Today in Aviation History – Fatal Crash of Wiley Post & Will Rogers at Walakpa Lagoon

This post was written by Leanna Prax Williams, a Master’s Candidate in the UAF Arctic and Northern Studies Program.
​The following is excerpted from her research on newspaper coverage of the Post-Rogers accident.

In mid-1935, during the height of the Great Depression, Americans followed the adventures of two celebrities in the far North. Will Rogers, a beloved entertainment figure known for his folksy demeanor and enthusiasm for flying, had joined Wiley Post, a celebrity pilot and adventurer known for his global circumnavigating flights, for a series of flights in Alaska and Canada. Post had visited the territory several times before on his around-the-world flights.  Rogers, an outspoken supporter of aviation, accompanied him, writing his widely read newspaper columns along the way.  News of the pair’s adventure generated public interest, with papers tracking Post and Rogers’ progress northward. Publically, the pilot and humorist were noncommittal about their exact plans for the trip, seeming to pick their next stop on a whim, meandering about the Alaskan and Canadian North. Newspapers postulated that perhaps they would head West across the Bering Strait, exploring the possibilities of a new air route with Moscow.[1] Private correspondence, however, indicates that plans formed as early as June 1935 for a Siberian flight, with Post offering Pacific Alaska Airways “complete data” of his findings, in return for fair compensation.[2]

Newspaper accounts revealed that Rogers financed the flight and picked the route and schedule. This financing was a late development in the travel plans, as Post was still attempting to secure funding less than two months before the flight.[3] Although Wiley Post was a celebrity flier in his own right, on par with Alaskan aviator Ben Eielson, having twice circumnavigated the globe and innovated in high altitude flight, his fame was eclipsed by that of Will Rogers.  Rogers was arguably the greatest celebrity in the United States in 1935, with success in film, radio, stage and newspaper columns.

On August 7, the Daily Alaska Empire reported on Post and Rogers’ arrival in the territorial capitol, Juneau. There they were feted by the governor and met with friends, including Alaska pilot Joe Crosson and author Rex Beach, pictured above.[4]  From Juneau, they headed north to Dawson City and Aklavik, in Arctic Canada. From Aklavik, Post piloted the plane southwest back across the border to Fairbanks, where the pair again visited Crosson. It was at Crosson’s home that Rogers learned of Charles Brower, “The King of the Arctic,” a man who arrived in Barrow aboard a whaling ship fifty years earlier and stayed to establish a trading and whaling business.[5]Plans formed to make a trip to meet Brower. After touring Fairbanks, and making a day trip to see Mt. McKinley (Denali) National Park and the New Deal’s Matanuska Colony at Palmer, Post and Rogers turned north. On August 15, the pair took off from the Chena River and flew a short distance to Harding Lake, where the plane took on a full load of fuel.[6]From the lake, Post headed for Barrow, despite receiving cautionary words from both Crosson and Brower about the stormy and foggy conditions prevailing on the Arctic coast.[7]   

In early evening, the red plane swooped low over an Inupiaq hunting camp at Walakpa Lagoon, fifteen miles from Barrow (Utqiagvik). Apparently lost, Post and Rogers stepped from the plane to greet Inupiaq hunter Clair Okpeaha and his family and asked the direction and distance to their destination.[8]After a brief walk to stretch their legs, the men climbed back into the plane and the engine again roared to life.  Post brought the plane into the air and,  as the plane climbed steeply the engine failed in what Bryan Sterling, a scholar of the lives of Will Rogers and Wiley Post, characterized as a backfire.[9]Deprived of lift, the plane tumbled into the shallow waters of the lagoon where it lay a crumpled wreckage.  Okpeaha witnessed the crash from the shoreline. After calling to the men inside the wrecked plane and receiving no response, he set off for Barrow to report the news, traveling first by kayak and then by foot.[10]Reaching Barrow, Okpeaha rushed to report the accident, a task complicated by the language barrier between the Inupiaq speaker and the English-speaking Army Signal Corps radio operator at Barrow, Sergeant Stanley Morgan. A rescue crew assembled and rushed to the crash site, where they freed the two men’s bodies from the plane and transported them to Barrow in an umiaq.[11]Morgan recounted both Okpeaha’s and his own description of events when he radioed the news to the outside world.[12]  

