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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"

The Mystery of the "Mystery Ship" #6

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On May 29, 1968, one of the world's premiere collections of antique aircraft, the Movieland of the Air Museum, went on the auction block. One of the most eagerly-anticipated parts of the auction was for the Travelair R613K, Pancho Barnes' "Mystery Ship". It wasn't the star of the show, however. That designation fell to a Sopwith Camel flown by a Canadian pilot named Roy Brown — the one that ended the career of Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen!

The bidding on Brown's plane went into the stratosphere, for those days, selling for a price of $40,000 (imagine what it would be worth now?!) The drama surrounding that auction was extraordinary, but nothing could compare to the situation that unfolded as Lot 56, the Mystery Ship, went under the hammer. Even before the plane's number came up, whispers began to be exchanged. The older lady in the corner, wearing riding breeches, a cowboy shirt, and high-heeled boots, isn't that...couldn't that be...no. But it was: Pancho Barnes had shown up the auction, intent upon getting her plane back!

According to Don Dwiggins, who recounted the auction in an article for Aviation Graphic, the bidding on the Mystery Ship was short-lived but quite painful for Pancho. She "winced at each price rise" and must have been close to giving up on the chase, when suddenly the hammer fell. The other bidders had realized exactly who that lady was who was trying to buy the plane. No matter how much they might have wanted it, and how much money they had, there wasn't anyone who wanted to be known as the person who stole Pancho's plane.

Dwiggins remembered the moment this way:

"Yippee!" Pancho yelled, real tears in her eyes. "I got my baby back."

The photo above, which shows Pancho with her son Billy and his wife, says it all.

As fate would have it, though, Pancho never did get to fly her Mystery Ship again. According to biographer Barbara Schultz, Billy suspected (probably correctly) that it was too much plane for an older person like Pancho to handle! His approach to restoring the plane was deliberate, which is another way of saying slow. Billy simply hoped his mother would forget about flying the plane! To get some sense into her, he challenged her to take a first step, and get a real pilot's license. That proved to be a tall order, and Pancho remained grounded at the time of her death in 1975. Sadly, Billy died a short time later when the P-51 Mustang he flew in air shows suffered an in-flight fire and crashed into the desert near Lancaster. It was a tragedy of the sort that happens in aviation, but fortunately Pancho was not around to see it.

The final chapter on R613K has yet to be written. For a many years the plane remained at Billy Barnes' aviation service at Fox Field in Lancaster in a state of partial restoration. Eventually it was sold to a private collector. Last we heard, the plane was at Biggins Hill Airport in England, and nearly completely renovated to flying condition. Attempts to contact the owner or restoration crew have thus far come to naught, but surely some day we'll get in touch. When we do, you'll read about it here.

Incidentally, there is a Mystery Ship flying in the United States today. It's a replica of a sister ship to Pancho's, the famed R614K flown by Doug Davis. More on this in a future journal!

The Mystery of the "Mystery Ship" #5

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So, owing to a personal debt, Pancho lost her "Mystery Ship" to her friend and one-time colleague, Paul Mantz. The "king of the stunt pilots" used the plane extensively in the 30's. We've even found some motion picture footage of it flying in the 1934 Los Angeles Air Races, presumably with Mantz at the controls. In 1939, Mantz rebuilt the plane in an attempt to break Tex Rankin's outside loop record. According to aviation writer Don Dwiggins, Mantz doubled the number of ground wires and added a 330-hp Wright Whirlwind specially equipped to allow inverted flight. Mantz never made the attempt, and the plane ended up sitting in a lonely corner, unused and in disrepair. Eventually the plane became part of the "Movieland of the Air Museum" which Mantz formed with another famous stunter and friend of Pancho's, Frank Tallman.

In 1965, Mantz came out of retirement to film stunts for the epic film "The Flight of the Phoenix". After performing a successful low level pass in front of the cameras, Mantz came around for a second pass. His kitbashed airplane hit a small hillock, went out of control and crashed, and Mantz was killed. It was an unexpected, awful turn of events.

In the aftermath of Mantz' death, Tallman decided to sell off many of the historic aircraft in the Museum, including the Mystery Ship, a P-40E Kittyhawk, a Sopwith Camel, a Curtiss 1A Gulfhawk, and a replica Ryan B-1. The auction got considerable attention worldwide, since it was filled with special planes. One of the most desireable, of course, was the Mystery Ship. By now, however, the plane was a shadow of its former self. A dusty, faded aircraft, it needed a lot of work before it would ever be flight worthy (see photo).

The Mystery of the "Mystery Ship" #4

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On March 1, 1931, Pancho set a speed record by flying her Mystery Ship from Los Angeles to Sacramento in two hours and 13 minutes. According to biographer Barbara Schultz, Pancho's arrival coincided with a Red Cross fundraiser at the United Airport, and she was greeted by close to 20,000 spectators. It must have been one of the most thrilling moments of her life!

In August, Pancho participated in the 1931 Powder Puff Derby flying her Travel Air biplane, and although she made it to Cleveland, she was out of the running. Nevertheless when she returned home, she was invited to participate in the Fiesta de Los Angeles parade. Her Mystery Ship was put on a float and she and the plane driven through downtown Los Angeles. They were celebrities both!

