Flying in an open-cockpit Jenny biplane, hanging by his seat belt to thrill the audience below earned Clyde Edward Pangborn the nickname “Upside-Down Pang.” He did crazier and more dangerous things than that and aviation enthusiasts worldwide loved it — but not the Japanese.
They arrested him on multiple charges and confined him to house arrest in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
After years of being a daredevil, the only time he nearly ended it all was when he fell out of a speeding car while trying to jump onto a plane flying overhead. He was seriously injured but survived.
He hit national headlines when he helped in a mid-air rescue of stuntwoman Rosalie Gordon, who messed up a parachute jump in Houston and got caught in the plane’s landing gear.
Aviation was still in its early days and the public was fascinated. It didn’t take long for Pang to become famous for his daredevil stunt of changing planes in mid-flight.
He was born in Bridgeport, Wash., near Lake Chelan in 1895 (or thereabouts). His parents divorced when he was only 2, with his mother, Clyde and older brother Percy moving to Spokane, and later to St. Maries in Benewah County, according to the 1900 Census.
Clyde graduated from high school in 1914 and then studied civil engineering at the University of Idaho.
Near the end of World War I, he joined the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps and learned to fly, becoming an instructor in the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” open-cockpit biplane at Ellington Field in Houston.
That’s where he learned to fly upside-down — a maneuver described as “slowly rolling airplanes onto their backs and gliding upside-down.”
After the war, Pangborn started barnstorming.
He and business partner Ivan R. Gates started the Gates Flying Circus (“The Daddy of Them All”), and claimed that over nine years, they took “about a million passengers” on joy rides without serious injury to any of them.
About 1919, when Pang barnstormed into St. Maries, one of his joyriders was 6-year-old Gregory (later “Pappy”) Boyington. It was the boy’s first airplane ride — sparking the youngster’s interest in aviation that would later make him a World War II flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient.
When World War I was over, barnstorming became the rage, with plenty of Jennies available for sale for as little as $200 and aviators gobbling them up. Daredevil pilots would borrow a field from a farmer and advertise there’d be an air show. Sometimes whole towns would shut down and create enough hoopla to make it seem like it was the Fourth of July. Tickets were $1 to $5.
Other famous aviators who also took their turn at barnstorming included Charles Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner, Bessie Coleman, Pancho Barnes and Wiley Post.
History writer David K. Onkst wrote that those daring flyers “performed such feats as wing walking, soaring through the air with winged costumes, stunt parachuting, and midair plane transfers… just about any feat people could dream up… some played tennis, practiced target shooting, or even danced on the wings of planes.”
It wasn’t all glitz and glamor however.
Jessie Woods of the Flying Air Circus said, “I slept on the bottom wing of an airplane. I learned how to sleep there without falling off. I’ve gone through as much as three days without sleep. There’s nothing romantic about that…”
Barnstorming lasted until about the late ’20s when the novelty started wearing off and the government jumped in with safety regulations.
Pangborn then shifted his interest to other business activities. The Great Depression wiped them all out — but didn’t dampen his love for aviation.
In 1930, Wiley Post and his Australian navigator, Harold Gatty, became the first to fly an airplane around the world — chasing the Graf Zeppelin’s record of 21 days.
They did it in eight.
Three years later, Post tried it again, flying alone in a plane called “Fannie Mae” — using new navigation equipment and newly invented auto-pilot. He cut another day off his old record.
Clyde Pangborn was about to break onto the world aviation scene with his eye on similar glory.
During his barnstorming days, he had met fellow pilot Hugh Herndon, Jr., and years later the two decided to try to beat the round-the-world record set by Post and Gatty.
Herndon’s mother, Standard Oil heiress Alice Boardman financed the flight with $100,000.
Their first attempt in August 1931 ended in Siberia when their Bellanca Skyrocket plane named “Miss Veedol” slid off the runway and got stuck in the mud.
Scrapping their round-the-world flight, they shifted their focus to the $50,000 prize offered by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun for the first nonstop flight across the Pacific.
They cabled the editor of the English-language Japan Times for help in getting maps and asking the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to obtain landing permission from the Japanese Aviation Bureau.
Before they received an answer, the mud dried and they took off for Japan.
They landed first at Haneda Airport and then Tachikawa — now a big U.S. air base outside Tokyo — where Japanese authorities pounced on them.
“We were arraigned on three counts,” Pangborn said. “That we had flown over fortified areas and that we had photographed these areas. True we didn’t have a flight permit with us, but we assumed it would be routine for our embassy to arrange it. As for flying over fortified areas and taking pictures, we were just tourists taking what we thought were pretty landscape shots.”
