This month marks the 90th anniversary of an event that put my hometown on the map (literally). On Oct. 3, 1931, Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon took off from Misawa, Aomori, Japan, flying 4,500 miles in 41 hours before safely landing near present-day Fancher Heights in East Wenatchee on Oct. 5.
In the process, the duo completed the first trans-Pacific flight. It was an historic accomplishment for Pangborn, the middle-class barnstormer pilot raised in Douglas County. To honor his achievement, the regional airport in North Central Washington was named Pangborn Field when it opened in 1941. Clyde’s co-pilot, however, was not similarly honored. Hugh, the playboy son of an heiress to an oil fortune, was disgraced by the journey’s end.
The two had begun their flight from Roosevelt Field in New York on July 28 aboard a Bellanca Skyrocket named Miss Veedol. Their goal was to break the world record for circumnavigating the globe in the shortest amount of time.
But early on, Herndon’s missteps and miscalculations found them stuck in the mud (literally). Hugh’s repeated errors nearly cost the two their lives. His failure to pump fuel from an auxiliary tank forced Pangborn to put the plane into a nosedive over the Pacific in an attempt to windmill the propeller. The stalled engine restarted just before Miss Veedol crashed.
While Pangborn caught a cat nap prior to the much-anticipated landing in Seattle, Herndon struggled to maintain direction. They overshot the intended destination. As Pangborn awoke, the plane was approaching Mount Rainier.
The veteran pilot made a course correction and headed the plane toward Spokane. But due to cloud cover, the two made their unintended landing across the river from Wenatchee. Upon arrival, Pangborn expressed his displeasure with his co-pilot. Headlines in the Albany Times Union announced the “crash landing” of a former friendship — HERNDON INCOMPTETENT SAYS PANGBORN.
Raised with more opportunity than he knew what to do with, Hugh Herndon ended his life in relative obscurity. It is Clyde Pangborn who continues to be recalled.
Yet another Hugh stepped onto the world’s stage about the time Hugh Herndon was making history with Pangborn. In October 1931, Hugh Steven was a 6-month-old baby. Unable to care for her child, Hugh’s unmarried mother surrendered him to the Children’s Aid Society in Vancouver, B.C.
Adopted from the orphanage at age 2, Hugh never met either of his birth parents. When his adoptive parents brought Hugh into their home, they were under the impression they could not have children of their own. Time proved them wrong. When a son was born to the couple less than two years later, Hugh became a kind of “cinderfella.” Overlooked and under-appreciated, he spent much of his time alone dreaming of taking flight in a world of opportunity.
Hugh refused to let setbacks and challenges ground him. Employment at a large department store in Vancouver provided him a sense of pride and self-worth. He found faith at a neighborhood church and with it a sense of direction. Hugh married in 1951 and began to taxi down the tarmac of life. A call to make a difference in the lives of others found him gaining altitude on what would be the adventure of lifetime.
An assignment in Mexico working with Wycliffe Bible Translators found Hugh exploring new opportunities. In addition to providing translators with supplies and medicines for the various villages, he began to write articles for magazines. His family began to grow, as did his reputation. A move to Chicago to become regional representative for Wycliffe found him trying his hand at writing books.
Now, 50 years later, Hugh Steven has published 40 books and countless articles. His four children have married and provided him and his wife with 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Among them are three pastors, three educators, two classical musicians, a mortgage banker, an international lawyer, a professional basketball player and a Hollywood producer.
It truly is a tale of two Hughs. One was born with opportunity and died in obscurity. The other was born in obscurity but continues to embrace opportunities at the age of 90. I ought to know. I married Hugh Steven’s oldest daughter.
Greg Asimakoupoulos is a Wenatchee native living on Mercer Island, where he is the Faith/Values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter.