Pangborn, who grew up in St. Maries and took civil engineering courses at the University of Idaho for a couple of years, learned to fly during World War I, becoming a flight instructor at Ellington Field in Houston. He gained a reputation there for stunt flying, earning the nickname “Upside Down Pang.”
It was stunt flying—barnstorming—that brought him back to St. Maries following the war. He was a pilot for Gates Flying Circus, and a partner in the operation. As barnstorming pilots often did, Pangborn offered short flights to local citizens. Little Gregory Boyington got his first ride in an airplane that day. He would later become famous as Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a Medal of Honor winner, during World War II.
Pangborn’s fame grew during his nine years as a barnstormer. He was known particularly for changing planes in mid-air, walking out on the wing of one plane and slipping over to the wing of another flying wingtip to wingtip.
In 1931, Pangborn and co-pilot Hugh Herndon sought to break the record for circumnavigating the globe. Nasty weather over Siberia caused them to abandon their efforts. So, they set their sights on another record. The two flew to Japan where they hoped to win a $25,000 prize for being the first to complete a non-stop trans-Pacific flight.
Their attempt was plagued with problems. First, they were arrested for taking pictures while flying over Japanese naval installations. Paying a $1,000 fine got them released, but the Japanese kicked them out of the country. They could take off, but they would be arrested again if they tried to land in Japan because they didn’t have proper documentation.
One chance was all they needed. They filled their plane, a Bellanca CH-400 (photo) called Miss Veedol, with over 900 gallons of fuel, and took off on October 4, 1931. The term “flying by the seat of their pants” may not have been invented to describe this flight, but that is largely what they had to do. Their maps and charts had been stolen by a group who wanted a Japanese pilot to be the first to cross the Pacific non-stop.
Part of the plan to get across the ocean with limited fuel was to drop the landing gear from the plane so there would be less drag. The wheels fell away when the lever inside the cockpit was pulled, but a pair of struts stubbornly remained in place. Those caused unwanted drag, which would use precious fuel and make a belly landing—their plan—dangerous. Harkening back to his wing-walking days, Pangborn slipped out of the cockpit at 14,000 feet, barefoot, and removed the struts manually.
Everything went swimmingly from then on except for their inability to land and that time when the engine quit because the co-pilot had neglected to transfer fuel from the auxiliary tanks to the main on time. The plane, stripped of everything not absolutely necessary, didn’t have a starter. The plane also lacked survival gear, seat cushions, and a radio. Pangborn put the Bellanca into a nosedive to get the prop spinning fast enough to start the plane. We know that worked because I did not just write “and then they died.”
Weather was again their enemy, as it had been over Siberia during the global attempt. They planned to land in Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., but both airfields were socked in. So was Mt. Rainier, which they came close to kissing. So, on to Boise! But no, fog had Boise, Spokane, and Pasco closed.
All they wanted to do, badly, was land. And, eventually, they did. Badly, one could say. Of course, given that the plane had no landing gear any landing one could walk away from was perfect. Pangborn and Herndon belly-landed in the dirt field at Wenatchee, 41 hours and 13 minutes after taking off from Japan, officially becoming the first to fly non-stop across the Pacific.
Trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic flights would become routine for Pangborn, who joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1939. He made 170 trans-oceanic flights in helping to recruit American pilots to the cause. When the U.S. entered the war in 1941, he signed up with the U.S. Army Air Force.
Pangborn passed away in 1958 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.