was only one of two men in the world who knew what it took to circle the globe. He was leaving nothing to chance. Just in case, Post also incorporated decidedly less high-tech measures. He planned to tie a string around his finger and to the other end attach a wrench. If he fell asleep and his hand slipped off the stick, the wrench would clang to the floor and wake him.

In his natty new gray suit with blue shirt and tie, Post climbed into the cockpit. “I’ll be back as quick as possible,” he shouted. He gave the word and the motor buzzed to life, the propeller sending gravel flying. Onboard were 659 gallons of fuel, quart-size thermos bottles of water and tomato juice, three packages of chewing gum, a package of zwieback (a crispy, sweet bread), a knife, a hatchet, a raincoat, a cigarette lighter, mosquito netting, a sleeping bag, and a pocket searchlight. He also brought fishing tackle. If he were marooned in Siberia, he could always fish for food. He had a few changes of clothes, including three fresh eye patches his wife had sewn and which he carried in a suitcase, and one other piece of equipment he hadn’t bothered with last time: a parachute.

Post’s WASP engine crescendoed, spewing exhaust. He signaled to pull the chocks from the wheels and the plane began to roll. In the distance, a crimson-streaked dawn unfolded with a glowing half moon overhead. The white and purple monoplane picked up speed over the concrete runway, and despite the heavy load, quickly climbed.

Airfields in Europe awaited news of Mattern’s whereabouts. Crowds maintained a ceaseless vigil at Le Bourget field in Paris. As the hours clicked away, fear turned to despair with the realization that Mattern must have run out of fuel over the Atlantic. Reluctantly the Le Bourget dispatcher switched off the floodlights that had burned through the night. Weary newsmen at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport dragged themselves off to bed. In England telephone operators made last efforts to raise remote stations. Wireless stations as far away as Spain were on the alert. Several coastal towns in Ireland erroneously claimed to have spotted the wayward flier. Western Union operators at Valentia Island, Ireland, identified his plane over their heads at 8:15 a.m., while other witnesses said it was flying too high to be identifiable. At 9:30 a.m., the steamer Hastings in the English Channel reported an eastbound plane overhead. Later another message — this time from Kilgarvan in County Kerry — indicated that Mattern had been flying in a southwesterly direction, which would have led him to open sea.

The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the L.A. Times and many others declared Mattern missing, speculating about accidents and estimating how long ago he should have run out of fuel. What none of them knew was that twenty hours into his flight Mattern had finally made it to the other side of the storm, and leaning into the rising sun, he spotted land on the horizon. Mattern’s last large fuel tank was almost dry. It was time to make use of his emergency reserve seventy-gallon tank that Amelia Earhart had given him as a going-away gift. When he switched it on the engine shut off. Something was blocking the fuel from injecting into the motor. Mattern tried again. Still the engine couldn’t draw the fuel from the reserve. Mattern needed that tank. It wasn’t like he could pull off to the side of the road to repair it. If he couldn’t get it to work he’d have to ditch his plane over water, where odds were no one would ever find him.

Post and Gatty during their tickertape parade up Broadway in 1931. (Photo courtesy: Adam Penenberg)
Post and Gatty during their tickertape parade up Broadway in 1931. (Photo courtesy: Adam Penenberg)

One last time he flipped the switch to the reserve tank and the engine coughed, stopped, then kicked on again. Later he would learn a small piece of felt had lodged in the line until it was finally forced through.

As sea gave way to land, Mattern realized he hadn’t seen a ship since leaving Jamaica Bay. Flying over mountains and glaciers, he wondered how far north he had ventured. With no airfields and only a few minutes left of fuel, he searched for a place to land. He circled a small island with a sandy beach and sunbathers frolicking in the surf and then cut the engine to bring the Century of Progress down in a glide. When he got closer, he realized too late that he was coming down on loose stones, some of them as big as boulders.

It was a bumpy, teeth-chattering ride as his wheels struck rocks, gravel and sand. Mattern thanked his foresight in installing shock chords on the landing gear. Even so the rough landing knocked the tail out of alignment, and he blew a tire when it rammed into a boulder.

Mattern checked his watch. It was a new world record. He had shaved ten hours off the thirty-three hours Lindbergh took to cross the Atlantic. He squirreled through the hatch and sank to his knees on the beach as a score of sunbathers greeted him.

“I just flew nonstop from New York,” Mattern told them. “I am trying to make the first solo flight around the world and break the existing speed record. I need your help.”

* * *

Excerpt from “Sky Rivals: Two Men. Two Planes. An Epic Race Around the World” (Wayzygoose Press, 2016), by Adam L. Penenberg. Available in paperback and ebook at Amazon.

Illustration image courtesy of Retrographik.