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)"
27 January 2008

Pancho and Al Boyd

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During Pancho's flying career in the late 1920's and early 30's, she made a lot of friends who were military pilots. Some of them would go on to do extremely important things in aviation. Jimmy Doolittle, who she met as a result of attending air races, pioneered instrument flying, and led the famous "Doolittle Raid" on Japan in 1942. Both Hap Arnold and Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, who Pancho met at March Field near Los Angeles, became commanding generals of the Air Force.

"The first thing I remember about [Pancho's] place," Brig. Gen. Bob Cardenas told us, "was behind the bar was a painting of her in boots and breeches. She had one arm around Second Lt. Tooey Spaatz, and the other arm around Second Lt Hap Arnold. That impressed the hell out of me, who the hell she really was - a pilot. And a damn good one."

Another one of Pancho's good friends was Colonel Albert Boyd. Boyd had joined the Army Air Corps and earned his wings in 1927, right around the same time that Pancho did. He went on to have an extensive career as a test pilot — and I mean extensive. By the time Boyd retired in the late 1950's, he'd flown over seven hundred different types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft, and logged over 23,000 hours of flight time. If you're doing the math, that's over two and a half years in the air!

After serving in the Air Service Command during WWII, Al Boyd was named chief of the Flight Test Division at Wright Field. Boyd was also in charge of test pilots and other personnel assigned to "temporary duty" at distant Muroc AFB (later Edwards AFB). Eventually, Boyd would become commander of Edwards, which explains how Boyd met Pancho.

"Colonel Boyd was chief of flight test division and he was a pilot’s pilot," Cardenas says. "And he was a no-nonsense guy. He never demanded of you anything that he wouldn’t do. He was very capable and of course extremely intelligent. Anyway, he and Pancho were kind of soul mates more or less. She loved him and he liked the hell out of her. Because of what she was - you know, a pilot. And down to earth, and common sense, no nonsense. Could outcuss any mule skinner out in the desert. So they were real friends."

Photo: Col Albert Boyd stands beside a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. This was probably snapped in 1947, when he set a new official world airspeed record of 623.62 mph (1,003 km/h) in the aircraft.

Their closeness was in itself remarkable, since after all Boyd demanded the attention and respect of every one of his subordinates. He could inspire, but he could also put the fear of God into you. Chuck Yeager put it this way, "Colonel Boyd was a tremendous leader. Tough as nails. And man, I tell ya, he really was a good pilot. When Boyd came out as commander, he straightened the place up in short order. It was pretty loose out there, like, we did pretty well what we wanted to, you know because there was nobody looking over our shoulder, but when General Boyd came in, man, he straightened the place up in a hurry... General Boyd was a very close friend of Pancho’s," Yeager adds," and he liked her. But, she may mouth off to General Boyd, but she’d only do it one time. Because he’d tell her to shut up!"

As head of the Flight Test Division, Al Boyd was in charge of the X-1 project, and the man who selected Chuck Yeager to make the flight. (In fact, it was Al Boyd who first recognized Yeager's potential as a test pilot, sending him to test pilot's school in January, 1945). The way Yeager remembers it, Boyd told him of his selection as primary X-1 pilot in a very few words, explaining that he felt the aircraft could get above Mach 1, and "don't screw up." What else could Yeager say but, "Yes, sir" in reply?

Bob Cardenas, who flew the B-29 mother ship for the X-1 project, also remembers Boyd choosing his words carefully. "His instructions to me," Cardenas notes, "were, 'Safety of flight is paramount, but it is not to impede success.' That was his instructions to me."

The X-1 tests were extremely dangerous, but they were also a success. After the team broke the sound barrier, they partied at Pancho's bar. (See 5.23.07 and 5.30.07 entries).

Photo (right, above): Al Boyd stands with Pancho and Mac on their wedding day. (Left, below): Pancho and Al Boyd are reunited shortly before her death. The woman on the right is actress and pilot Susan Oliver.

Al Boyd didn't make it to the celebration that day, but he did show up to another event — Pancho's wedding to Mac McKendry in 1953. To get to Pancho's, he flew cross-country in a B-47, setting a new speed record in the process! Boyd ended up giving Pancho away in the ceremony, a fitting tribute from one of her best friends.

By the time of Pancho's wedding, Al Boyd had been reassigned from Edwards back to Wright Field. His replacement, General Stanley Holtoner, was a former fighter pilot. But unlike Boyd, he would never be friends with Pancho. Instead, they became bitter enemies — but that's a subject for a future Production Journal.

Al Boyd retired from the Air Force in 1957, and passed away in 1976. By then, he'd been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and become known as the "Father of Modern Flight Testing" and the "Dean of American Test Pilots".

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