By now, although she didn't yet know it, Pancho's speed record setting days were behind her. The Depression was beginning to affect her finances, and her piloting skills may have also been slightly on the wane.

Pancho had always allowed Paul Mantz to fly her plane, and now decided to allow him to keep it in his hangar and fly and maintain it in exchange for maintaining it. As part of the deal, Pancho took a $5000 loan from Mantz.

Mantz flew the plane in a number of movies, including the amazing Technicolor film "Dive Bomber", where (painted a drab green) it appeared as an "experimental R.A.F. fighter". Meanwhile, Pancho moved to the desert near Muroc in 1935, leaving her flying career, and her beloved plane, behind.

Pancho always figured she would reclaim her Model R. But in 1938, with the Great Depression in its ninth year, Mantz called in his loan. Pancho was unable to pay it, and lost her pride and joy: her Mystery Ship.

The Mystery of the "Mystery Ship" #3

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Pancho's Mystery Ship not only helped her achieve a place in the record books, but it opened the door to a new and exciting world — motion picture stunt flying. In 1926 Howard Hughes began pre-production work on a film about aviation combat in WWI. The making of "Hell's Angels" remains a Hollywood legend, one most recently celebrated in the film "The Aviator" starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.

Hughes' film would be one of the most expensive made to that date, a whopping $3.8 million. A WWI style aerodrome was built near the Van Nuys Airport, and nearly fifty vintage aircraft assembled for the production. Frank Clarke served as lead pilot, and many other notable fliers were involved including Ira Reed and Roscoe Turner whose Sikorski S-29 was flown as a mock Gotha bomber.

By 1928 the film was almost complete, but by then the world's first sound film "The Jazz Singer", had made its debut. Rather than release "Hells Angels" as a silent film, Hughes determined to reshoot portions of the film with dialogue and dub in sound effects. This is where Pancho came in! Her Mystery Ship was well known not only for its looks, but for its powerful motor, which was capable of producing a throaty roar in flight. Thus, through her friendship with Frank Clarke and because of her Model R, Pancho found herself hired to produce sound effects for Hughes' film.

The set-up for the sound recording was simple. A microphone was attached to a balloon set up above Hughes' aerodrome, known as Caddo Field. Pancho flew at the balloon from a variety of angles, and stunted above and below the balloon, as all the while sound technicians recorded her plane's motor. The result: enough material to create a sound effects library for the movie.

Many people believe Pancho flew as a stunt pilot in "Hells Angels", but as you have just learned, that's not really the case. Nevertheless, when you watch the film, you are hearing Pancho flying!

 

The Mystery of the "Mystery Ship" #2

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Just about a year after she first saw the Mystery S in Cleveland, Pancho announced that she intended to break the women's speed record in her ship. In late September of 1930 she made a first attempt at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys. A small team of personnel were assembled including the National Aeronautic Associastion's official timer, Joe Nikrent. After having a barograph installed to record the attempt, Pancho took off , roared into the air, and then flew four fast laps over a mile-long course at an altitude of less than 200'. Unfortunately she fell short of Amelia Earhart's record speed of 184.6 mph.

Undaunted, Pancho returned for another go the very next week. On August 1, she flew with the throttle wide open. This time Nikrent timed her at a maximum speed of 197.26 mph, and an average speed of 196.19 mph. She had shattered the old record by nearly 12 mph, and became the "fastest woman on earth."

(The record stood for about a year, when aviatrix Ruth Nichols flew 210 mph in a Lockheed Vega).

The record flight made all the newspapers and thrust Pancho firmly into the public eye. Union Oil, a sponsor of Pancho's, produced a full-page color ad to record her achievement. It read in part, "Fastest mile ever traveled by a Woman...!" and stated that the flight was "...a skillful combination of sheer nerve, skillful piloting, faultless motor and ship and perfect aviation fuel."

The Mystery of the "Mystery Ship"

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It's nearly impossible to think of Pancho Barnes' career in aviation without thinking of her Travel Air "Mystery Ship." This powerfully-built aircraft with its distinctive streamlined wheel pants and NACA cowling seemed to fit Pancho's outsized personality to a 'T'. In many photos the plane seems to be a part of Pancho, in a way similar to the role played by Roy Roger's horse Trigger.

Pancho first saw this unique plane back in 1929 at the Cleveland Air Races. Dubbed the 'Mystery' because it's construction was kept under wraps by builder Walter Beech, the plane was an immediate sensation. Aviator Doug Davis won a speed competition against an Army Hawk that year, despite initially missing a pylon and falling nearly a mile behind at the start of the race. Pancho, deeply disappointed at her failure to finish the Powder Puff Derby, wanted a Mystery Ship. The odds did not seem to be in her favor. There were only a few in production, and they seemed destined for only the most skillful — male (it goes without saying) — pilots. Nevermind. Pancho was relentless, and she won out. For just over $13K, an absolute fortune in those days, she bought one. She now had the fastest plane in the world. Just imagine what she'd do with it!

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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club ©2008-2010 Nick Spark Productions, LLC.