Today, Air China became the first airline to fly nonstop across the Pacific. In a joint effort with Singapore Airlines, they created the longest flight in history from Beijing to San Francisco for $1,495 per person roundtrip.
The “first person to fly around the world nonstop” is a feat that has only been accomplished by three people. The first person was Amelia Earhart and it took her 2 years to do it.
In Wenatchee, Wash., in 1931, aerial circus star Clyde Pangborn and playboy Hugh Herndon, Jr. won the Japanese award with a spectacular belly-flop.
Clyde ‘Upside-Down’ Pangborn and his co-pilot Hugh Herndon, Jr. were held at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel under house arrest. They had been imprisoned for seven weeks after arriving in Tokyo on August 8, 1931, on charges of espionage and conducting an unlawful trip. Twelve days earlier, the two American pilots had strutted onto the global stage of aviation. They’d flown out in a blaze of publicity from Roosevelt Field in New York, with great expectations of breaking one-eyed Wiley Post and his Australian navigator Harold Gatty’s around-the-world speed record.
In American aviation circles, Pangborn, a daring stunt pilot, was well-known. Until 1928, he was the main pilot and half-owner of the legendary Gates Flying Circus. His playboy co-pilot, a complete beginner in flying, was more well-known in social circles. Herndon Boardman, the son of Standard Oil heiress Alice Boardman, was a Princeton dropout who enjoyed the high life. The socialite, eager to see her son create a reputation for himself, didn’t bat an eye when he requested for $100,000 to fund the trip.
In the Bellanca’s cockpit, Clyd “Upside-Down” Pangborn (right) and playboy co-pilot Hugh Herndon. (Getty Images/Austrian Archives/Imagno)
Their dreams of surpassing Post and Gatty’s flying time were dashed in Khabarovsk, Siberia, when their Bellanca Skyrocket Miss Veedol skidded off the runway and became severely bogged down after landing in a torrential downpour. Already behind schedule and unable to take off for many days, the dejected couple decided to cancel their round-the-world trip. Instead, they decided to make the most of their journey by vying for a $50,000 prize given by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper for the first nonstop flight across the Pacific. They didn’t have any maps of Japan, so Pangborn sent a message to the editor of the English-language Japanese Times, seeking a track and distance from Khabarovsk to Tokyo, as well as landing clearance from the Japanese Aviation Bureau.
Before their cable was replied, the field in Khabarovsk had dried up, so Pangborn decided to leave before the area was once again flooded by threatening storms. They got a radio transmission providing a track and distance and indicating that landing permission was being sought while flying a rough direction towards Japan. They arrived at Tachikawa airport after landing at Haneda to seek instructions, only to be greeted by furious authorities who demanded to see their landing documents. Because Japan was at war with China, foreign pilots coming unexpectedly and photographing military-restricted locations did not sit well with them. We were charged with three charges, according to Pangborn. That we had flown above defended locations and taken photographs of them. True, we didn’t have a flying permission with us, but we thought our embassy would take care of it. We were simply tourists shooting what we believed were beautiful scenery photos as we flew over guarded areas and took pictures.
Pangborn and Herndon used their seven weeks of house imprisonment to plot their transpacific expedition. They were also allowed to examine the efforts of the other Japanese and American teams who had previously competed for the Asahi Shimbun award but had been unsuccessful.
The transatlantic success of Charles Lindbergh had prompted Japan to fund a Pacific trip four years before. Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris had thrilled the globe. Overnight, the American had transformed into a worldwide hero–his era’s most photographed figure. The Japanese thought that the first successful transpacific flight, which was a more difficult and time-consuming task than crossing the Atlantic, would help draw attention to Japan’s rise as Asia’s economic powerhouse–especially if a Japanese pilot and aircraft were the first to cross.
While the world was still basking in the glory of Lindbergh’s triumph, Japan made its transpacific ambitions known. The Imperial Aeronautics Association said that a Japanese pilot will cross the Pacific in a Japanese-owned and-manufactured aircraft. T. Claude Ryan was commissioned by the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun to build an identical duplicate of Lindbergh’s long-range monoplane.
