Long before entrepreneurs launched cars into space, pilots of the 1920s and 1930s were beholden to people of wealth who could sponsor record flights or offer cash prizes for the first intrepid aviator to achieve a specific milestone flight.
Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon teamed up in an effort to be the first to span the Pacific from Tokyo to the United States, but only after a round-the-world record attempt eluded them.
A native of Bridgeport, Washington, Pangborn was an adroit aviator who first groomed his skills during World War I. Herndon had the good fortune of access to sufficient wealth to underwrite his aviation interests.
The two initially collaborated for a run at the round-the-world flying record, seeking to break the leisurely 20-day pace logged aboard the dirigible Graf Zeppelin in 1929.
Wiley Post and Harold Gatty trimmed that globe-girdling time down to eight days and 15 hours before Pangborn and Herndon could execute their plan. The aircraft of choice for Pangborn and Herndon was a deep-bellied single-engine Bellanca “Long Distance Special” painted bright red and christened “Miss Veedol” for a motor oil sponsor.
No record is absolute, so Pangborn and Herndon took off in “Miss Veedol” on July 28, 1931, looking to best the accomplishment of Post and Gatty. From New York they arrived in Wales, then stopped in London, Berlin, and Moscow.
But a new round-the-world record was not to be, as the red Bellanca encountered blinding rain while landing at Khabarovsk in the Soviet far east. Off the runway and in mud, the Bellanca was mired and the clock was ticking. Pangborn and Herndon would not be record-breakers in global flight.
Pangborn did not let this disheartening turn of events daunt him. A different challenge with a different prize awaited. A Japanese newspaper had posted an offer of $25,000 for the first fliers to make a nonstop transpacific flight. The duo departed in “Miss Veedol,” striking a course from Khabarovsk to Tokyo.
Here their story gained intrigue. Presuming an uneventful arrival in Japan, Pangborn and Herndon were instead put under arrest. Unbeknown to the fliers, the arrangements for proper papers and flight clearance into Japan had not been completed before they arrived. Additionally, Herndon had two cameras that the Japanese said were used for illegally photographing Japanese naval facilities while the two Americans motored toward Tokyo.
Some historians have suggested additionally that a nationalistic Japanese group did not want Pangborn and Herndon to beat a Japanese aviator in a Japanese-designed aircraft in the quest to be the first nonstop flight from Japan to the United States.
At any rate, the two Americans had run afoul of Japanese officialdom, and after diplomatic wrangling, police interrogations, and the payment of fines, the pilots of “Miss Veedol” were given permission for one exit flight out of Japan.
Once they took off, any malfunction requiring the two to return to Japanese soil would result in the impounding of their Bellanca, they were warned.
To make good their transpacific flight, Pangborn and Herndon needed to tank more gas than the Bellanca should be expected to carry. This topped the Bellanca out at more than 900 gallons.
Perhaps mindful of a near-disaster he had experienced with the loaded airplane in New York, Pangborn arranged to have the flight begin at Sabishiro Beach, where an 8,000′ runway with an elevated starting ramp awaited the plucky Americans.
On Oct. 4, 1931, “Miss Veedol” made good its departure from Japan. In the time leading up to the flight, Pangborn had quietly modified the Bellanca’s landing gear to enable it to be dropped into the trackless ocean for a meaningful savings in drag. Pangborn calculated this would stretch the range of “Miss Veedol” by 600 miles over a flight of 40 hours.
A planned belly landing in the U.S. would mark the end of the adventure. But when he pulled the wires to disengage the modified landing gear pins, two struts remained attached while the rest of the gear plummeted to the sea. Those two struts could become deadly spears in the belly landing.
Pangborn was long on the courage the whole flight demanded. His experiences as a barnstormer and wing-walker earlier in life told him what to expect as he put the Bellanca in the hands of Herndon and stepped outside the cabin onto the broad wing strut as he successfully freed the two errant landing gear pieces.
The 40-plus hour adventure across the north Pacific included two engine stoppages due to fuel transfer starvation. Vigorous wobble pump action and diving the Bellanca from about 14,000′ to achieve air starts of the specially-installed Wasp engine saved the day.
Undercast blanketed parts of the Pacific Northwest as Pangborn and Herndon came in off the Pacific. They overflew Seattle, dwelling beneath the clouds, and Pangborn considered reaching Boise, Idaho, which would have secured a nonstop distance record for the men in “Miss Veedol.”
But Boise was socked in. Turning toward Spokane, the fliers found no meteorological encouragement in that direction, so they headed toward Pasco, Washington. They still could not find good weather.
Pangborn was familiar with the little airstrip on the east side of Wenatchee, Washington, and his hunch about better weather there proved correct.
Wenatchee was more than a last-minute lark — some of Pangborn’s family members had already gathered at the airport in anticipation of this being the transpacific fliers’ destination. But the greeters were surprised to see an airplane appear out of the east, not the west, as the big red Bellanca came to town after its excursion toward Boise proved fruitless.
“Miss Veedol” still had enough gasoline aboard to jettison some before making a belly landing on unpaved ground, scuffing along on a special skid Pangborn had installed in Japan.
A final climactic rising of the aircraft’s tail before settling to a halt, and the amazing flight was over 41 hours and 13 minutes after it began on a beach in Japan. Accounting for the International Dateline, the fliers landed in Wenatchee on Oct. 5, 1931.
Though Seattle was not the flight’s ultimate destination, boosters in that city wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of Pangborn and Herndon. Archie Logan, sales manager for the Seattle Times newspaper, hatched an idea to have the disassembled “Miss Veedol” lifted to the sixth floor of the Bon Marche department store via freight elevator. It was reassembled on a bed of sand spread over a canvas tarp on the floor. With dented cowling, and still minus landing gear, the Bellanca was an instant hit in a city that was growing ever more air-minded in the 1930s.
Elliott Merrill, who went on to a stellar career as a Boeing test pilot, was a key player in Washington Aircraft at Boeing Field. Merrill accomplished the shipment of “Miss Veedol” from Wenatchee to Seattle. After its display duties in the Bon Marche concluded, the red Bellanca was trucked to Boeing Field where landing gear and a new propeller made it whole again.
Merrill’s avid enthusiasm for all things aeronautical included taking and collecting pictures of “Miss Veedol” in Wenatchee. His collection also included a snapshot of the department store display under construction.
Carl M. Cleveland was a young reporter in Wenatchee when Pangborn and Herndon came to town. In 1978 he wrote a biography chronicling the adventures of Clyde Pangborn, titled “Upside-Down” Pangborn — King of the Barnstormers… first to fly the Pacific non-stop!” With a title nearly as long as the epic flight, this book is a fun read.