Clyde "Upside-Down" Pangborn
"Upside-Down" Pangborn made crowds gasp when he performed his daring
aerial stunts during the Roaring Twenties. He was among the period's
finest aerial showmen. As his nickname suggests, he was anything but a
conventional pilot, and people loved him for it. But Pangborn was much
more than an entertainer. In 1931, he and a fellow aviator set a world
record when they became the first people to fly non-stop from Japan to the
United States. Pangborn also served as a test pilot in his later years.
During his career, Pangborn not only knew the thrill of entertaining
crowds and establishing records, but also the painstaking process of
thoroughly testing a plane and making it safe for other pilots to fly.
Pangborn was born on
October 28, 1894, in Bridgeport, Washington. At age two, he and his family
moved to Idaho. After graduating from high school, Pangborn took classes
in civil engineering for about two years at the University of Idaho before
enlisting in the army.
During World War I,
Pangborn served as a flight instructor for the U.S. Army at Ellington
Field in Houston. There he taught cadets how to fly the Curtiss JN-4
"Jenny" biplane. Although Pangborn had a relatively uneventful military
career, he did acquire a rather unique talent. Pangborn learned to
slow-roll his plane onto its back and fly upside down. His fellow pilots
subsequently began calling him "Upside-Down Pang," a name that would stick
with him for life, although most people would shorten the nickname to
either "Upside-Down" or "Pang."
After the war, many
military aviators, like Pangborn, wanted to use their new skills as pilots
to earn a living. The U.S. military had a surplus of Jenny biplanes, and
many of them bought Jennys and set out across the country performing
aerial shows. "Barnstorming," as the phenomenon became known, was an
extremely popular form of entertainment.
Pangborn became one of
these professional barnstormers, thriving as an aerial stuntman and
performing all sorts of tricks. One of the first stunts he attempted was
an automobile-to-airplane transfer at Coronado Beach, California, in 1920.
During the stunt, Pang was supposed to hop off the back of a speeding car
onto a rope ladder that was hanging from a cruising airplane, and then
climb up into the aircraft. Although Pang got hold of the ladder, he lost
his grip and plunged to the ground. Remarkably, he only sustained three
dislocated vertebra and some muscle strains and bruises. This would be the
only serious accident of his career.
Clyde Pangborn caught mid-air, falling, during his unsuccessful attempt to
an airplane-to-automobile transfer at Coronado Tent City, Coronado Beach,
California, on May 16, 1920.
In 1921, Pangborn
joined Ivan Gates and formed the Gates Flying Circus. Pang was part owner
of the show and the chief pilot and operating manager. The troupe toured
internationally and became famous. One of the key stunts Pangborn
performed was to change planes while in flight. He held the world record
for the feat. In 1924, he also made news when he rescued a stuntwoman in
midair whose parachute had gotten tangled in his plane's landing gear.
Pangborn flew countless miles during his barnstorming days without
sustaining any serious injuries or inflicting any on his passengers.
barnstormers, Pangborn's stunting days were limited because of a series of
new federal safety laws. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, barnstormers
found it increasingly difficult to meet the new standards and many aerial
shows went out of business. The Gates Flying Circus dissolved in 1928.
Although Pang would work with other shows, each of them would fold within
a few years. In 1931, Pangborn's barnstorming career ended.
Pangborn´s plane Miss Veedol.
Pang began looking for
a new challenge almost immediately and decided to attempt a new
around-the-world speed record. He believed he could easily better the
previous mark of 20 days, 4 hours, established by the German Graf Zeppelin
in 1929. Pang chose Hugh Herndon, Jr., a friend and former barnstormer, as
his navigator. Herndon, an easterner from a wealthy family, was only an
average pilot, but more importantly, he had the money to sponsor the
venture. With Herndon's capital, the two men purchased a Bellanca
attempted to launch the New Standard Aircraft Corporation of Paterson, New
Jersey, but the Depression also ended that effort. He then went to work
for the Bergen County, New Jersey police department as a pilot. That
lasted only a short time, however, and in 1930 he tried barnstorming
dropped their landing gear at sea to gain speed, Clyde Pangborn and Hugh
Herndon, Jr. prepare to land at Wenatchee, Washington. They flew 4,558 miles
Everything seemed to
be proceeding according to plan, but then Wiley Post and Harold Gatty
established a new around-the-world record in June, about a month before
Pangborn and Herndon's scheduled take off. Discouraged at first, Pangborn
and Herndon still believed they could better Post and Gatty's record of 8
days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes. On July 28, they took off from Roosevelt
Field, Long Island, heading northeast.
For a while, Pangborn
and Herndon looked as if they might catch up to Post and Gatty's record.
When they left Moscow, they were only ten hours behind the previous record
setters' time, but then Herndon made a serious mistake. While Pangborn was
sleeping, Herndon got lost over Mongolia. Although Pangborn corrected the
problem, another major mishap occurred. In Siberia, a driving rainstorm
turned a dirt runway into a quagmire, and when the two men could not take
off in enough time to better Post and Gatty's mark, they decided to
abandon their attempt at the record.
