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The daring tale of first trans-Pacific flight

By on June 25, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

“I’m the last one alive that saw Pangborn and Herndon land.” That’s the claim of 94-year-old Jack Graybill. 

KPQ had been broadcasting reports of Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr.’s trans-Pacific flight since their takeoff from Japan on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 1, 1931. “My dad had followed all the reports,” remembers Jack.

They took off from the gray sand of 8,000-foot-long Sabishiro Beach, north of Tokyo near the small town of Misawa. 

The beach had been used as a runway by several other aviators in attempts to fly the Pacific. It was straight and long enough to allow a plane to reach takeoff speed though not all past aircraft had been successful. 

Bulldozers had created a wedge shaped hill of sand at the beginning of the beach to help the planes get more initial speed. The slope was boot packed by local people and covered with boards. 

The same Misawa people had filled 55-gallon drums with water and pushed them up and down the beach to harden the surface for Pangborn and Herndon’s take off.

The bright red Miss Veedol was pulled with ropes backwards up the slope. The plane was dangerously over loaded with extra fuel needed to make the 4,500-mile, non-stop flight. 

Pangborn held the brake with all his strength as he brought the 425 hp Wasp engine to its top speed of 1,700 rpm. He released the brake and the plane accelerated down the slope and onto the beach. It slowly gained speed while Pangborn rocked the plane from wheel to wheel to break loose from the wet sand. 

With 100 yards to spare the plane finally took to the air just clearing a pile of drift logs at the end of the runway.

Three hours out, over the Pacific, the landing gear was jettisoned to reduce weight and drag. They would have to make a belly landing wherever they ended up. 

Most of the gear fell away but braces on both sides of the plane hung up. At 14,000 feet, in an 100-mile per hour wind, Pangborn climbed out of the plane onto the wing strut to release the braces, first on one side then through the cabin and out the other side. To reduce weight the parachutes had been left behind.

Sunday they were over Alaska and KPQ reported that a ham radio operator in the Aleutian Islands had broadcast that he heard a lone plane fly over high above the fog. Early Monday morning KPQ reported that a plane was heard over Seattle.

Jack Graybill with four Japanese … the last living that saw the takeoff. They are standing in front of a life-size replica of Miss Veedol at Sabishiro Beach. This was taken in 2015 when Jack went with the Apple Blossom royalty to Misawa, Wenatchee’s sister city. Photo courtesy of Jack Graybill

“Dad and I were listening,” Jack Graybill recalled. “We knew they wanted to break the distance record for a non-stop flight. They needed to get to Idaho for that but Boise was fogged in and so was Spokane. 

“We knew the Pangborn family. Clyde’s mother, Opal, lived in Wenatchee along with his brother, Percy and his family. An uncle owned Pangborn Jewelry next to Mills Brothers.” 

With no other regional airports available it became more likely they would end the flight at Fancher Field, a runway carved out of the sagebrush, above East Wenatchee.

 “Dad had an old Maxwell. About 6 a.m., Monday morning mom got me and my little sister, Donna, in the car and we went up there. We’d been up there before, you see, on Sundays we’d go up to watch the planes come in. 

“It was cold, you know, and the old car didn’t have a heater. Mother brought some blankets so me and my sister were sitting on the fenders wrapped up in the blankets.”

The Graybills weren’t the only ones who braved the cold morning to see the end of the world record flight. Twenty or 30 others had guessed the fliers just might land at Wenatchee. 

The small group included Clyde Pangborn’s Wenatchee family members. Most of the group was huddled in the small airport office where there was a heater. Jack and his sister stayed wrapped up on the Maxwell’s fenders.

A few minutes after 7 a.m. their wait was rewarded. 

“He came up the river. You could hear him coming. He came up high and went past.” (Clyde was surveying the landing strip.) “Then he went down over the cliffs out of sight. I, being a six-year-old kid, thought he had crashed.” (Pangborn was dumping the plane’s remaining fuel.)  “When he came back up he was not very far above the ground, then he landed. Dad and I ran out there.”

They weren’t the only ones to run towards the plane. Most of the onlookers joined them. 

A screw picked up from the Miss Veedol landing site — thought to be from the skid plate attached to the bottom of the plane to protect it during a belly landing. Photo courtesy of Donald A. Snyder

Clinton Snyder had also been listening to KPQ and was one of the first to reach the airfield. After the landing, Snyder walked around the tail of the plane and picked up a screw from the path the plane’s belly had made in the dirt. The screw was, most likely, one of many that Pangborn had used in Japan to attach a sheet metal skid plate to the bottom of the fuselage to protect the body from damage during the belly landing.

“All of a sudden a door opened on the side of the plane and Herndon came out. He was in the back of the plane to keep the tail down. We waited and waited probably 10 minutes then Pangborn came out of the cabin. They’d been having a big argument. They were on the outs, you know.”

Herndon’s primary responsibility during the 41-hour flight was to operate a hand pump to move fuel from extra tanks in back to the wing tank that fed the engine. 

Twice Herndon failed to do his job. The first time the engine began to sputter Pangborn yelled at Herndon to pump and the engine roared back to full power. The second time, at 14,000 feet, the engine stopped completely. 

With Herndon pumping furiously Pangborn put the plane in a steep dive. They were only 1,500 feet above the black waters of the Pacific when the propeller began to windmill, the engine restarted and Pangborn pulled the plane out of the dive just above the water.

Add to that the time Herndon flew the plane off course while Pangborn napped. Herndon missed Vancouver, B.C, where Clyde had asked to be awakened and overflew Seattle before waking Pangborn, who quickly discovered they were only 1,000 feet above the top of Mount Rainier.

No wonder they were, as Jack Graybill had put it, “on the outs.”

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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