We know the significance of Charles Lindbergh and The Spirit of St. Louis in aviation history. By any account, the first nonstop, solo air journey from North America to Europe was an incredible feat. However, there was still one more, even longer, and more risky first to accomplish. Nobody had yet flown nonstop across the Pacific Ocean from Asia to North America.
This is where Clyde “Upside-Down” Pangborn and his co-pilot Hugh Herndon, Junior enter the picture. Pangborn was a somewhat famous daredevil stunt flyer and partner in the then recently defunct Gates Flying Circus. Herndon was a well-to-do Princeton University dropout, the son of Standard Oil heiress Alice Boardman.
The two men had high hopes of beating the around-the-world speed record that was set by Wiley Post and his navigator Harold Gatty. On July 28, 1931, Pangborn and Herndon took off from New York for the first stage of their globe-hopping adventure in their bright red Bellanca Skyrocket monoplane named Miss Veedol. “Veedol” was a brand name motor oil.
Unfortunately, the chance to beat Wiley Post’s flight time came to an end in Siberia when they landed in a torential rainstorm. Miss Veedol slipped off of the runway and became mired in a deep, sticky mud. With the knowledge that the world record time would have to be broken by someone else, the pair abandoned the effort.
While in Russia, the duo decided to compete for a $50,000 prize being offered by the major Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. The prize was intended for the very first nonstop flight across the Pacific Ocean. The team telegraphed the editor of the Japanese Times, the English language Japanese paper to request a flight path and distance data from Khabarovsk, Siberia to Tokyo. The also requested the US Embassy in Japan obtain landing permission from the Japanese Aviation Bureau.
Before replies to their requests arrived, the airstrip mud dried, so the pair took off to avoid yet another threat of thunderstorms. The plane flew an approximated heading for Japan. When they landed at Haneda, Japan, they were arrested for not having the required landing documents. At the time, Japan was at war with China, so they did not appreciate foreign flyers coming and going unannouced, possibly photographing classified military zones. The American flyers were arraigned on three counts of espionage.
Following their trial in Tokyo District Court, Pangborn and Herndon were found guilty and sentenced to 205 days of hard labor or fines of $1,050 apiece. The two paid the fines and were released. Then they revealed their plan to attempt the Japan to US crossing. After many more days of bargaining, Pangborn was given permission for one-only overloaded airplane takeoff from Japan.
The Miss Veedol was flown to Japan’s East Coast where Pangborn modified the airplane. Bolts that attached the landing gear to the fuselage were replaced by a series of springs and clips attached to a cable to allow the gear to be jettisoned after takeoff. To enable a safe landing, steel skids were bolted to the underside of the airplane.
The two fliers were guests of Misawa City. Most of the residents, there, were happy to host the Americans. Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased about their presence. Some members of the ultra-nationalistic “Black Dragon Society” pilfered the flight maps from the airmen’s hotel room. The thieves had previously violently spoke out against American plans to fly from Japan to the United States.
New maps and plans were obtained and the Miss Veedol was ready to take off from Sabishiro Beach. To save weight, the craft was stripped of its radio and survival equipment. Food rations consisted only of tea and fried chicken. Yet the maximum safe weight was still overshot by about 3,400 pounds. Just as Pangborn and Herndon were about to board the plane, a small boy approached and presented the pair a gift of five apples from his dad’s orchard.
Soon, the Miss Veedol headed down the takeoff ramp that was built by the villagers for an earlier attempt by other pilots. Miss Veedol had some trouble attaining takeoff speed as it trudged through the damp beach sand. Finally, with some 100-yards to spare, the overloaded plane struggled just inches above the ocean.
Three hours into the flight, the landing gear was ejected, but two of the bracing rods failed to fall away. Pangborn, the former stuntman, performed two daredevil wingwalks to the braces and removed them.
A more serious problem arose due to negligence by the inexperienced playboy co-pilot Herndon. He was responsible for hand pumping fuel from the large auxiliary cabin gas tank into the main wing tanks. He forgot to do this twice. The first time, he was able to pump fast enough to keep the engine from stopping in the nick of time. The second time was much more serious. The engine stopped completely.
There was no electric starter motor for the airplane, so Pangborn was forced to dive the craft to hopefully get the propeller to “windmill”. The plane dived about 13,000 feet when the prop windmilled and the engine started. They were only 1,500 feet from the ocean waves when the airplane resumed its flight.
After about 30 hours into the flight, Pangborn spotted islands off of the Northwestern Canadian coastline. He knew he’d need all his attention for the belly landing so Pangborn decided to take a few hours of nap. He instructed his inexperience co-pilot to take the controls and maintain height and direction. Herndon was to awaken Pangborn when he saw Vancouver, British Columbia.
Again, Herndon failed. When Pangborn awakened on his own, hours later, he discovered the plane was seriously off course. They could have landed in Boise, Idaho, which would have set a new world nonstop distance record, but the field, there, was socked in by fog. A similar situation plagued the Spokane, Washington airfield. Pangborn then decided to land at his hometown of Wenatchee, Washington.
On October 5, 1931 at 7:14 AM, the Miss Veedol was spotted by observers at the small Wenatchee airfield. Taking a slow approach, Pangborn had Herndon sit at the rear of the cabin to stabilize the tail, then Pangborn dumped fuel to avoid a fire accident. The engine was switched off. Miss Veedol gently touched the ground, was obscured by dust, then slid to a halt. Amazingly, Pangborn’s mother and brother were on hand. Almost because of intuition, an executive of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper was also there with the $50,000 cheque.
Even though Pangborn and Herndon flew much longer and covered more air miles, and were first to fly nonstop across the Pacific Ocean, they achieved no worldwide acclaim nor riches beyond the prize.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Wenatchee, Washington and Misawa City, Japan are now “sister cities”. The story about the little Japanese boy and his gift of apples, inspired the mayor of Wenatchee to send cuttings from Washington’s “Richard Delicious” apple trees to Misawa City to graft onto Japanese apple trees. The descendents of these apples are now enjoyed all over Japan.