As Pangborn and
Herndon were waiting out the bad weather, they came up with another record
setting option. At that time, a Japanese newspaper was offering a $25,000
prize to whomever made the first non-stop flight between Japan and the
United States (Post and Gatty had stopped off in Alaska during their
flight). Focusing on their new plan, Pangborn and Herndon set out for
Once again, the former
barnstormers ran into trouble. Because of a miscommunication between
American and Japanese officials, Pangborn and Herndon did not have
permission to fly over Japan. This caused serious problems, especially
when coupled with the fact that Herndon had taken some photographs of the
Japanese countryside, including, unintentionally, some military
installations. When the two men landed, Japanese authorities arrested them
on charges of espionage. Although the Japanese government detained them
for several weeks, the U.S. Embassy successfully intervened on their
behalf, and Pangborn and Herndon stood ready to attempt the record.
A few days before take
off, Pangborn, who had grown concerned about the plane's limited fuel
supply, developed a plan to reduce the aircraft's weight and thereby
increase its range. He rigged a device so that he could jettison the
plane's landing gear shortly after lift off. He calculated that the
aircraft would travel approximately 600 miles (966 kilometres) farther
without the gear. While many feared that Pangborn would be unable to land
safely without wheels, he felt confident that he could "belly land" the
The Miss Veedol after landing at Fancher Field
On the morning of
October 4 (Japanese time), Pangborn and Herndon took off from Samishiro
Beach, Japan, in route to Washington state. Like on some of their other
flights, the two men ran into trouble quickly. Although Pang jettisoned
the landing gear, two of the gear's struts remained behind. Pangborn,
realizing that they could not land safely with the struts still attached,
performed one of his old barnstorming feats to remedy the situation.
Approximately 14,000 feet (7,267 meters) above the Pacific, Pangborn
climbed out onto his plane's wing, and in freezing weather and 100-mile
per hour (161-kilometer per hour) winds, loosened the remaining struts.
in-flight challenge, Pangborn and Herndon persevered and brought their
plane in for a successful belly landing at Wenatchee, Washington, on
October 5, after a journey of some 4,500 miles (7,242 kilometres). They
had made their record setting trip in 41 hours, 13 minutes (although some
sources cite 15 minutes).
trans-Pacific flight, Pangborn took on a variety of challenges but few
could compare with his record setting journey. In 1932 Pangborn went to
work for Clarence D. Chamberlin in New York City, but in less than a year
he had left that venture and was selling Fairchild Aircraft Company
airplanes in South America. In 1934, he and Roscoe Turner, a famous air
racer and aviation advocate, flew a modified Boeing 247D--a revolutionary,
twin-engine, all-metal monoplane than helped bring about the airline
revolution of the 1930s--from London to Australia in the MacRobertson
Race. They left on October 20, and landed only 92 hours, 55 minutes, and
38 seconds later in Melbourne after flying 11,325 miles (18,226 kilometres).
Even so, they finished second in the race, following closely behind the
record-setting De Havilland "Comet."
Beginning in 1935,
Pangborn became a test pilot and worked for several aircraft companies.
Among other ventures, he recruited American fliers for the Royal Air Force
(RAF), helping them violate the Neutrality Laws by getting them into
Canada where they could legally enlist to fight the Nazis alongside the
British. Several members of the RAF's Eagle Squadron, the unit made up of
Americans that fought in the Battle of Britain, were recruited by Pangborn.
He also joined the RAF Ferry Command and was instrumental in helping
organize the effort to ferry aircraft and air weapons across the Atlantic
to Britain in 1940 and 1941. During the conflict, he delivered more than
170 airplanes to the Allies and also served with the U.S. military when it
entered the war. After the war, Pangborn returned to his life as a test
pilot. On March 29, 1958, Pangborn died. He received a burial in Arlington
National Cemetery with military honours.
Vincent Justus Burnelli and Clyde Pangborn standing in front of UB-14
circa 1935. It was this plane that dramatically demonstrated the
crashworthiness of this type of design.see
Pangborn amassed an
impressive set of aviation credentials and accomplishments during his
life. In addition to all of his barnstorming feats, and his trans-Pacific
flight, Pangborn was licensed to fly a wide variety of planes, including
most single- and multiengine aircraft, and even seaplanes. He also
compiled more than 24,000 hours of flight time during his career and never
lost a plane or injured a passenger.
Pangborn's career was
similar to that of many other second-tier fliers of his generation. He was
able to make a life flying but never on the scale of a Charles A.
Lindbergh or an Eddie Rickenbacker. He was a capable airman, recognized as
such both by the public and his fellow aviators. The record-setting
flights he made between 1931 and 1934 were highlights of his career, but
his service in 1940 and 1941 on behalf of the British opposing Nazi
Germany may have been his greatest contribution.