The Ryan NYP-2 (New York-Paris No. 2) was delivered to Japan in early 1928 but was not bought to try the Pacific trip. The original NYP was designed to fly the 3,600 miles between New York and Paris, plus a few hundred more for safety. A plane with a range of at least 4,500 miles was needed to fly from Japan to America’s West Coast.
Although the Japanese purchasers may have believed it was feasible to increase the Ryan’s range, it is more probable that the plane served as a design reference for Japan’s Kawanishi firm to build a comparable but much bigger transpacific machine known as the K-12 Nichi-Bei-Go (Japan U.S. Model). One Ryan was ordered as a backup in the event of an accident. However, flight testing revealed that Kawanishi’s ponderous K-12 lacked the range and takeoff capability needed to complete the transpacific trip. Under a banner declaring, How Not to Design or Build a Special-Purpose Airplane, red-faced Kawanishi executives hanged one of the costly white elephants from the factory ceiling.
Even when Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew made the first transpacific flight in the Fokker F.VII/3m tri-motor Southern Cross from Oakland, Calif., to Brisbane, Australia, in June 1928, interest in the Asahi Shimbun reward did not wane. The island-hopping flight, which was not eligible for the Japanese award, was completed in three phases, lacking the drama of a continuous passage.
In June 1928, Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew flew the Fokker VIII/3m tri-motor “Southern Cross” over the Pacific for the first time, although their journey from Oakland, Calif., to Brisbane, Australia, was accomplished in three phases. (Getty Images/Mirrorpix) )
In 1930, Canadian-born pilot Harold Bromley joined up with Australian navigator Harold Gatty to undertake the first continuous Pacific crossing. Their plane was an exquisite, 450-hp Wasp-powered monoplane called City of Tacoma after the city that had funded the trip. Their Emsco had a still-air range of around 4,000 miles when fully laden, which was 500 miles less than they required. They would need a tailwind to succeed. The airmen chose to start the mission from Japan since this was more probable while flying east. They flew 1,250 miles, mainly in cloud, until being forced to return due to headwinds. They took off from a broad, flat beach at Sabishiro, 370 miles north of Tokyo.
Seiji Yoshihara, a daring young Japanese airman, was the next to attempt. Yoshihara had flown from Berlin to Tokyo in a Junkers A-50, a small open-cockpit plane. He reasoned that the 85-hp engine in his aircraft would provide enough fuel to get him across the Pacific. Yoshihara took out on May 18, 1931, with the Junkers equipped with floats, following the great circle route. When the seaplane’s engine failed after almost 1,000 miles of flight, he was forced to ditch in the Pacific. Yoshihara was miraculously scooped up by a passing ship seven hours later.
On May 18, 1931, Yoshihara departs from Japan for his attempt to break the world speed record. The A-50 experienced engine problems after almost 1,000 kilometers and Yoshihara was forced to ditch in the Pacific. Only seven hours later, he was rescued by a passing ship. Terry Gwynn Jones (Terry Gwynn Jones)
Following Yoshihara’s valiant effort, the Imperial Aeronautics Association added $100,000 to the prize pool for a successful flight by a Japanese team. A group of Seattle businesspeople contributed a $28,000 bonus to the $50,000 Asahi Shimbun award in the United States. Their sole need was that the aircraft take off from Seattle and land in Japan. This meant that non-Japanese teams could now compete for $78,000 in prize money, which was a fortune in those Depression-era days. It drew Texan barnstormer Reginald Robbins and oilman Harold S. Jones, who had tried a Seattle-Tokyo trip in their Lockheed Vega Fort Worth on two previous occasions. Unfortunately, their well-thought-out strategy to refuel from a Ford TriMotor tanker in the air above Alaska failed both times. Another effort to fly west was thwarted when a pilot called Bob Wark was forced to land in Vancouver, just 100 miles from his departure location.
