If time is short, never ask Dick and Sharon Starks what they’ve been up to lately. Both pilots, these retired schoolteachers have a full flying life that any pilot would envy. Anxious to see Sharon’s new airplane, a Morane Model L parasol, I learned it played a supporting role in a new movie about Amelia Earhart, now filming in Ontario, Canada.
Amelia focuses on Earhart’s life before she got lost going around the world. It stars Hilary Swank, with Richard Gere as her promoter-husband, George Putnam, and Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal who, say the movie sites, was her true romantic interest.
That’s news to me. What I want to know is how the Starks and their replica World War I French airplane ended up in Canada, which stands in for Atchison, Kansas, which is just across the river from the Starks’ home just north of Kansas City.
The road to stardom, in this case, passes through Holden, Missouri, home of Robert Baslee’s Airdrome Aeroplanes. (If the name sounds familiar, he built the full-scale Nieuport 17s for Flyboys. Those airplanes are for sale, by the way, $69,900 or $79,900, depending on the engine, VW or Rotec radial.)
Founding members of the Kansas City Dawn Patrol, flying replica World War I airplanes is what gets the Starks’ off the ground. Dick designed and built a Taube, the German “Dove of War” for Sharon, “but it flew like a cast iron pig,” he said, which is why it now hangs from the ceiling at the Combat Air Museum in Topeka, Kansas.
Looking for another airplane, Dick turned to his long-time friend and asked Baslee if he could come up with a World War I parasol that flies like a Cub. The Morane was the result. A kit with aluminum tube and riveted gusset construction, the Starks built it at Baslee’s shop in less than a week. They painted it with Glidden house paint. Apricot best matched the original’s color, Sharon said.
That was June before last, Dick said. It took awhile to reliably cool the cowled 40-hp Valley Engineering Big Twin. After a year of trying all sorts of complicated solutions, they finally heard Tommy Glaser, another Dawn Patrol founder, who said from the start that adding eyebrows to the cylinders should solve the problem. And they did, said Sharon, sitting in the cockpit. (Dick is on the right, explaining the fix to another builder.)
Earlier this year Amelia’s producers called Baslee looking for a Bleriot X, which inspired a young Amelia when she was out riding and saw it take off, according to the screenplay. When the moviemakers learned that a Morane was also available, they wanted that, too, Sharon said.
Baslee called the middle of May, asking if the Starks would like an all-expense-paid trip to Canada, towing the Morane in its trailer. “Heck, yes! Watch a moving being made, who would pass that up,” Dick said.
It was an interesting five days in early June. Originally the Morane was going to be a nonflying set decoration, but when they saw it fly with movie pilot Harvey Cleveland at the controls, they added a growing list of flying scenes for it. When they weren’t watching the action, the Starks joined the wranglers that kept the brakeless Bleriot pointed in the right direction.
Sharon’s Morane wears the uniform of the airplane that downed the first Zeppelin. Flown by a British squadron, the French airplane wears the roundels of both nations. Filmmakers needed to cover all markings, and their paint choice made it easy, Sharon said. Getting the standard Glidden color wasn’t hard, and neither was spraying it on the sticky-back paper that covered the markings.
Filmmaking is an interesting process to watch, the Starks said, and they shot miles of film. Amelia is supposed to hit theaters sometime in 2009, and I’ll be standing in line. Like them, I can’t wait to see how much of it actually makes it on screen. — Scott Spangler