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)"
22 February 2008

A Tale of Pancho and Two Halliburtons

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Nowadays, you'd have to have been living under a rock not to have heard the name "Halliburton" in the press. Halliburton Energy Services operates around the world, and its former subsidiary, KBR, is heavily involved in oil production. In Pancho Barnes' day, there was another Halliburton frequently mentioned in the press -- Richard Halliburton. This dashing man was a well-known travel author and adventurer. In 1919, he'd temporarily abandoned his college career at Princeton to wander across parts of Europe. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance, described his travels and launched his career as one of the first "adventure journalists".

In 1931 Richard Halliburton hired Pancho's friend, pilot Moye Stephens, to fly him around the world. The Flying Carpet was both the name of the plane they flew, and the best-selling book by Halliburton that chronicled the effort.

It's not exactly clear how Pancho met Halliburton, although it seems likely that she was introduced by Ramon Novarro, her movie star friend. The story goes that Halliburton was bisexual, and he and Novarro were lovers...

In 1933, Pancho and Halliburton met up in his adopted home town of Memphis, Tennessee. In an article headlined "2 Famous Adventurers Meet Again...Talking Over Thrilling Times", the two are presented as strong friends. At the time, Pancho was staying with fellow aviatrix Phoebe Omlie. (Uncharacteristically, Pancho was en route to Chicago and the World's Fair not by plane, but by car.)

"Pancho introduced me to Moye [Stephens]," Halliburton confided to reporter Ada Gilkey. "She advised me what kind of plane to buy, and helped me with many details of that trip."

Halliburton also noted that he'd stayed with Pancho in her home in Laguna Beach four months prior. While he was there, wouldn't you know it, the big Long Beach earthquake struck! There wasn't much damage to the house, although a chimney did tumble.

Halliburton, one can imagine, must have felt relieved and excited that he had one more thing to write about. For her part, Pancho chimed in that when the earthquake hit, she rounded up eleven members of the Women's Air Reserve Corps and rendered aid in the stricken area.

The fact that Pancho was driving cross country, and not flying, was the source of some amusement to Omlie and Halliburton, who did some good natured kidding about it. The reporter noted that their meeting ended with Halliburton showing Pancho his "newest possession -- a new Ford!"

It very well may have been the last meeting between the two. Just about a year later, Pancho found herself in dire economic straights. She abandoned her flying career and left Los Angeles for the Mojave Desert. Richard Halliburton continued to work as an adventure journalist until 1939, when a Chinese junk he had built to travel from Hong Kong to San Francisco disappeared in a typhoon. Like Pancho's friend Amelia Earhart, Halliburton's body was never found.

There is another Halliburton story having to do with Pancho. The founder of Halliburton Energy Services and KBR, oilman Earl P. Halliburton, was no relation to Richard Halliburton. But, Earl P. was also an aviation pioneer. He not only maintained a fleet of planes for Halliburton Co., but he built Safeway Airlines. The name was inspired by the public's very real fears about early aviation. It was perceived to be quite risky and dangerous.

When the first all-women's transcontinental air race -- the "Powder Puff Derby" got underway in 1929, Erle P. Halliburton monitored it with some degree of concern. If one of the participants, such as Pancho Barnes, Amelia Earhart, Bobbi Trout or Gladys O'Donnell was hurt or killed in an accident, it surely would hurt the fledgling airlines like Safeway. Sure enough, when participant Marvel Crosson was killed in the third leg of the race (see 9.16.07 entry), Halliburton was outraged. He telegraphed the race organizers, and then called the papers and made remarks that were published throughout the country. "The Women's Air Derby is contributing nothing to aviation," Halliburton said. "It should be canceled immediately." Needless to say, Erle P. was probably not one of Pancho's favorite people!

Photo above: Earl P. Halliburton poses in front of one of the airplanes in his oil company fleet. By his feet is a set of luggage Halliburton popularized -- which are still sold today by the Zero Halliburton Co.

At right: newspaper fragment from one of Pancho Barnes' scrapbooks, held in the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate. In this column about events in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby, Halliburton's comments about the race are visible. The sentence above the "Urge Race Cancellation" headline, which concern a plane that struck and obstacle and somersaulted during landing, very likely refer to Pancho's crash in Pecos.

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