Bromley and Gatty had left the Emsco in Japan to be sold after their failed trip in 1930. It was later utilized in two further transpacific efforts by the United States. When pilot Thomas Ash failed to get the Emsco off the dunes at Sabishiro, the first mission came to an end. The Emsco Clasina Madge was renamed for the second time by Los Angeles salespeople Cecil Allen and Don Moyle. Pangborn and Herndon were still under house arrest in Tokyo when they took off from Sabishiro on September 8, 1931. Allen and Moyle, who were brave but inexperienced, got lost and landed on Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula after flying aimlessly for more than a day. The two ultimately made their way to the United States, stopping in the Aleutians and Alaska along the way. On September 25, 1931, the Clasina Madge arrived in Tacoma.
In Tokyo’s district court, Pangborn and Herndon had already been tried. They were found guilty and sentenced to 205 days of hard labor or $1,050 in penalties. Pangborn and Herndon announced their intention to undertake the JapanUnited States flight after paying their penalties. As a result of the previous failures, Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau has limited future flights to authorized aircraft only. After days of wrangling, Pangborn was granted permission to try an overloaded takeoff from Japan.
On September 29, they flew Miss Veedol to Sabishiro Beach to make final preparations for the trip. Pangborn had devised a smart strategy for reducing drag and increasing the Bellanca’s range. In a failed effort to cross the Atlantic in 1919, Australian Harry Hawker employed the same concept. The plan called for removing the bolts that held the landing gear to the fuselage and replacing them with a cable and a system of clamps and springs. Pangborn may detonate the whole structure by tugging on the line after takeoff. He fitted steel skids to the Bellanca’s potbelly for the landing.
Pangborn said, “To make the trans-Pacific trip, we decided that we would have to take off with the highest wing loading [fuel load] we had ever tried with the Bellanca.” Even at the most efficient cruising pace, we didn’t have enough gasoline to go us the 4,500 miles to the west coast of the United States. After doing some research, I estimated that removing the drag of the fixed landing gear would allow us to improve our speed by around 15 miles per hour. That would be the equivalent of adding 600 miles to our range on a forty-hour trip, and it might be the difference between success and disaster.
The two Americans were guests of Misawa City, a neighboring municipality, at Sabishiro Beach. The mayor had openly said that any country pursuing such a noble objective should be welcomed with open arms. When the airmen’s carefully prepared flight plans were taken, they learned that not all Japanese were friendly. The perpetrators seemed to be members of the fiercely nationalistic Black Dragon Society, who had been aggressively protesting the Americans and their planned departure for weeks.
On October 2, Pangborn and Herndon received fresh charts and were finally ready to travel. To reduce weight, they didn’t bring a radio, emergency gear, or even a seat cushion, and their meals consisted of hot tea and fried chicken. Despite having 915 gallons of gasoline and 45 gallons of oil on board, the Bellanca was still 3,400 pounds above its maximum operational weight.
On October 2, 1931, Pangborn and Herndon inspect their Bellanca Skyrocket “Miss Veedol” before taking off on their trip from Japan to Wenatchee, Washington. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Flight/Corbis via Getty Images)
A little Japanese kid ran out of the throng and presented Pangborn with five apples from his father’s orchard as he prepared to board the Bellanca. Pangborn seemed to be moved. Apples were renowned in Misawa City, as they were in his birthplace of Wenatchee, Washington.
Miss Veedol utilized the takeoff ramp that had been constructed by local people for Bromley and Gatty’s last attempt. A steam roller had packed down a mound of sand, which was then covered with a runway of planks that went down to the shore. Its aim, similar to that of a ski jump, was to provide an initial burst of acceleration to the overloaded aircraft. Despite this, the Bellanca struggled to gather speed as it slid down into the damp beach.
The monoplane was barely up to 60 mph with its 425-hp Wasp engine screaming at full speed with two-thirds of the beach gone. Pangborn calculated that he needed 90 mph to take flight. Pangborn could be seen shaking the aircraft from wheel to wheel as Miss Veedol neared a pile of logs that marked the end of the improvised runway in an effort to break the drag of the moist sand. I was determined to get off, or pile into those logs, he later said. We only got clearance for one try, and I had no intention of staying in Japan any longer.
