The “Prince of Navigators” Begins His Life’s Journey

January 5, 1903

Air navigator and aviation pioneer Harold Gatty was born in Campbell Town in the Australian state of Tasmania. Gatty’s navigational career began in earnest when he withdrew from the Royal Australian Naval College in 1920 to serve as an apprenticed ship’s officer with the Sydney-based Patrick Steamship Company. While employed by this company, Gatty became an expert in celestial navigation. He continued to finesse these navigational skills after joining the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand in 1923.

In 1927, Gatty left that region of the world to settle in California. His earliest jobs in the United States included serving as chief mate of the schooner Goodwill, which was owned by sporting-goods millionaire Keith Spalding, and teaching marine navigation to yachtsmen.

By the end of the decade, however, Gatty’s focus had shifted dramatically to another mode of transportation. He opened a laboratory for repairing aircraft navigation instruments. In addition, Gatty created air-route maps for the Pioneer Instrument Company in Los Angeles and helped devise what ultimately formed the basis for today’s autopilots for planes.

In 1929, Gatty flew as navigator on a Lockheed Vega monoplane traveling between Los Angeles and New York City to demonstrate the viability of airborne coast-to-coast passenger service. The flight, which was piloted by Roscoe Turner, took about 20 hours and set a new transcontinental airspeed record for a commercial airliner.

Gatty made aviation history again in 1931 by serving as the navigator for pilot Wiley Post when he flew his Lockheed Vega aircraft Winnie Mae around the world to set a new aerial circumnavigation record. Gatty’s navigational expertise helped Post beat the previous record of 21 days, with “Winnie Mae” taking only eight days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes to circle the globe.

In these ways and others, Gatty achieved universal acclaim for his course-charting skills and innovations. Aviation giant Charles Lindbergh called him the “Prince of Navigators” Gatty died in 1957 at the age of 54. 

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