The Japanese wanted their aviators to one-up Lindbergh’s flight with a more demanding transpacific nonstop crossing to focus international attention on Japan’s burgeoning industrial power. They weren’t keen on the American gaijin (foreigners) butting in.
Pangborn and Herndon were tried as spies and fined $1,050 each and had to languish under house arrest for seven weeks at Tokyo’s ritzy Imperial Hotel.
During that time, they studied how and why earlier attempts to capture the Asahi prize failed.
Eventually, the Japanese authorities relented and allowed them to try making the flight.
On Oct. 4, 1931, Pangborn and Herndon finally took off from Samishiro Beach — 370 miles north of Tokyo near today’s U.S. air base at Misawa. Pang was chief pilot and navigator and Herndon the back-up. The Miss Veedol was way overloaded with fuel for the long flight, but they thought they could still do it.
To compensate for the overload, they rigged a way to release the landing gear after takeoff, and replaced them with belly skids for the landing. They lightened the load further by carrying no radio, survival equipment or seat cushions, and limiting their food to hot tea and fried chicken.
At just above stalling speed, they made it into the air and headed for Seattle.
But trouble was straight ahead.
They ditched the wheels but the struts wouldn’t release. That would cause big problems when they landed.
In freezing temperatures at 17,000 feet over the Pacific, Pangborn revisited his barnstorming skills and climbed out of the airplane to manually release the troublesome struts.
After completing one side, he returned to the cabin to thaw out before repeating it on the other side.
After an exhausting 30 hours at the controls, Pangborn took a nap — letting Herndon fly the plane.
Herndon started making near-fatal mistakes:
He forgot to keep the main fuel tank filled from the auxiliary tanks, causing the engine to quit. The plane plunged 13,000 feet before the engine started again — just 1,500 feet above the sea.
Then he wandered off course, missing Vancouver and Seattle and almost hit Mt. Rainier.
Clyde took back the controls.
His mother believed he would land at his hometown of Wenatchee, Wash. On Oct. 5, 1931, Mom, Clyde’s brother and a small group of friends greeted them there when they arrived — 5,500 miles and 41 hours after leaving Japan.
Inexplicably, an Asahi Shimbun representative was there too — and presented them with a check for $50,000.
Local reporter Carl M. Cleveland also witnessed the landing and told the world about that historic flight.
Clyde Pangborn married Swana Beaucaire, achieved more glories in aviation history, and served in the RAF during World War II.
He died in 1958 at age 63 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
He left a footprint in the sky.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
• • •
First transpacific flight…
Clyde Pangborn was not the first to fly across the Pacific. Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew did it in 1928 in a Fokker F.VII/3m tri-motor named “Southern Cross.” It was an island-hopping flight — not nonstop — so didn’t qualify for the Japanese prize.
After World War II…
Clyde Pangborn left the RAF in 1946 and became a commercial pilot, and pioneered commercial flight paths and helped develop better aircraft. He was instrument-rated to fly any plane — including seaplanes — and logged more than 24,000 flight hours over 40 years.
Weather stopped flight record…
The flight across the Pacific was about 2,000 miles longer than Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo crossing of the Atlantic. Clyde Pangborn wanted to make his flight from Japan a longest nonstop record by landing at Boise, but fog shrouded the city so he turned back to Washington, hoping for Spokane. That too was socked in with low clouds, so he ended the flight at Wenatchee.
Friends and foes in Japan…
As Pangborn and Herndon were preparing for their flight from Japan, the mayor of Misawa graciously announced publicly that fliers of any nation seeking such an honorable goal should be hosted in friendship, and a little boy gave them a gift of apples.
But the radically patriotic Black Dragon Society for weeks was railing against the foreign duo. When the maps carefully prepared by the aviators disappeared, Black Dragon was the prime suspect.
Hugh Herndon’s errors on the historic flight from Japan didn’t rest well with Clyde Pangborn and their relationship soured. Matters got worse after the flight when he and his mother — who financed the flight with 100 grand — demanded the prize money and the cash from the sale of Miss Veedol.
Pangborn ended up with only $2,500.
He told the Albany Times Union newspaper that Herndon didn’t prepare the navigation for the flight because he was romancing a girl and was little more than a passenger on the flight. The paper’s headline blared “Herndon Incompetent says Pangborn!”
Apples of friendship…
“The most lasting memento of Miss Veedol’s flight was a gift from Clyde Pangborn to the people of Misawa City. Remembering the touching gift of five apples from the little Japanese boy on Sabishiro Beach, Pangborn arranged for the mayor of Wenatchee to send to his counterpart in Misawa City five cuttings from Washington state’s famed Richard Delicious apples.
“They were grafted onto trees in Misawa City and, within a few years, cuttings and seedlings were distributed to apple growers around the country. Today, Richard Delicious apples are grown throughout Japan.”