With 100 yards to spare, the plane lurched into the air. The fuel-bloated Bellanca inched up above the waves, flying straight ahead and wallowing near a stall. Pangborn gently rotated onto a heading of 072 degrees, headed for the Aleutians, after they had a safe cushion of height.
Pangborn was confident that everything was functioning properly three hours out, on track, and nearing the Kurile Islands, so he removed the landing gear. The primary construction disintegrated, although two of the gear’s bracing rods did not. They presented a serious danger to a safe belly landing, and Pangborn knew he’d have to pry them loose throughout the flight. Miss Veedol ascended to 14,000 feet, where it took up a nice tail wind, despite being devoid of 300 pounds of landing gear and associated drag.
After the sun set, they started to experience airframe icing in the clouds. To avoid clouds, they ascended to 17,000 feet, where the weather was clear and ice-free. Pangborn determined that now was the best moment to attempt to remove the two hanging struts. When the steel-nerved airman handed control over to Herndon, he put his flying circus wing-walking talents to good use. Pangborn slid out of the cockpit and put his feet on the wide strut that held the Bellanca’s wing, struggling against the cold 100-mph slipstream. With one hand, he held on for his life while removing one of the problematic bracing rods with the other. Pangborn re-entered the cockpit, warmed up, and then repeated the process on the other side. It had been extremely chilly all night. The water in our canteens froze, and even our hot tea froze, he remembered.
The two guys were ecstatic to see a volcano in the Aleutians looming right below them as their first genuine position check. Pangborn remained in command, with Herndon in charge of replenishing the main wing tanks with fuel from the massive auxiliary cabin tank. He had to use a hand-operated wobbling pump to transfer the gasoline. He had forgotten the job twice. The first time he was able to keep the sputtering Wasp engine going by pumping gasoline quickly enough. When the propeller stopped dead on the second time, Herndon’s recklessness almost lost the guys their lives.
An electric starter was not available on the Bellanca. Pangborn had no choice except to descend the aircraft in the hopes of windmilling the propeller. Pangborn steepened the descent, yelling at Herndon to start pumping and frantically attempting to spin the propeller in the thin air. When it finally started to windmill and the engine sprang into life again, they had dropped 13,000 feet and were just 1,500 feet over the ocean.
During the whole trip, the sole news of their progress came from an island in the Aleutians, where an amateur radio operator radioed to America that an aircraft had passed over above the clouds. No one knew where they were going, but Pangborn’s mother was certain that her son would land near his birthplace of Wenatchee, Wash. She was one of 30 residents who kept watch at the town’s little airport.
When Pangborn saw the tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands off Canada’s northern coast, he believed the worst was over. He’d been behind the wheel for more than 30 hours. Knowing that the difficult task of belly landing was not far ahead of them, he opted to sleep for a few hours. He told Herndon to maintain his present altitude and direction, and to wake him up when he spotted the lights of a major city. Pangborn shouted, “That’ll be Vancouver, British Columbia!”
Herndon’s inattention had failed them down once again. Pangborn awakened hours later to find that his careless co-pilot had gone off track and missed both Vancouver and Seattle. Mount Rainier loomed front of them. Pangborn chose to continue inland to Boise, Idaho, setting a new global nonstop distance record in the process. They headed toward Spokane, Wash., two hours later, when it became clear that the Boise region was engulfed in fog. Pangborn opted to go towards Wenatchee when the destination was obscured by low clouds.
The huge red monoplane swooped in over the hills and circled Wenatchee’s little airstrip at 7:14 a.m. on October 5, 1931, dropping gasoline to minimize the risk of fire. Pangborn moved Herndon to the back of the cabin as the plane approached slowly, thinking that his weight might aid in keeping the tail down during the landing. He turned off the gasoline and ignition switches at the last possible time and carefully dropped the Bellanca to the ground as it flared near to stalling. Miss Veedol slithered to a halt, teetered for a minute, then landed onto its left wingtip after being covered for a moment by a cloud of dust.
