Pangborn, Clyde Edward (1894-1958)

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 10/12/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7495
Clyde Pangborn, born in Bridgeport, Washington, was one of the leading "barnstormers" -- aerial stuntmen -- of the 1920s. Known as "Upside Down Pang," he performed stunts such as slow-rolling an airplane onto its back and flying upside down. He held the world record for changing planes mid-air, and was the first aviator to make a nonstop trans-Pacific flight, a daring feat that he completed in 1931 by belly-landing his Bellanca Skyrocket in what is now East Wenatchee. Pangborn learned to fly in the U.S. Army during World War I and served both Britain and the United States during World War II. He was not only an entertainer who thrilled crowds with his aerial antics, but also a skilled test pilot.

He is Born and Becomes Airborne

Pangborn was born on October 28, 1894, to Max Pangborn and Opal Lamb Pangborn. His parents were ranchers, but separated when he was two. Although he moved with his mother to Idaho and his older brother Percy remained with their father, the brothers saw each other and their other parent on visits.

Clyde got the flying bug when one of the pioneering aviators, Paul Beck, came to the city ballpark in St. Maries, Idaho, with a Curtiss pusher. Broadcasting through a megaphone, Beck's advance-man offered $100 to anyone in the crowd who would fly with Beck. Clyde shot out of the crowd yelling "Mister! Mister! I'll go up! I'll go up for nothing!" According to Pangborn's biographer, the advance-man told the schoolboy, "Beat it, you little bastard!" (Cleveland). Later Pangborn would fly.

Pangborn finished high school with honors as a scholar and an athlete and got a job in a logging operation. It was his job to check for leaks, breaks, and jams along three miles of wooden flume down which water would carry logs from the holding pond above. He studied civil engineering through an extension course at University of Idaho, and later got a job at the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mining Company, a lead-zinc-silver producing firm.

It was the coming of World War I that finally gave Pangborn the opportunity to learn to fly. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, was trained as a pilot, and during the war served as a flight instructor. After the war, like many pilots, Pangborn sought a way to remain airborne.

Flying High

He had learned to perform loops and to fly upside down in the Army. Once out he took some training in airplane mechanics and repair. In 1919, he signed on as a demonstration pilot for an airplane built by R. C. McClellan of Spokane. This airplane could be taken apart, shipped, and reassembled. He began to give exhibition flights and gave one over his old hometown, St. Maries, Idaho. His tailspins and loops impressed the local banker, A. B. Annis, who arranged a loan so that Pangborn could buy an airplane of his own.

He bought a Jenny, teamed up with a buddy from the Army, and began performing (he also transported passengers). Thus began his career as a barnstormer.

Whoops!

His sole injury occurred near the beginning of his career, in 1920. On a beach in Coronado, California, he was attempting an auto-to-airplane transfer. This involved hopping off a speeding car onto a rope ladder hung from a low-flying airplane, then climbing up the ladder to the airplane to continue the journey.

Pangborn grabbed the rope ladder, but lost his grip and fell to the ground, sustaining minor injuries -- three dislocated vertebrae and some bruises. This was the only mishap in a long career of daring deeds.

The Flying Circus

In 1921, he and Ivan Gates formed the Gates Flying Circus, with Pangborn as operating manager and chief pilot. This act performed internationally and Pangborn became renowned for such feats as changing planes in mid-air. He became even more famous in 1924 when in Houston, Texas, he rescued a stuntwoman, Rosalie Gordon, whose parachute had become entangled in his landing gear. In six years, between 1922 and 1928, Pangborn flew 125,000 miles, performing in the United States and in other countries. During his long career of daring deeds, he never injured a single person, except for himself, once, in the auto-to-airplane episode.

By the end of the 1920s, the flight circuses became more and more hampered and circumscribed by flight regulations. Moreover, Ivan Gates, Pangborn's partner in Gates Flying Circus, was troubled with alcoholism, and he, his wife, and others around him suffered from his bouts of erratic and violent behavior.

Pangborn ended his barnstorming career in 1931, and began seeking instead to break world records. Gates committed suicide in 1932.

Pangborn's World Record

Pangborn completed the first nonstop flight from Japan across the Pacific Ocean. He achieved the world record after belly-landing his Bellanca Skyrocket in what is now East Wenatchee on October 5, 1931.

The flight, accomplished with his friend and co-pilot Hugh Herndon Jr., succeeded after Pangborn made the following technical adjustment. He decided that the aircraft was too heavy for the amount of fuel it could carry to make the flight. He planned to lighten it up by jettisoning his landing gear after take-off. He figured he could safely belly-land the plane.

The stunt pilot devised a gizmo designed to release the landing gear shortly after take-off from Misawa, Japan. It worked fairly well, the landing gear dropped, but two struts were left hanging, making it impossible to belly-land safely. Pangborn solved this little trouble by crawling out on the wing mid-flight in the freezing cold and removing the struts manually. He then crawled back into the aircraft, flew it to what is now East Wenatchee, and safely belly-landed as planned. For this achievement, he received the White Medal of Merit from Japan, and the Harmon Trophy.

Pangborn's Legacy

Pangborn was not just a performer but a serious and highly skilled test pilot who worked for a number of aircraft companies. As historian David H. Onkst writes, "Pangborn not only knew the thrill of entertaining crowds and establishing world records, but also the painstaking process of thoroughly testing a plane and making it safe for other pilots to fly" (Onkst).

Pangborn spent World War II aiding the British in their fight against the Nazis. Before the United States entered the war, he recruited American pilots and helped them violate neutrality laws by getting them into Canada, where they could legally enlist in the Royal Air Force. The RAF's Eagle Squadron, which fought in the Battle of Britain, was made up of American pilots, many of them recruited by Pangborn. He became a member of the RAF ferry command, flying aircraft across the Atlantic to Britain in 1940 and 1941. After the United States entered the war, he served with the U.S. military.

After the war, he returned to testing new airplanes, serving as chief test pilot for the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation.

Clyde Pangborn died on March 29, 1958. He held pilot's license No. 240 and at the time of his death had amassed more than 24,000 flying hours. He was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

In East Wenatchee, the Clyde Pangborn Memorial Airport is named in his honor.


Sources: Carl M. Cleveland, Upside-Down Pangborn (Glendale, CA: Aviation Book Company, 1978); David H. Onkst, "Clyde 'Upside-Down' Pangborn," U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission website accessed on September 25, 2005 (http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/ Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/pangborn/EX14.htm); Ralph E. Dyar, News for an Empire: the Story of the Spokesman Review of Spokane, Washington, and of the Field it Serves (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1957), 391; "Clyde Edward Pangborn," Wenatchee Valley Museum website (www.wenatcheevalleymuseum.com).

Related Topics:   Aviation | Celebrities

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You