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)"
06 February 2008

Pancho Runs for Office

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What with all the excitement surrounding the 2008 Presidential Election, it seems a fitting time to mention Pancho's career in politics. No Hillary, Pancho didn't run for President, but she did become the first woman to ever run for L.A. County Supervisor, back in 1932.

It all came to pass when Supervisor J.D. Mahaffrey died in office. Pancho, a wealthy heiress from a politically connected family, sensed an opportunity. And why not get into politics? She had helped organize the motion picture stunt pilots union and the Women's Air Corps in recent years, and out of all the Los Angeles women involved in aviation, she had the strongest name recognition. She'd broken Amelia Earhart's air speed record the previous year, and been honored by California Governor Rolph. Her photo appeared on the front page of the Times as a result. Plus, her feats in the air and elsewhere were often mentioned in the society page column, written by Alma Whitaker.

Notably, both Whitaker and the Times reporters referred to Pancho as "the wife of the Reverend C. Rankin Barnes" and mentioned the family's connections to charity and social service. So, despite Pancho's wildness and the fact that she was a hell-raiser in all sorts of ways, her public persona in many ways appeared to be a tame one. As Lauren Kessler explained to us, "No one could talk too ill of [Pancho], because she was a married woman. So she was able to be wilder, married to a minister, than if she had been a single woman at the beginning of the flapper age."

Image at above right: The official ballot as it appeared in 1932, in the L.A. Times, which endorsed L.A. City Councilman Robert Allan for the position. (The red color is added).


Pancho's first political move was not to run for office, but to ask Governor Rolph to appoint her to the vacant seat. According to the Times, she told Rolph that she was uniquely qualified in that "she could aid aviation as a Supervisor in Los Angeles County, where there are forty-seven airports". The Governor was not swayed, but by now Pancho felt invested in the notion of being Supervisor. She started to campaign, against what eventually emerged as a field of eleven men.

Pancho's campaign style was, like everything in her life, unorthodox. Supposedly she flew over the city and wrote her name in the sky, in hopes of attracting votes! She also did some of the standard things, like addressing members of the L.A. City Women's Club. She apparently even showed up for the meeting in a skirt, in an attempt to woo their support. "Pancho hasn't cultivated the society of women much, outside of lady aviators," Alma Whitaker noted dryly. "She insists sex should make no difference, but couldn't resist saying women should support her as the 'first woman supervisor'". I don't know what Pancho's campaign platform was, or whether she ever got a chance to debate her rivals. In the end, the Times ended up endorsing another candidate, and Pancho lost in a landslide. Still, it's undeniable she was a pioneer in politics, just like she was in the air. One has to wonder, if she had won, what her impact might have been on the political landscape?

Despite the bruising loss, Pancho wasn't entirely through with politics. Three decades later in 1960, while living in the Mojave Desert, Pancho ran for constable of the Rand Judicial District. As part of her campaign (photo at right), she had her old stagecoach adorned with signs for the various towns in the district, and drove it in a parade. The stunt attracted attention, but few votes.

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