20 August 2007

Barnes on 'AE' Part II

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Pancho Barnes may not have been involved in Amelia Earhart's flight around the world in 1937 — by then Pancho's own flying days were behind her — but she was friends with the aviatrix, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her consultant, Paul Mantz. In the late 20's and 30's, Earhart maintained a house in North Hollywood, and Pancho remembered visiting it frequently. According to Pancho, Amelia Earhart's mother — who incidentally claimed to be the first woman ever to scale Pike's Peak — used to babysit Pancho's son Billy, so that she and Amelia could socialize.

Photo: Barnes, Earhart, and Gladys O'Donnell

Pancho had her own take on Amelia Earhart's disappearance, and while much of it is of the "second hand" variety, it's also somewhat intriguing. According to Pancho, Paul Mantz confided in her that he did not believe Earhart was as disciplined a pilot as she should have been. "Paul found out that she couldn’t use her fuel analyzer very well," Pancho recounted. "She was indifferent to it. She didn’t try hard enough. She was a little bit lazy about it." If Earhart had calculated her fuel mixture incorrectly, she would have harmed her plane's performance and endurance. " If you have a proper mixture control..." explained Pancho, " if you go up on say 10,000 feet, you’d get a better performance out of it and burn less gas, if you could rarify the carburetor to where it wasn’t as heavy a mixture. So she didn’t know how to do this. She didn’t have enough on the ball, to keep her doing it right. Now that is what killed her, probably. Cause she ran out of gas 200 miles before she got to Howland Island."

Another aspect of the disappearance that is often pointed to is Earhart's navigator, Fred Noonan, who detractors labeled as an alcoholic. Pancho, however, held Noonan in high regard. "She had the best navigator in the whole — that they could find anywhere," Pancho explained. "Probably the finest navigator in the world. And [Noonan] was also an instructor." In Pancho's mind, two factors were really responsible for Earhart's loss. One was her failure to mix her fuel properly. In the trackless Pacific, misjudging fuel use can be and perhaps was fatal.

Still, Earhart and Noonan might have been able to ditch, and could have been picked up, if it hadn't of been for another problem. That is the other factor Pancho pointed to — the lack of radio communication between AE and Coast Guard personnel during the ill-fated trip. Earhart simply did not respond to the Coast Guard messages. According to Pancho, Earhart's ventral or belly antenna had been severed during her take-off from Lae. (See the TIGHAR website mentioned in Part 1 about this).

Photo: Earhart and Fred Noonan on the World Flight, 1937.

In any case, while most of her discussion about Earhart falls into the realm of conjecture, Pancho did share one interesting tidbit that may give some insight into AE, and may be "fresh" information. It's well known that, in those days, publicity counted. According to Pancho, few understood this the way Earhart and Putnam did. Had she made it back to Los Angeles, Pancho believed, it would have been without her navigator. According to Pancho, "She was going to leave Noonan [in Hawaii]. She told me herself she wanted to arrive alone in the airplane. She was going to kick Noonan off, because she’d made that flight once in the airplane and it was pretty easy to hit the mainland."

At the time Pancho spoke about Earhart, new revelations had just come to light in the form of a book, "Amelia Earhart Lives". In it, a woman named Irene Bolam was purported to be AE. The book, which has now been completely debunked, made headlines. Another book, "The Search for Amelia Earhart", made the New York Times best seller list. Pancho was dismissive of both. "It's all bullsh*t," she explained. "It’s all just to make money. It’s a lot of - it’s just all dreams."

Photo: Statue of Amelia Earhart, located in North Hollywood, near where Earhart lived and worked. Courtesy of the great J. Ron Dickson, whose website has an aviation history of the San Fernando Valley. Click here