Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
12 June 2008

Examining Pancho's Secret FBI File Part #1

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It seems incredible to think that an aviatrix, rancher and mother like Pancho Barnes would have an FBI file, but that's the case. Exactly how Pancho ended up commanding the attention of Attorney General Warren Berger and then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover -- well, it's a tawdry and sad tale.

The circumstances were these: in the early 1950's, the Air Force decided to expand Edwards AFB, and take Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club and her neighbor's properties under imminent domain (see 3.3.07 Production Journal). Just about the same time that was taking place, Pancho's friend Col. Albert Boyd, who had been the commander at Edwards, left for a new assignment. His replacement, General Holtoner, did not get along with Pancho, and the feeling was pretty much mutual.

Holtoner never visited Pancho's guest ranch, but he did hear some rumors about what went on there. Rather than investigate personally, he decided to do something dramatic: he put Pancho's off limits to Edwards personnel. That hit Pancho in a very bad spot -- her pocket book. Pancho's hostility towards the General soon reached towering altitudes.

Holtoner's actions can be viewed through other lenses, than just the fact that he simply didn't like Barnes. The Air Force was a new branch of the Armed Services at the time, having only recently separated from the Army. No wanted any hint of scandal to strike the nation's strategic arm. From Holtoner's perspective, having members of his command frequenting an establishment called "The Happy Bottom Riding Club" may have been risky. Secondarily, Holtoner was a starchy, if accomplished, officer. Pancho had been very close to Al Boyd, who left very big shoes to fill at Edwards. Maybe, too close. Holtoner may have viewed her as an inappropriate friend to have, and a link to a previous commander who he now wanted to supplant. Needless to say, Holtoner didn't want to fraternize with her.

Image at left: General Holtoner. He may have been an accomplished pilot, but Pancho didn't care for him, and the feeling was mutual.


It wasn't just Holtoner who had gone starchy. The Air Force itself had become regimented and was transitioning from having "journeymen pilots" like Chuck Yeager (who only had a high school diploma) to having pilots who had gone to college and, in some cases, had advanced degrees. The entire service was transitioning into the modern era of rules, performance reviews, and IBM punch cards. (To read more about this, all you have to do is pick up a copy of The Right Stuff.)

The 1950's and the coming of the Cold War tamed America's post-WWII euphoria, and produced a much more conservative society. Senator McCarthy and his hearings into the Communist conspiracy in American government, and a host of other perceived threats, affected the outlook and actions of the entire American society. It easy to see how a person like Pancho, who had always lived in a free-wheeling, larger-than-life, fun and outrageous way, might run afoul of these changing times.

Anyway... It wasn't long after the eminent domain dispute was made public, that Holtoner began making some noise about Pancho's ranch. He'd apparently interviewed some of his staff about the place, and come to certain conclusions about it. Whether he initiated it or not, the accusations about Pancho's place eventually drew the attention of the U.S. Attorneys. They asked the F.B.I. to launch an investigation into Pancho's business dealings, and to determine whether the Happy Bottom Riding Club was more than just a guest ranch.

The results of that investigation are summarized in Pancho's F.B.I. file, which we retrieved from the archives under the Freedom of Information Act. Some of the information in it, will be revealed in a forthcoming Production Journal. Stay tuned!

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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club ©2008-2010 Nick Spark Productions, LLC.