Tuesday, June 25, 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 February 2008

Rescued by Pancho Barnes

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After Pancho Barnes' ranch burned to the ground, and a long and much-publicized legal battle over seizure of her property (which we'll get into in a future Production Journal), Pancho disappeared from public view. Although as a result of the legal proceedings, she was banned from visiting Edwards Air Force Base, she continued to live nearby. Her first home was in Jawbone with her husband Mac. Later, after she and Mac divorced, she lived in Cantil and finally Boron. It wasn't until the mid-1960s, a decade after Pancho's legal battles with the Air Force, that she was "rediscovered" by a flight test engineer named Ted Tate (see 1-02-07 Production Journal). Tate helped broker a rapprochement with the Air Force, and brought some joy back into Pancho's life, re-introducing her to many of her friends at the base.

One of the new friends Pancho made at that time, was Barbara Rowland (pictured at right, getting her make-up adjusted during our interview), who was the secretary of the commander of Edwards Air Force Base. "When [Pancho] first walked into the office," Rowland related, "I had to ask somebody as she went by, 'is that a man or a woman?' And he said, 'Oh, that's Pancho Barnes!' And so I said, 'Is that a man or a woman?' With a name like Pancho! So he said, 'It's a woman. She's a flier.' So, she visited with the General for a while, and then came out and stopped at my desk and said, 'Hiya! The General told me if I needed help to go anywhere on the base, you would help me get there. So I took her in my car, and we drove around the base."

The two ended up becoming great friends, which was good for Rowland's psyche. Her husband had recently been killed in an accident, and she was depressed and having a tough time raising her children alone.. "I was still very much mourning the loss of my husband," Rowland remembers. "And I don't know if it was her idea of the General's, but she kind of took me over. She said was being wasted, and that I should be enjoying life. And so she sort of helped me do that, in a big way." Pancho forced Rowland to mix with society again. "Once we went down to Los Angeles together, to meet with some of her friends at the Tallmantz Air Museum -- with Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz, who were friends of hers. After that, I felt like, this is something I would like to do again. Because everybody was just so jolly and laughing. So from then on, any time she wanted to go, I would take her, and I would invite her to things. It was particularly fun, when she and (General Jimmy) Doolittle were together, because they went back a long way."

One of the more interesting trips Barbara remembers, was a drive down to Long Beach. At that time, Pancho was trying to get some airplanes donated to the new Aero Museum at Fox Field in Lancaster. "We drove down to Newport Beach, and I look around and there's all these men in dark suits and like, I am a little leery. And this man came out of the shadows. Very tall, skinny, gaunt-looking man who looked at me. And [Pancho and the man] carried on this conversation. Then we went inside this hangar and, I couldn't believe it! There was this huge plane, and they were talking about it and talking about it." The plane? The Spruce Goose. The man? Howard Hughes! "Pancho told me that they had been bitter enemies," Barbara notes with a laugh. "But, something must have turned around, because this was very cordial."

Pancho became a fixture at Barbara's house, and got along terrifically with Barb's mother. "My mother was a Southern lady," she says. "Who crocheted, and did all this lady stuff. She and Pancho would just sit there, and talk and talk and talk! My mother says to me, 'You know, Pancho thinks she is her own mother's biggest disappointment, because she's not a lacy, lady-like thing.' You know, [her mother] raised her to be a lady. But it didn't take!"

One of Barbara's favorite memories of Pancho, was when a special event was held on the base. She put the elderly aviatrix on the guest list. "I know you're supposed to introduce the General to her, but I introduced her to the General," Rowland remembers. "And she held up her glass and said something in Spanish. And he smiled at her and said, 'Thank you. And what does that mean?' And she said, 'F-you jack!' Only, she said it! Well, he just looked at her and laughed, because I am sure he had heard the stories." Asked about Pancho's passing, Rowland is quiet and somber. "I really felt her loss," she notes. "There was only one Pancho, and I'm very grateful I knew her. She really did enjoy life, and wanted everybody else to enjoy it. And she helped me learn how, again. She taught me how to live again."

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