Clyde Pangborn may well be the most famous aviator nobody knows.
Most people around the Wenatchee Valley know him, of course, because there’s an airport named after him here and a perpetual exhibit about his infamous 1931 flight at the local museum.
Go anywhere else and ask who was the first person to fly nonstop across the Pacific Ocean and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Many will guess it was a better known aviator named Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart. Few had ever heard of a barnstorming stunt pilot by the name of Clyde Pangborn of Wenatchee nor his co-pilot Hugh Herndon Jr.
“Clyde Pangborn should be a household name just as Lindbergh is. There was a tremendous story to be told that no one knew,” said Edward “Ted” Heikell of Renton in a recent phone interview.
Heikell, 71, and his older brother, Robert, of Moses Lake, decided to do something about that. Their recently self-published book, “One Chance for Glory,” fills in the dramatic gaps of Pangborn and Herndon’s epic flight. Mixing historical facts with fiction, the book adds dialogue and conflict to a story that has always been sketchy in detail.
“We tried to imagine what it would be like,” said Ted Heikell, a retired Boeing engineer. Robert Heikell is a retired school administrator and former director of the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, a flight school at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. Both brothers are longtime pilots. Neither had ever written a book before, although Ted has produced a couple of commercial videos about hunting and fishing. Ted researched and wrote the book over a three-year period and then hired a New York ghost writer to help finish and polish it.
Pangborn and Herndon accomplished what nobody thought possible in the 1930s. Sure, Lindbergh and Earhart flew across the Atlantic a few years before — neither were the first to do so — but there were no airplanes capable of holding enough fuel to fly across the Pacific. Herndon’s job was to pump by hand gas from containers filling every space in the plane into the plane’s fuel tanks as they went dry. The plane was so heavy with fuel it almost didn’t get off the ground.
Lindbergh’s non-stop flight covered about 2,400 miles. Pangborn’s flight from Misawa, Japan, to Fancher Field, above what is now East Wenatchee, was more than 5,500 miles.
The book offers detailed information on how the trip came to be and elaborates — and embroiders — the bitter conflict between the far more experienced stunt pilot, Pangborn, and his younger co-pilot, Herndon, picked mainly for his family money that financed the trip and made it possible. His inept flying nearly cost them their lives on several occasions during the flight.
Ted credits his brother for inspiring the project. Robert dove into Pangborn’s history while building a 1/4-scale radio-controlled replica of Miss Veedol, the plane that carried Pangborn and Herndon across the Pacific and around the world. Robert flew the plane at R/C shows throughout the Northwest, offering talks about Pangborn and Herndon wherever he went. He retired the plane in 2008 and sold it to the City of East Wenatchee. It’s now hanging in East Wenatchee City Hall.
“Part of my wanting to write the book was to get my brother to stop talking about it,” Ted said with a laugh about Robert’s nonstop stories of Pangborn’s flight.
Ted Heikell said he’d love to see the book made into a movie to bring Pangborn and Herndon’s accomplishments to a wider audience. For that to happen, he felt it was necessary to create dialogue to show the conflict and tension between the two pilots and the worry their families must have gone through. And to introduce some love interest, essential to any good story.
“There’s no historical documents that say he flew his plane through a barn in Idaho and met a woman named Diane Bronson. I created the love affair. All of those flyboys had plenty of girlfriends,” he said, laughing again.
Other than the dialogue, the book stays close to the facts, he said, based on thousands of pages of documents the family left to Washington State University and many other documents and accounts of the flight. The Heikells also interviewed Pangborn relatives and members of the Spirit of Wenatchee, a group of local aviation enthusiasts who built a full-size replica of Miss Veedol in 2000. Last year, the plane was on display in Misawa, where Pangborn and Herndon began their trans-Pacific trip on Oct. 4, 1931. It’s safe in a hangar in East Wenatchee now and will continue touring this summer.
Jake Lodato, a Spirit of Wenatchee member who has piloted the replica to air shows many times since 2003, said he is still in awe of Pangborn and Herndon’s flight.
“How the hell did they ever endure 41 hours of that?” asked Lodato, of Malaga. “It’s loud. There are exhaust fumes. You open a window and fear it will blow away. After two or three hours you’re guaranteed a headache. Every hour is an adventure. It’s torture.”
Lodato said Heikell took creative license to spice up the story, but he’s fine with anything that spreads a truly amazing feat.
Lodato was a great help in supplying technical information about flying the plane, Ted Heikell said. A minor character in the book is named for him. Another was named for Delbert Lamb, Clyde Pangborn’s cousin who still lives in Moses Lake.
Fanfare over the Pangborn-Herndon flight was short and quickly overshadowed by other events in the early 1930s, among them the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s young son, said Ted Heikell.
“It’s something that should be far better known,” he said.
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151