There was Charles Lindbergh, and then there was Clyde "Upside Down" Pangborn, the forgotten world record-holder born in Eastern Washington...

Share story

There was Charles Lindbergh, and then there was Clyde “Upside Down” Pangborn, the forgotten world record-holder born in Eastern Washington.

They know all about Pangborn in Wenatchee, where the regional airport is named after him, and the local museum has a special exhibit on his exploits.

Other than that, he’s mainly known to aviation history buffs.

So this past weekend, a group of dedicated pilots from Wenatchee brought their story to the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field, once again hoping to gain a little more recognition for their hero.

They flew in a replica of the plane that Pangborn and his co-pilot, Hugh Herndon Jr., used in some ways to surpass Lindbergh’s feat.

Lindbergh will forever be memorialized as the pilot who made history in 1927 by being the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. Acclaim followed him the rest of his life, and still does.

But four years later, from Oct. 4 to 5, 1931, Pangborn and Herndon flew nonstop across the Pacific, from Misawa, Japan, to Wenatchee. It was a choice dictated by the foggy weather; they were supposed to land in Seattle.

Lindbergh flew bad weather some 3,500 miles; Pangborn and Herndon flew over 4,500 miles in bitter cold and in high winds over the Gulf of Alaska.

Lindbergh’s flight lasted 33 ½ hours; they flew 41 hours 13 minutes.

But, said Clarke, by the time of Pangborn’s flight, “It was the depth of the Depression. The focus went away from all this hoopla about flying.”

But even at the flight museum, most visitors walked by the single-engine Miss Veedol, displayed by the parking lot in resplendent International Orange airplane colors, an exact match of the original.

At a table in the lobby, Arnie Clarke, chief pilot and chairman of the nonprofit Spirit of Wenatchee — whose volunteers spent 40,000 hours over 10 years building the plane, and collected $500,000 in donations — was glad to tell the story of Pangborn to anyone who stopped by.

To lessen the weight on the plane, Pangborn had ditched the landing gear once it took off. At an airfield outside Wenatchee, the plane did a belly landing, with no one hurt and the plane repairable.

The reason Pangborn, then 36, is mentioned much more prominently than his co-pilot is that Herndon, then 27, is identified in news account as a “youthful Manhattan socialite” who had organized the flight “as a sporting proposition.”

Pangborn was the “hard-bitten barnstormer” with the flying experience. He had gotten his nickname, “Upside Down,” from flying that way during the heyday of stunt barnstormers in the 1920s.

Wenatchee took Pangborn to its collective heart.

It doesn’t matter to the town that it wasn’t the first arrival choice.

“Let’s say that Lindbergh had landed in a small town in France, instead of Paris,” Clarke said. “Don’t you think that small town would have something to say about it?”

Flying nonstop from Japan to the U.S. was really Plan B for Pangborn and Herndon. They originally had taken off from New York to try to break the round-the-world flying record, but they hit bad weather and also got lost over Siberia.

That placed them close enough to Japan to go for another prize:

The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun was offering $25,000 for the first nonstop flight from its country to the United States.

Pangborn and Herndon modified their 1931 Bellanca Skyrocket J-300 Long-Distance Special so it could hold 900 gallons of fuel. It had no doors — the doors cut into the plane’s structural strength, which was needed to carry the heavy payload.

The pilots climbed in through windows into a cramped cockpit. They carried no parachutes and no life raft — too much weight. For the same reason, they wore no boots, just heavy wool socks and “Japanese style coveralls.”

They had no radio or electronic navigational aids, only a compass, and, at night, the North Star. It was named the Miss Veedol because of sponsorship from the engine-oil firm.

In Japan, Pangborn and Herndon also secretly fixed the landing gear so it could be jettisoned once in flight, thus gaining speed and range.

But the landing gear did not completely separate from the fuselage.

“Pangborn had to climb out on the struts to finish the job in freezing temperatures and a 111 mph breeze,” said the Spirit of Wenatchee’s history.

The noise on the plane was so great, Pangborn said, “We became deafer and deafer and had to write notes to each other in order to communicate although we sat side by side.”

They got their $25,000 prize. The Pacific Ocean was not flown nonstop again until after World War II.

Pangborn continued on with a distinguished aviation career, as a test pilot and serving during World War II. Herndon became an oil salesman.

In 1993, Wenatchee-area members of the Experimental Aircraft Association decided to build a replica of the Bellanca plane. The original plane had been sold and lost at sea with its pilot.

The amateur builders faced major hurdles. The original plans for the Bellanca were not available. They had little money.

They managed to get the plans for a radio-controlled model version of the plane, and used that plan for the real-life plane, four times the size of the model. They took surplused fish ladders donated by the local PUD, and turned them into the metal frame for the fuselage.

When someone in Oregon City, Ore., happened to have a version of the Bellanca, the group borrowed its fuselage, put it on a trailer, and trucked it up to Wenatchee.

They even took a part to a hospital, and X-rayed it to figure out how it was put together. With nails, it turned out.

Local schools began donation drives. The city of Misawa, sister city to Wenatchee, contributed money; as did a Tokyo promoter.

On May 1, 2003, the new Miss Veedol took its maiden flight.

“It’s a big truck, heavy on the controls,” Clarke said. “It’s just a beast.”

The volunteers would like to duplicate the original 1931 Japan to Wenatchee flight.

They figure that’ll cost $150,000. Right now, they have to scrounge for gas money for the Miss Veedol.

But at least more people know about Clyde Pangborn.

And the core of 40 original volunteers … well, said Clarke, they can come and watch their beautiful bird fly.

“I look at that airplane, and think, how the heck did we do it?” he said.

That’s maybe what Clyde Pangborn was thinking, too, when he landed near Wenatchee in the dust, 77 years ago.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.