08 February 2007

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!