This 95-year-old sandwich is a part of aviation history

Oct 23, 2021

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An old, stale sandwich locked away in a Washington state museum is drawing fresh attention to an aviation daredevil and the 90th anniversary of a record-setting flight.

The first nonstop transpacific flight was completed on Oct. 5, 1931, by Clyde “Upside-Down” Pangborn and co-pilot Hugh Herndon, Jr. Hoping to set a record and claim a $25,000 prize, the duo flew from Misawa, Japan, to East Wenatchee, Washington, in 41 hours and 13 minutes (some say 15 minutes) in a modified Bellanca Skyrocket named Miss Veedol (after a brand of motor oil).

A permanent exhibit at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center tells the story of Pangborn (a Washington native), his career as a barnstormer and stunt flyer, and the record-setting flight. On display are historic photographs and a wide range of artifacts, including the bent propeller that is now all that is left of Miss Veedol.

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Pilots Hugh Herndon, Jr., and Clyde Pangborn pose by their plane, Miss Veedol. (Photo courtesy of the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center)

But the museum has more Pangborn-related artifacts in storage, most notably half a sandwich wrapped in cellophane and nestled inside a box in a humidity-controlled room. The sandwich may have flown with Pangborn on the famed 1931 flight. Or it may have flown with him earlier, in the 1920s, and been taken as a souvenir when Pangborn was wowing spectators as a stuntman in a flying circus, doing aerial stunts such as loops, flying upside down, changing planes in midair and completing auto-to-airplane transfers.

“I had heard rumors about the sandwich being in our collection but never went looking for it,” said Anna Spencer, the collections coordinator for the museum. But last summer, knowing that the 90th anniversary of the Miss Veedol flight was approaching, Spencer decided to feature flight-related artifacts in one of the museum’s behind-the-scenes “Curator’s Corner” YouTube videos. “We finally went looking for the sandwich and found it,” Spencer said. “It was exciting to find and shocking to see the state of it. I assumed we’d find a pile of mold, but it was preserved extremely well.”

The exact date Pangborn traveled with this sandwich — and perhaps ate the other half — remains a bit uncertain. That’s because when it was donated to the museum by a man who found it inside a red tobacco tin among his late father’s belongings, there was a neatly handwritten note with it stating that the sandwich had flown on the 1931 flight.

It may have. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum notes that in 1931 Miss Veedol took off from Japan with “915 gallons of fuel, 45 gallons of oil, sandwiches, tea, and chicken.” However, when taken out of the tin, the cellophane-wrapped sandwich was taped up with a label that said, “Clyde Pangborn Sandwich 1926.”

Museum officials haven’t had the sandwich carbon dated. So for now, the mystery of when the sandwich was made and left half uneaten remains unsolved.

Clyde Pangborn learned to fly loops and to fly upside down when he served in the Army during World War I. In 1921, he formed the Gates Flying Circus with his friend, Ivan Gates, but in 1931 switched from barnstorming to attempts at breaking aviation records.

In July 1931, in their Miss Veedol airplane, Pangborn and Herndon failed to beat Wiley Post’s record of flying around the world. They turned their attention to a challenge offered by a Japanese newspaper offering a $25,000 purse for the first nonstop transpacific flight from Japan to the United States.

In pursuit of that prize, Pangborn made modifications to the Miss Veedol. He reinforced the fuselage, added a fuel tank and figured out a way to jettison the landing gear — and 300 pounds — once the plane was in the air. The experienced stunt flyer planned to land the plane on its belly.

At liftoff from Misawa on Oct. 4, 1931, Miss Veedol had no radio, no life raft and no emergency equipment. The scheme to discard the landing gear after takeoff worked, but Pangborn had to use his aerial stunt skills to crawl out on the wing and remove two struts that were left hanging and would have interfered with the landing.

The plane landed — on its belly — in Wenatchee 41 hours and 13 (or 15) minutes later.

The bent propeller from Pangborn’s plane, Miss Veedol. The propeller was bent when the plane belly-landed at the end of the first nonstop transpacific flight from Japan. (Photo courtesy of the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center)

Featured photo courtesy of the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center.

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