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)"
02 December 2007

Pancho Barnes at the 1929 National Air Races

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In 1929, Pancho Barnes competed in the all-women transcontinental air race, known as the "Powder Puff Derby". The race was from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio, site of the 1929 National Air Races. The Powder Puff Derby featured many of the best aviatrixes of the era, including Bobbi Trout, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Glady's O'Donnell, and more. In the early going, Pancho led the race in the "heavy" class of airplanes. But, coming in for a landing at Pecos in failing light, disaster struck. Her plane hit an automobile that was crossing the field. Thankfully, Pancho wasn't hurt, but her plane was badly damaged. (No word, incidentally, on how the automobile fared. But one can imagine what the owner told Geico. "Hello, my Model T was just hit by a plane!")

Despite the accident, Pancho did make it to Cleveland. She presumably spent her time there hanging out with her fellow aviatrixes, and some of her pilot

buddies in attendance, which might have included Jimmy Doolittle and Roscoe Turner. We don't really know that much about her time there, but we know for a fact that she was there thanks to a terrific photo that surfaced last year. The photo, now in the collection of Dr. Lou D'Elia and the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate, is one of those incredible panoramic images that was so popular in the early 1900's. It shows the entire grandstand which, incidentally, was situated at the west end of the Cleveland Airport. There are probably about 50,000 people in this photo, although of course it'd be a real trick to count them all.

Scanning the faces with a magnifying glass, it is not hard to locate people who might be some of the famous attendees, including Roscoe, Graf Zeppelin pilot Dr. Hugo Eckner, event organizer Cliff Henderson, Thompson Trophy winner Doug Davis. One person who is plainly identifiable, and plainly visible, is Pancho. She's located towards the right-hand side of the middle of the photo. She's so prominent, in fact, that one has to wonder whether her being their is just a co-incidence! It wouldn't have been the first time that Pancho was at the right place at the right time...as author Gene Nora Jessen related to us, Pancho had a keen nose for publicity.

The trip to Cleveland would be an important one for Pancho. When Doug Davis won the Thompson, he would be flying a Travelair "Mystery Ship". The victory, and the publicity surrounding the aircraft, made a big impression on Pancho. She grabbed her check book, purchased an identical plane, and used it to break Amelia Earhart's women's air speed record (see 1-21-07 entry).

In a future Production Journal, I'll write a bit about an interesting historic artifact related to the 1929 race. A couple years ago I acquired a film of the event, made by the radio club Q.R.M. to commemorate their participation as race timers. An excerpt from the movie will appear in our documentary, and will represent the first time in roughly 80 years that it's been seen by the public.

On the subject of the National Air Races and films, I'm excited to announce that a new documentary DVD has just been released! It's entitled The Story of the 1929-1949 National Air Races. This two hour film represents a labor of love by Joe Stamm, a retired oil-industry executive who flies a 1943 Stearman. Over a four-year period, Joe collected photographs and film footage documenting the glory days of the NAR. It's a fascinating story, one that has -- with the advent of the Red Bull Races and renewed interest in the Reno events -- growing relevancy.

The film begins with a prologue that summarizes air racing prior to 1928, and then launches into an encyclopedic description of each year's events. While watching it, you get a strong sense of the acceleration and advance of aviation technology that occurred in the early part of the 20th Century. The highly-souped up, experimental racing aircraft seem to change in form, speed and performance every year or two. One thing that remains constant, is the bravery and skill of the pilots who dared climb into the cockpits.

There is some wonderful film footage included in the video, including rare color home movies and newsreels featuring famous people and planes, including the Gee Bees and Goodyear racers. You'll see clearly why the National Air Races were one of the biggest sporting events of their time, ranking right up there in terms of attendance with the Indianapolis 500 or the Kentucky Derby.

Sadly, one aspect of the races proved to be their undoing. Accidents were not infrequent. Organizers chose not to acknowledge the risks, probably because they viewed the events as a venue for experimentation. As a result, things could and did happen. The Gee Bee racers, for instance, were notoriously dangerous, and Russell Boardman was killed in the 1933 Thompson Race when his 'Bee went out of control. Throughout its history, however, no bystanders were killed at the NAR -- only pilots. But that changed in 1949, at Cleveland, when just two laps into the opening event of the NAR, Bill Odom's P-51 Mustang Beguine went out of control and crashed into a house. Odom was killed, along with a young mother and her child. The incident, and the coming of the Korean War, ended organized racing for some time to come. As the documentary makes clear however, the tragedy did have a positive result. When organized air racing began at Reno, safety of pilots and spectators became a priority, and it remains that way.

You can visit the website, and purchase the DVD, at this link.

If you're interested in reading more about the history of the National Air Races, a terrific website to visit is "The History of Air Racing and Record Breaking" here.

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