Thursday, May 23, 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)"
16 May 2008

Taking Pancho on the Road

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The last two months have been busy ones, and not just in the editing room! We've been taking the show on the road — literally. Which is to say, we've been presenting a portion of the film at various venues locally to gather opinions about our "rough cut" and raise interest in the project.

Lucky for Amanda Pope and me, Southern California is a vibrant community interested in aviation, and aviation history. Some of the groups that have hosted us include the San Fernando and Camarillo Ninety-Nines, the Edwards AFB and Orange County EAA, the Santa Monica, San Diego and Los Angeles Quiet Birdmen, and the Flabob Airport's "movie night" crowd.

Last night it was the Whiteman Airport Association. The film was received warmly and the crowd even passed the hat -- well, actually, a coffee tin -- with the proceeds benefiting the completion of the movie. Thanks Whiteman!

Photo (left): Nick Spark presents a portion of the "rough cut" at the National Aviation Hall of Fame's Reel Stuff Film Festival.

We've also had a few special screenings. Recently, we were invited to present the film at the Allen Airways Flying Museum in San Diego during a Stearman biplane "fly in". The screening was attended by Brig. Gen. Bob Cardenas, one of our interview subjects, and the pilot for the B-29 that flew the X-1 to altitude. Bob thirlled the audience with the story of the day in October, 1947 when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. It was kind of amazing for folks to hear the story from an aviation legend who was actually there they day it happened! (Thanks so much to Bill and Claudia Allen for hosting us).

We also presented a portion of the film in Lancaster at the EAA, a screening that was attended by Barbara Rowland and Barbara Little, both of whom were good friends of Pancho.

It's always exciting to show the movie in the Lancaster vicinity, as there are often people in the audience who, like Barbara and Barbara, knew Pancho and have a story to tell. I'd love to pass along a couple of the stories I heard at the QB meeting up in Lancaster, in fact, but unfortunately they are of a slightly "blue" variety so I'll pass for now!

One of the most memorable presentations was not in Los Angeles at all, but at the National Aviation Hall of Fame's inaugural "Reel Stuff" Film Festival last month. This event, which is sure to become an annual pilgrimage for some, featured four days of aviation movies. Paco Chierici presented "Speed and Angels", a terrific documentary about U.S. Navy aviators (link) that will debut later this year.

Brian Terwiliger was there to show the sweepingly beautiful film "One Six Right" and to tease the audience with an excerpt from a forthcoming project — which looks even more stunning than his first (link).


Clay Lacy, the one-time United Airlines pilot who went on to have a spectacular career as a Hollywood aerial cinematographer, presented Top Gun and IMAX: Red Flag, and gave insights into his craft. The dean of aviation and an Academy Award winning actor, Cliff Robertson presented the memorable 633 Squadron. (Although not that well known, the film that apparently inspired a young George Lucas when he was scripting Star Wars -- the ending is virtually identical.) Aviation historian and author James Farmer introduced Col. Dean Hess, and presented Battle Hymn. This Korean War film was based on remarkable events from Hess' career in the Air Force. The cherry on this luscious sundae was The Battle of Britain, presented by the chief stunt pilot, the inimitable Wilson "Connie" Edwards.

Photo (below): Writer/producer Nick Spark (third from right) poses with (l-r) "IMAX: Red Flag" producer Pietro Serapiglia, National Museum of the USAF Theatre manager Mary Bruggeman, famed cinematographer and aviator Clay Lacy, Academy Award winning actor and flier Cliff Robertson, stunt pilot and raconteur Connie Edwards, (Nick Spark), "One Six Right" director Brian J. Terwilliger and Ron Kaplan, the master of ceremonies for the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

In the midst of all this celebrity and hoopla, I presented a portion of The Legend of Pancho Barnes. The whole thing made my spine tingle, and not just because I was surrounded by all these terrific filmmakers, actors, stunt pilots and movie cameramen. You see, Pancho was friends with no less than a dozen members or nominees of the Hall of Fame, all of whom are mentioned in the film: Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden, Ruth Nichols, Will Rogers, Jimmy Doolittle, Cliff Henderson, Paul Mantz, Hap Arnold, Tooey Spaatz, Al Boyd, Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover, Buzz Aldrin, etc. Pancho herself has been short-listed for the Hall, and certainly we hope our film can be one of the things that helps put her "over the top".

The film was well received, although there were a few members of the crowd who were ready to kill me for pushing the "pause" button after a mere 25 minutes! Ron Kaplan, the dashing Executive Director of the NAHF who put this whole event together, tried to calm the audience by making a remarkable offer: he invited us back to show the completed film at next year's "Reel Stuff". We'll be there Ron.

Wanna go? Better make your reservations for Dayton now. Based on the success of this inaugural event, I have a feeling next year's festival screenings will be standing room only.

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