01 April 2010

Shoot Out at Pancho's Airport


Today there's not much left of Pancho Barnes' airport — the barest outline of the runway can be seen on Google Earth.  But back when the Rancho Oro Verde was a going concern, it was a busy and eventful place.  The Barnes Airport hosted fly ins including an aerial treasure hunt, fleets of crop dusters hired to spray Pancho's and neighboring farms, and some interesting visitors including magician John Calvert who owned his own DC-3 (photo below).  (At one time Pancho's fourth husband Mack McKendry was Calvert's pilot.)JohnCalvert

Prior to WWII, Pancho opened a Civilian Pilot Training Program flight school at her airport, where she taught ground school.  A romance blossomed between Pancho and a student pilot named "Nicky" Nichols, but it soon ended in divorce (her second).  The school closed up right after Pearl Harbor, since all civilian flights were grounded.  But the runway didn't stay inactive for long.  It was located enough of a distance away from the ranch buildings to be considered a separate property and Pancho was allowed to rent it out to military contractors for flight testing.  A company named Radioplane, founded by actor (and one sort of suspects good friend of Pancho's) Reginald Denny used the airport for testing of radio-controlled target drones.  It was all pretty secret stuff, but given the secluded nature of the ranch it was secluded enough for the military's purposes.

JohnnyStoolPigeonAfter the war things really began to bustle at the ranch, and all sorts of people flew up for a visit.  That included Howard Hughes, who came in a helicopter, and Walt Disney Co. animator Ward Kimball — who drew a nude woman cartoon in Pancho's guest book.  Inevitably, Hollywood sought out the ranch as a location.  A number of Western productions used the place as a base of operations and crew quarters while shooting in the Mojave.  As far as we know only one of them used the airport, the 1949 film noir drama Johnny Stoolpigeon.  Directed by William Castle, the film starred Howard Duff as a lawman, Dan Duryea as a drug-runner-turned-informant and Shelley Winters as love interest.  In this rarely-seen film's climactic sequence, a shoot out ensues at Pancho's airport (left) as the bad guys attempt to escape.  Johnny2Before their plane can get off the runway, the lawmen manage to crash a car into the plane's landing gear, crippling it (photo at right) and take everyone into custody!  Interestingly, Pancho owned a Cessna T-50 similar to the one seen in the movie.  This unusual plane, which is more commonly known by the name "Bamboo Bomber", was also flown by Kirby Grant in the first season of the popular TV show "Sky King".  It really seems possible Pancho's plane was used for the big sequence although I suspect the actual crash was a  big r/c model.

For all the excitement at Pancho's airport, there were bound to be some negatives.  One of them was that visitors had a tendency to accidentally fly into the air space of the nearby Air Force base.  These incursions harmed Pancho's reputation as a good neighbor with the base, but it seems that there was very little she could do about it.

Sooner or later, Pancho's airport would have been forced to close down as the base expanded.  It did close sometime after the fire at the ranch, and was later abandoned.  The hangar survives — it was dismantled and is still in use at a private airport in Palmdale.