Clyde "Upside-Down" Pangborn was the first person to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean. Although it would seem this was a much greater accomplishment than Charles Lindbergh trans-Atlantic flight four years earlier in 1927, neither Pangborn nor his co-pilot Hough Herndon, Jr. gained any major notability. I wonder how many of you reading this has heard of Lindbergh but not Pangborn.
He was born Clyde Edward Pangborn on October 28, 1894 to Max Pangborn and Opal Lamb Pangborn on their ranch in the little farming community of Bridgeport, Washington, near Lake Chelan. When he was only two, his parents separated, and he moved to Idaho with his mother where he grew up. After he finished high school in 1914 he enrolled in the University of Idaho for two and a half years where he studied civil engineering.
After collage he worked for a brief time as an engineer for a mining company before joining US Army Air Corps as the US became involved in World War I. Here he was able to pursue his life long dream, to learn how to fly. After finishing fight training, the Air Corps viewed him as too valuable to send off to war, and he was stationed in Texas as a flight instructor.
With the end of WWI, Pangborn wanted to continue to fly, so he took up exhibition flying and aerial acrobatics at air shows. This is where he earned his nickname "Upside-Down" Pangborn. In one of his stunts he would take a plane into a slow half roll until it was upside down. He would glide for as long as he could before having to correct the plane upright. Early in his career he was injured when he fell out of a speeding car, as he tried to jump onto a flying plane. This would be his only serious injury. He did air shows and exhibitions for the next nine years, mostly with the Gates Flying Circus, which he was an owner of, where he flew over 500,000 passengers and nearly 125,000 miles. He received national fame after assisting in a daring mid air-rescue of a young stuntwoman, who had become caught on Pangborn's landing gear while trying to sky dive. During his time with the Flying Circus Pangborn met Hough Herndon who would later be his co-pilot in the first trans-Pacific flight.
After Gates Flying Circus disbanded in 1929, Pangborn continued flying with several of his own businesses, which all failed mostly because of the onset of the Great Depression. There just wasn't any money to support air travel and expedition. So he set out to break flying records. In 1931 Pangborn and Herndon, who had the backing of his wealthy New York family, looked to fly around the world and break the record of 20 days 4 hours set by the airship Graf Zeppelin in 1929. However, while they were still planning their flight, the record was broken by Wiley Post and Harold Gatty and was now 8 days 15 hours. They still attempted the flight anyway, taking off from New York in their big red Bellanca Skyrocket, the Miss Veedol, on July 28, 1931. Because they were met with bad conditions, it became futile and they were forced to abandon their efforts to break the speed record half way through the trip, while in Siberia.
However, with their eyes on a $25,000 prize, they decided to attempt the first non-stop trans-Pacific flight. After making some arrangements they flew from Siberia to Japan. In the spirit of documentation, Herndon took several still pictures as well as some 16mm motion pictures, which included some of Japan's naval installations. Because of this, as well as not having the proper papers to inter the country (even thought they believed they had the proper papers), they were thrown in jail. After some considerable interrogation, they were fined $1000 and released. However, they were only given one chance to take off. If there was a problem, and they were forced to return to Japan, the Miss Veedol would be confiscated and they would be put back in jail.
This was only one of several problems leading up to the flight. A Japanese nationalist group, who wanted a Japanese pilot to be the first to complete the flight, stole their maps and carts. Also Pangborn's flight calculations left no room for error. The Miss Veedol had to be over weighted with fuel, way beyond the manufacture's recommendation. And the calculations would only work if they were able to ditch their landing gear after take off to reduce drag.
They finally took off on October 4, 1931 from Sabishiro Beach, Japan, their destination Seattle, just under 5500 miles (8500 km) away. This would be two thousand miles more than Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris. Immediately after take off there was a problem. The device that was supposed to jettison the landing gear failed. The wheels dropped but the struts remained. Knowing they would never make it with the landing gear struts still attached, at 14,000 ft. Pangborn climbed out onto the wing supports barefoot to knock them off, while Herndon flew.
Other than the cold weather, their flight to the Washington coast was fairly uneventful. However when they were coming up on Seattle, it was clouded with fog. They continued on to Spokane, which was also fogged in. However, because he had flown so many hours in the area, he knew of a place where he could land, Wenatchee, a small town in between Seattle and Spokane, which was never cloudy. 41 hours and 15 minutes after taking off he set down in a field (which today is an airport named for him) on the belly of the plane.
(You can view his landing by going here: http://wenatcheevalleymuseum.com/WVMCC/miss_veedol_landing.htm)
The Miss Veedol was trucked to Seattle where her landing gear was replaced. Pangborn and Herndon left from Seattle and continued to New York to complete their world flight. Although news of the flight did circulate, Pangborn did not receive much financial gain from it. However, he did continue to fly as an airmail pilot, air racer, and a test and demonstration pilot.
His experience did come in handy when war struck Europe in 1939. He joined the Royal Air Force and helped organize the RAF Ferry Command, of which he become the Senior Captain in 1941. The Ferry Command was responsible for flying aircraft made in the United States and Canada to England to be used in the Battle for Britain. In his time with the RAF he flew 170 trans-oceanic flights and in nearly every multi-engine plane used in the war.
He was discharged from the RAF in 1946 and continued with his career as a commercial pilot. He pioneered commercial flight paths, tested and helped engineer better aircraft, among other things.
At the end of his life, he was instrument-rated to fly any single or multi-engine, land or sea planes and had more than 24,000 hours of time in the cockpit from his 40 years of piloting. Clyde Pangborn died on March 29, 1958, and was laid to rest with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.