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)"
13 April 2008

Powder Puff Derby: Day Three

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Day three of the Powder Puff Derby was the toughest for the competitors, and not because of the course, which ran from Phoenix to Douglas, Arizona. The papers on that day, August 20, 1929 announced grim news. It threatened to derail the race entirely: “Marvel Crosson is Killed When Plane Crashes in Arizona.” Reporters seemed to delight in the awful details, noting that Crosson “plummeted to a rocky, mesquite-grown Arizona hillside Monday under a partly-opened parachute” and that her “broken body” was being sent back to her family’s home in San Diego (see 9-16-07 entry).

Crosson’s death came on the heels of numerous accusations, regarding planes being tampered with (see previous entry). Many of the racers were convinced Crosson, who was one of the most experience women pilots, had fallen victim to sabotage. Pancho was among them. “I roomed with Marvel,” she explained later. “And she was very worried. She said something was wrong with her airplane, it was sabotaged.” The truth is impossible to know. Perhaps Crosson’s plane was tampered with, perhaps not. Like many other racers, including Pancho, Crosson flew a Travel Air biplane equipped with a J5 engine. While the plane was known to be highly reliable, designer Walter Beech recognized it did have one flaw. Carbon monoxide from the engine could pool in the cockpit in certain circumstances. In fact, Beech had rigged up a piece of pipe in Louise Thaden’s ship, after she complained of symptoms that were in line with carbon monoxide poisoning. In Crosson’s case, she flew a racing model of the plane, with a smaller cockpit that most. She was short, and as a result possibly even more susceptible to the dangerous effects of the fumes.

Whatever the cause of the accident, it set off a firestorm. Some men in the aviation business world, including Earle P. Halliburton, called for an end to the competition (see 2-22-08 entry). The New York American declared that the race was “undermining public confidence in aviation” and noted in melodramatic fashion that “a fine young woman has been called as a sacrifice on the altar of premature competition. Air racing for women, should be discouraged as a far too hazardous adventure.” That may have been the attitude of the press, but not the contestants. Every one of the women were convinced it should continue. “News of the death was shocking and depressing,” Pancho noted, “But it didn’t daunt the courage of a single flyer.” According to Gene Nora Jessen's book The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, racer Mary von Mach took a leadership role in rallying the group. "If I had crashed and were unable to go on," von Mach told the assembled women fliers, "My worst nightmare would be that I had caused the race to stop. Marvel would want us to carry on where she left off."

Photo: One of Pancho's publicity shots, probably from the second or third Powder Puff Derby. Nice tie, Pancho!

The women did not take a day off to mourn, but resolutely resumed the race after a two hour postponement, taking off at 8 a.m. instead of the scheduled 6. As the racers departed Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport and flew on to Douglas, they left little doubt that the race would be completed. Crosson’s death was a tragedy, but it would not be allowed to interfere with their mission. The race was no longer just a novel competition, but a symbol of the ability of women to achieve, to overcome, and to persevere.

By the time the last flier arrived in Douglas, a new sense of spirit and camaraderie had emerged. Pancho contributed to it, and did her best to keep a positive outlook, and keep her friends going. During the Yuma to Phoenix portion of the race, she had inadvertently flown South of the Border and into Mexico. That was a stunt repeated by several other contestants during the Phoenix-to-Douglas leg. Seeing an opportunity to have a little fun and put smiles back on the faces of the other women, Pancho got some paint and scrawled “Mexico or Bust” on the side of her plane.

Unfortunately for Pancho, what would happen to her in the next leg of the race would be no laughing matter.

This newspaper clipping, from Pancho's personal scrapbook, features late breaking news from the Derby. Louise Thaden won the heavy aircraft class, flying into Douglas a full 50 minutes ahead of Pancho. Not everyone made it to Douglas. As the article notes, Mrs. Keith Miller, an aviatrix from New Zealand, ran out of gas 20 miles from the airport, and Bobbi Trout smashed her landing gear during a landing in Mexico.

(Want to read more? Check out an article written by Gene Nora Jessen at: the Ninety-Nines website.)

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