News of the crash quickly spread; newspapers across the country rushed to cover the news in the hours and days to follow.[13]As papers set type reporting the men’s deaths, Crosson flew north to retrieve the bodies of the men who had so recently visited him, flying in the same conditions that had plagued Post and Rogers. After retrieving the bodies, Crosson returned to Fairbanks, where Pacific Alaska Airways mechanics readied a faster, twin-engine Lockheed Electra to fly the bodies Outside.  Crosson, co-pilot Bill Knox and radio operator Gleason made the trip to Seattle on August 18-19.[14]Upon his arrival at Seattle’s Boeing Field, Crosson was met by a Pan Am Douglas transport plane that would carry Rogers’ body to  California and Post’s on to Oklahoma for burial.[15] The nation deeply mourned both men, with thousands attending each memorial service. Joe Crosson became celebrated as a hero for his role bringing the two fallen adventurers home for burial.

Several memorials have been erected to the two men, one near the site of the crash and another near the Utqiagvik Airport, which was named in honor of Post and Rogers.  The Pioneer Air Museum hosts an exhibit relating to the crash, as well as an exhibit on on Joe Crosson.

Recommended Reading:

  • Sterling, Bryan B., and Frances N. Sterling. Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1993.
  • Tordoff, Dirk. Mercy Pilot: The Joe Crosson Story.  Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, 2002.
  • Walsh, John Evangelist. When the Laughing Stopped: The Strange, Sad Death of Will Rogers.  Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska PRess, 2008.
  • See Also on our Blog : “The Crash Heard Round The World” from 2014

[1]Associated Press, “Rogers Planned on Siberian Trip,” Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, August 19, 1935; “Bering Sea Survey Planned by Post,” The New York Times, August 18, 1935.

[2]Wiley Post, “Correspondance from Wiley Post to Mr. L.S. Peck, Pacific Alaska Airways, Inc. June 27, 1935,” (Crosson Family Papers 1920-1980, Series 1 Box 3, Folder 4, Arctic and Polar Regions Collections and Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks.).

[3]“World Trip Being Made Leisurely,” The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 17, 1935; Post, “Wiley Post to L.S. Peck, June 27, 1935..”

[4]“Distinguished Visitors Here in Red Plane,” The Daily Alaska Empire, August 8, 1935; “Beach, Rogers Get Together,” The Daily Alaska Empire, August 9, 1935.

[5]Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling, Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow(New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1993), 150; Tordoff, Mercy Pilot, 185.

[6]Some 1935 papers
suggest that the pair were forced to land here due to weather, but this contention displays a lack of familiarity with Alaska geography.  Harding Lake is the opposite direction from the route to Barrow.  Dirk Tordoff’s biography of Crosson suggests the far more plausible and routine explanation: the large surface of the lake enabled Post and Rogers to take on a full load of fuel for the long trip north, as the available takeoff space from the Chena would not accommodate the fully loaded plane.  See Tordoff, Mercy Pilot, 186-87.

[7]Charles D. Brower, Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North, Classic Reprint Series (Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 1942 (1994 Reprint)), 295-96.

[8]Brower, Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North, 296; “Rogers and Post Killed/Plane with Humorist and Aviator Nosedives into Water near Barrow and Instantaneous Death Results,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 16, 1935.

[9]Sterling and Sterling, Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow, 178.Sterling’s sequence of events employs the eye-witness account of Rose Okpeaha, Clair’s daughter. 

[10]Sterling and Sterling, Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow, 178-79.

[11]Sterling and Sterling, Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow, 190.

[12]Associated Press, “Eskimos Describe Tragedy near Barrow/ Tale of Crash Told Operator by Witnesses,” Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, August 17, 1935.

[13]Of the six newspapers analyzed in this thesis, only the East Coast New York Timesreported the news on August 17; all others carried the story within twenty-four hours of the accident.   

[14]Tordoff, Mercy Pilot, 192.Gleason had also accompanied Crosson on the flight to Barrow to retrieve the bodies

[15]“Funeral Plane on Way South / Big Crowd Sees Crosson Arrive with Bodies of Rogers and Post,”The Seattle Daily Times, August 19, 1935.

One response to “Today in Aviation History – Fatal Crash of Wiley Post & Will Rogers at Walakpa Lagoon”

  1. Robert Douglas Little Avatar
    Robert Douglas Little

    Does anyone know what happened to the wreckage of the plane?

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