Clyde “Upside-Down” Pangborn

Clyde Edward “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 fellow aviator Hugh Hernodon set a world record when they became the first people to fly nonstop 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.

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.

Like most 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.

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 “Skyrocket” monoplane.
Pangborn next 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 again.

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 Japan.

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 kilometers) 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 plane intact.

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.

Despite their in-flight challenge, Pangborn and Herndon persevered and brought their plane in for a successful belly landing at East Wenatchee, Washington, on October 5, after a journey of some 4,500 miles (7,242 kilometers). They had made their record setting trip in 41 hours, 13 minutes (although some sources cite 15 minutes).

After his 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 kilometers). 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 honors.

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.