Pangborn and Herndon completed their transpacific adventure by bringing “Miss Veedol” to a halt in a field outside of Wenatchee, Washington, early on October 5, 1931. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Flight/Corbis via Getty Images) )
Pangborn was surprised to see an Asahi Shimbun official there to give the flyers with their $50,000 cheque after being embraced by his mother and brother. The newspaper’s envoy had chosen Wenatchee as their most probable landing spot by some strange coincidence.
Carl M. Cleveland, a teenage reporter for the Wenatchee Daily World at the time, was among the small group who had waited all night. He’d snatched the only phone in the room in the hopes of getting a world scoop. He was not underwhelmed: PANGBORN-HERNDON SPAN PACIFIC….HOLY MOLY, ARE WE HAPPY TO BE HERE: IT’S LIKE A DREAM COME TRUE WHEN PANGBORN PUTS IT. As he transmitted the news to his editor, who conveyed Cleveland’s comments to the wire services and the rest of the globe, his local headlines were duplicated throughout the continent.
The sole monetary reward for the epic flight was the Asahi Shimbun Award. Pangborn and Herndon were not eligible for the Imperial Aeronautic Association award or the Seattle businessmen’s prize since they were foreigners. Worse, according to Pangborn, was on the way. His connection with Herndon was already tense, and the two soon parted ways. The bickering between the two to a head when Herndon and his mother claimed the prize money and the proceeds from the sale of Miss Veedol as financial supporters for the transpacific trip. They only paid Pangborn $2,500 for his efforts.
Pangborn expressed his dissatisfaction in the Albany Times Union. The headlines blared, HERNDON INCOMPETENT SAYS PANGBORN! Pangborn said in the following tale that his co-pilot had little knowledge of navigation since he had been romancing a lady rather than studying before to their trip. He revealed that Herndon had been nothing more than a passenger aboard Miss Veedol, saying, “Herndon flew at most 10 hours of the 200 hours we were in the air [since departing New York].”
Pangborn had additional, longer-lasting benefits from the nonstop transpacific trip. He was awarded the coveted Harmon Trophy in American aviation, joining the ranks of other legends like as Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle. And word arrived from Japan that Pangborn had been awarded the Imperial Aeronautical Society’s White Medal of Merit, notwithstanding his previous offenses.
The present from Clyde Pangborn to the residents of Misawa City was the most enduring memory of Miss Veedol’s flight. Pangborn arranged for the mayor of Wenatchee to send five cuttings from Washington state’s famous Richard Delicious apples to his counterpart in Misawa City, remembering the heartfelt gift of five apples from the young Japanese child on Sabishiro Beach. They were grafted onto trees in Misawa City, and cuttings and seedlings were disseminated to apple farmers throughout the nation within a few years. Richard Delicious apples are now cultivated all throughout Japan.
Terry Gwynn-Jones, a contributing editor, contributes to Aviation History on a regular basis. Additional reading: Carl M. Cleveland’s Upside-Down Pangborn: King of the Barnstormers; Richard Sanders Allen’s Revolution in the Sky; Epic of Flight’s The Pathfinders; and William Joy’s The Aviators.
This article first published in Aviation History’s November 1998 edition. Subscribe now to get more interesting stories!
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The “first transpacific flight” is a milestone for aviation. The first nonstop flight across the Pacific was made by Japan Airlines on December 14, 2018.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who was the first to fly across the Pacific?
A: Amelia Earhart was the first to fly across the Pacific.
Who were the first pilots to cross the Pacific Ocean?
A: The first pilots to cross the Pacific Ocean were Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. They made it across in 1937 on their way from Hawaii to California.
Who was the first person to fly non stop over the Atlantic Ocean?
A: Charles Lindbergh, who flew from Long Island to Paris in 1927.
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