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)"
21 May 2008

The Ones That Got Away

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There's an old saying in the film business: "Casting is everything." Well, documentaries are no exception. We knew from the start, that if our film was to succeed, we'd need to find interview subjects who not only knew Pancho, but who were lively enough personalities to tell a story as big and wild as this one, properly. It took a lot of work, and consultation with many different people, to come up with our final list of interview subjects. Lou D'Elia of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate, who has been compiling oral histories of many people who knew Pancho, was especially helpful, as was Barbara Schultz, the author of the biography Pancho, and Ray Puffer from the EAFB History Office.

When you make a film about a person like Pancho, who lived life large and met a lot of people -- and made an impression -- you're put in a difficult situation. Over the time we've been making the film, scores of people have contacted us about a friend or relative who "knew" Pancho. Typically, someone comes up to us, or phones or emails us, and gushes, "My uncle Don flew into Pancho's and has a wild story to tell you!" We've learned that most of these stories are just that: stories that have been whispered down the lane, and enhanced over the years. Even if they are not, they are usually not that exciting . . . except for the people who lived them.

Anyway, from our perspective, while a lot of people met Pancho, or visited her Happy Bottom Riding Club in the 1950s, or heard her speak at an EAA meeting in the 1960s or 70s, there are actually very few living people who actually knew her. Which is to say, people who really got along with her on a personal basis, and were in her inner circle. Fortunately, we believe we've managed to track down and interview nearly all of the people who fit that bill, who are still with us!

Photo: The X-1 team that broke the sound barrier. We managed to interview three of these amazing guys: Bob Hoover (second from left), Bob Cardenas (third from left), and Chuck Yeager (fourth from left).

Then again, there are a few we would have liked to interview, who we just missed . . . That's what happens when you make a film about events that happened fifty years ago -- you're lucky if anyone is around to tell the story. In fact, one of the inspirations for going forward with the film, was the fact that it seemed like enough people were alive and kicking, that we could preserve a bit of the Golden Era of Flight Test on tape. Most of the people we wanted to talk to, we got to talk to. But as the case may be, with a project like this, a few people dropped off our radar.

A good example is Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin, a friend of Pancho's from way back. Early on in the process of making the film, when we were doing our first set of interviews, I spoke with him by phone.

Just to give you a little background, Slick was the civilian who was hired by Larry Bell, to test the X-1 rocket plane circa 1946 at Muroc. That's where Slick first met Pancho. The two became good friends, and Pancho tracked Slick's progress as he pushed the X-1 higher and faster. As the plane entered the region of compressibility, approaching the sound barrier, the danger level increased markedly. Eventually Goodlin told Bell that he'd want a $150,000 bonus, if he was to attempt speeds above the sound barrier. Bell and the Air Force balked at the demand, and Chuck Yeager ended up being tapped to make the record-breaking flight. He'd receive his standard Air Force pay, $72 a month.

Slick, who was blessed with a voice deeper and darker than an oil well, was living in retirement in Florida when I spoke to him. He expressed a great deal of excitement about the film, and had quite a few fond memories of Pancho and her ranch. But most of what Slick talked about, was his anger at his portrayal in the movie The Right Stuff. Although he's not shown exactly as a villain, he's no hero, either -- and precisely for the reason that he wanted so much money to do what Yeager ended up doing for so little. "I was being asked to risk my life," Goodlin noted, "and it certainly wasn't out of line given that. But what they did in that movie, was totally inaccurate. They have a scene in the film where I met with Chuck Yeager at Pancho's place," he continued gruffly. "That simply didn't happen. I was nowhere near Muroc when Yeager came on board and we were never in Pancho's together."

Photo: Goodlin's signed publicity photo graced the wall of the Happy Bottom Riding Club. One look at his hair, you can see why he was called 'Slick' Goodlin.

It was clear from speaking to Slick, that Yeager's sonic boom haunted him his entire life. Yet it was also clear that he'd gone on to continue his career as a pilot, and had many successes. Few know it, but after leaving Muroc under a bit of a cloud due to his supposed greed, Slick joined the Israeli Air Force as a volunteer, and flew as a Machal pilot during the 1948 War.

Sadly, I never did get to hear more of Slick's friendship with Pancho, as he passed away just a few months after our phone conversation. At that time, we simply didn't have the money to pay for a trip to Florida to interview him.

(Incidentally, it's worth adding here as a footnote, that if you read up on the breaking of the sound barrier . . . it may have been a lucky thing for Slick that he didn't ever get to make the attempt. It's generally acknowledged that, if it wasn't for engineer Jack Ridley's incredible work during the Air Force's program, Yeager would not have made it past Mach 1.0. Ridley most likely wouldn't have been involved in the Bell program. So, it seems pretty clear that there was quite a good chance the only thing that Slick would have gotten to spend that $100K on, would have been for a really nice funeral. But who knows? Perhaps things would have worked out differently.)

Another person who I spoke to, but who we didn't get an opportunity to put on tape, was A. Scott Crossfield (photo at right). One of the best pilots of his generation, Crossfield had an incredible career. He was the first man to Mach 2.0, and the first to fly the X-15.

Scott wrote a nice letter in support of our documentary, and generously offered to sign a limited edition photo collage to help us raise some money. We were about to do another run of these prints, when we learned that Crossfield had been tragically killed in the crash of his single engine plane during an intense thunderstorm. It seemed ironic, and even a little unfair, that a man who had flown on the very edge of the envelope, had lost his life in fairly mundane circumstances. Such is the price that some do pay, to touch the sky . . .

There are other people we wished we'd been able to chat with, including Johnny Myers, the famed test pilot for both Lockheed and Northrop who frequented Muroc, who passed away in May. There are also a couple of people who, for various reasons, simply would not agree to be interviewed. Fortunately for us, most of them were peripheral to our story.

Despite some of the people we've missed, I can honestly say that circumstances have generally been with us. And while there are some people who narrowly missed our "short list", it was fun to meet them nevertheless, and learn a bit more about Pancho. You know there's another old expression, that the journey is more exciting that the destination, and that's true in the case of this film. When I think back on the amount of work it involved to winnow our list down, and figure out who was the most appropriate -- a lot of phone conversations, emails, letters. But also, it was a lot of fun. We cast a very wide net in our search for all these folks. We had to because, as they say, casting is everything.

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