17 October 2009

Pancho and Mexico


One thing I did not anticipate but should have, is when you make a film about someone named Pancho Barnes, you get a lot of confusion.  Pancho who?  Many people think the film must be a story about a Mexican.  We even had someone Pickwick3come up, just prior to a screening, look at our poster and say "Huh, The Legend of Pancho Villa, why would you show that at an air show?" 

Pickwick2Well, there's no question that even though Pancho wasn't Mexican, Mexico had a profound influence on her life.  I've previously mentioned the story of how Florence Lowe Barnes became "Pancho" Barnes during her infamous trip to Mexico in 1927.  While that might have been the first time she went to Mexico, it certainly wasn't her last.  Shirley and Seth Hufstedler told us about an airplane trip with Pancho and Mac in the 1950s, and Chuck Yeager also recounted a vacation  "South of the Border" with Pancho and Mac.  In that instance, they made the flight in their Stinson Station Wagon airplane (pictured above at an unknown airport in Mexico). The sound-barrier-busting test pilot was more than little surprised to discover that Pancho could not only speak passable Spanish, but got on well with local Indians in their own native tongue.  Perhaps she had spent time with them in 1927.

During her career as a professional pilot, Pancho flew into Mexico on several occasions.  One of the first might have been accidentally, as a navigation mix-up during the Pecos leg of the cross-country "Powder Puff Derby" of 1929 caused her to drift over the Rio Bravo.  That mistake didn't reflect too badly on Pancho, and in 1930 the fledgling Pickwick Airways company (an off-shoot of a motor bus co.) hired her to fly from Los Angeles to Mexico City.  The idea put out in the press was that the airline wanted Pancho to find a suitable route for commercial flight service.  The reality was probably different -- a history of Pickwick indicates that survey flights were actually made by company pilots.  Perhaps the company's owners felt that having a woman make the trip would help put prospective passengers at ease? 

Whether it was a publicity stunt or not, it would be a long flight. The itinerary PanchoPickwick chose included stops in Tucson, Nogales, Mazatlan and Guadalajara, and as Lauren Kessler wrote in her biography "the trip took her five leisurely days".  Accompanying her on the jaunt as navigator was Ramon Novarro's brother Mariano, who supposedly was to act as her interpreter. One has to wonder if that was his only role, as he was just about as handsome as his movie star brother.

Pancho successfully reached Mexico City and was treated like the heroine she was, and awarded an honorary Mexican pilot's license.  She also achieved a record of sorts, becoming the first woman to fly from L.A. to Mexico D.F. along the western route (Mildred Morgan had done it previously from the East just weeks earlier).  Pickwick Airways did launch service to Mexico City and even Guatemala, using Ryan Broughams.  The fare was a whopping $238, which according to an inflation calculator amounts to about $3000 in today's dollars.  With the arrival of the Depression and the failure by the company to land a U.S. mail contract,  Pickwick Latin American Airways went bust in the spring of 1930.

That didn't prevent Pancho from going back, although her next trip was more of a lark.  In 1932 her friend, L.A. district attorney Buron Fitts suggested that Pancho run for County Supervisor.  She lost badly, but Buron handily won re-election.  He decided to celebrate with a vacation in Mexico, and asked Pancho to fly him down.  In Pancho's unpublished autobiography (now property of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate), she recounts the flight to Phoenix, El Paso and on to Chihuahua, where the airport "looked like a lake" thanks to a recent tropical storm.  The landing in Mexico City was also hairy thanks to driving, freezing rain.  They landed in darkness and must have been very glad to have been on terra firma. 

Pancho's return was a triumph.  Several high-ranking members of the Mexican Air Force, who Pancho had met during her previous trip and had hosted at her mansion, made a "big fuss" .  She was outfitted with the uniform of a colonel, and promptly whisked to a local house of ill repute.  I can't repeat what transpired there, but Pancho summed up the adventure this way: "we put in about a week of carousing without hardly going to bed."  When it came time to have an audience with the President of Mexico, one of her new-found companions actually collapsed from the effects of too much drinking, and too little sleep.  Pancho, Buron and the Mexican pilots joined President Rodriguez in resuscitating the poor fellow which according to Pancho "kind of broke up the formality of the occasion."  I should think so!

There's only one way to conclude remarks about Pancho and Mexico, and that's with something she wrote in her autobiography.  "I wish everybody in the United States could know what nice people the Mexicans really are," she said.  "[Americans] go down and act like such heels more of the time, throwing around money and insulting the people in Mexico. ...  There's not a finer, politer, lovelier nation I believe than the Mexican people.  I love them dearly."