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)"
26 March 2008

Powder Puff Derby: The First Day

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The first day of the Powder Puff Derby, August 18 of 1929, was a busy one at Clover Field (the present day Santa Monica Municipal Airport). It was an event of national importance, covered in all the newspapers and in the newsreels of the day. Fortunately for us, a number of these newsreels survive. One of them, from Fox Movietone, was shot using the latest equipment -- which is to say that the crew had the capability to record sound! It’s kind of extraordinary to consider that that sound newsreels were at that point only about two-and-a-half-years old. (One of the earliest, and most famous sound newsreels, incidentally, was Charles Lindbergh departing for Paris in 1927). If you watch our trailer (click on the link above), you will see some of this material, which runs for nearly an hour.

This rare footage provides a window into what was, in its day, one of the most important women’s events. The “star” of the show was clearly Amelia Earhart, who thrilled the crowd when she landed her Lockheed Vega at the airport. She was given a wreath of flowers in recognition of her flight across the Atlantic a year earlier. Ruth Nichols, who had learned to fly in 1922, was also interviewed at length. Reporters wanted an explanation of exactly what happened in a “close call” she’d suffered on her way to Santa Monica. If they wanted drama, they got none of it, as Nichols downplayed her troubles. Nevertheless, the specter of danger was present at the race. Like anything having to do with aviation in those days, things could happen. “Flying back then was 10% machine,” Lauren Kessler notes, “and 90% guts.” All these extraordinary women who participated, clearly, had the guts!

Pancho, of course, stood out from the crowd. She also made good fodder for the press. “She was loud,” noted Gene Nora Jessen,” and she had a vocabulary that would put a sailor to shame. But the other women pilots really liked Pancho.” While all the other women pilots managed to doll themselves up for the press, Pancho showed up at Clover Field wearing a leather jacket and jodhpurs. It led the newsreel announcer to quip, “Florence Barnes, best known to the aviation world as Pancho. One of the greatest fliers to ever wear pants!” That brought a good-natured laugh from the fellow racers. (See photo in 3/07/08 entry).

Joining the women at Clover Field that day was a huge crowd that included Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wished Marvel Crosson and Louise Thaden good luck. Howard Hughes, who had recently been nominated for an Oscar as producer of the crime drama The Racket, was also there. Perhaps the roar of all those planes helped inspire him to make Hell’s Angels? One can imagine who else might have been there…stunt pilots Roscoe Turner and Paul Mantz and Frank Tallman, most likely. Donald Douglas probably, since his airplane factory was situated on the field.

The first leg of the race was only a short hop, to San Bernardino, only sixty-seven miles distant. The intention was to let everyone get their bearings, and work out any kinks in the planes and pilots before venturing forth into the desert. Race Day 2 would entail a much more difficult trip of far greater distance, 348 miles to Phoenix, Arizona.

The arrival of the women fliers in San Bernardino was greatly anticipated. According to Gene Nora Jessen, the local Exchange Club placed twelve-foot-high aluminum letters spelling out the name of the city on top of the local movie palace, so no one would accidentally mistake it for Chino (or any other town). One thing no one could have anticipated, were the huge crowds that showed up. As the nineteen competitors landed, four thousand spectators descended on the airport. They and their cars kicked up an enormous amount of dust, and crowded the field. It made landing difficult to say the least, and there were a couple of close calls. (It was a problem that should have gotten some attention by the race organizers, but did not, and with consequences later on...)

That evening, the women were wined and dined by their San Bernardino hosts. It was a very special evening for Pancho, as she got to show off a little in front of her fellow aviatrixes. The Flying Fool, the William Boyd movie that she flew stunts for, was shown as the final official event of the day. So, while she must have been exhausted by the day’s events, Pancho must have also gone to bed proud, and full of energy. She’d landed, incidentally, in first place.

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