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)"
07 March 2008

Pancho and the Powder Puff

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In May of 1929, Pancho lost her chance to set an endurance record with the Lockheed Vega (see 9.30.07 entry). It must have been a disappointing set back, for a woman who so badly wanted to make a name for herself in aviation. Just a few months later however, a new and exciting opportunity that seemed tailor made for Pancho, fell into her lap. It was the Women's National Air Derby, a race which would commence on August 18th, and pit some of the best female fliers in the world against one another. Competitors would begin at Clover Field in Santa Monica (the present site of the Santa Monica Airport) and fly cross-country to Cleveland -- nearly 2300 miles.

Photo: Cliff Henderson shows off his ten gallon cowboy hat, and a model of a billboard for the 1929 National Air Races.

The race was the brain child of aviation promoter Cliff Henderson, the father of the Bendix Trophy and creator of the National Air Races. Henderson might have been interested in promoting the role of women in aviation, but more likely he saw the women's race as a good publicity stunt. According to Gene Nora Jessen, the author of the book "Powder Puff Derby of 1929" (see 2.25.07 entry), Henderson initially proposed that contestants fly with male companions. "They said that men needed to be in the airplanes as co-pilots," Gene Nora told us, "Well, the women didn't like that at all. They wanted to do the flying. So, then [race organizers] said, the women could fly the airplanes and the men would just be their 'mechanics'." That led to more protests, since aviators like Pancho, Amelia Earhart and Gladys O'Donnell guessed that some entrants would rely on their 'mechanics' to fly their planes. In fact, that suspicion was proven to be true, as several Hollywood starlets signed up for the race initially. When the rules were changed so that only single women pilots were allowed, they dropped out!

The women who signed up for the race were a veritable who's who. In addition to Earhart, Pancho, and O'Donnell, there was the holder of the women's altitude record, Marvel Crosson (see 9.16.07 entry). Phoebe Omelie, who had been the first woman to start an aerial circus, was there -- and walking with a cane as a result of a recent plane crash. There was Louise Thaden, who held the women's endurance record of 22 hours, and a speed record of 156 mph, and Ruth Elder, who had ditched her plane in mid-ocean in 1927 while trying to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Thea Rasche, a German aviatrix and famed aerobaticist, was also in the mix.

Photo above: Race contestants (l-r) Louise Thaden, Bobbi Trout, Patty Willis, Marvel Crosson, Blanche Noyes, Vera Dawn Walker, Amelia Earhart, Marjorie Crawford, and Ruth Elder. Pancho (far right), stands out. She is the only one wearing pants and smoking a cigarette!

It was a quite a line-up, and since the race started in Santa Monica, race day was bound to attract some attention from Hollywood. "Movie stars were there," notes Gene Nora, "Like Howard Hughes. And Will Rogers was there! Will Rogers loved the women and it was mutual, they loved him too. He was very supportive of the women and aviation."

A keen observer of the scene, Will Rogers noticed that women pilots did something different than the men pilots. "When the women were being accosted by the press," Gene Nora explains, "They would always say, 'wait, stop!' And they'd get out their powder puff, and powder their nose. So Will Rogers had something to say about that. He said in his Oklahoma drawl, 'It looks like a Powder Puff Derby to me.'"

The name stuck. From that point on, the race would be known as the "Powder Puff Derby of 1929".

Photo: Pancho and Amelia Earhart pose in front of Earhart's Lockheed Vega at Clover Field. The woman in the middle is Elizabeth Grant McQueen, a socialite who promoted women in aviation.

Stay tuned for more Powder Puff Derby in the next Production Journal!

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