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)"
16 October 2007

Hollywood's Golden Era in the Air

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"Pancho Barnes," author Lauren Kessler recounted during our recent interview, "lived at a perfect time and a perfect place. She lived at a time when aviation was just coming into its own, and when Hollywood was coming into its own. And when the connection between aviation and Hollywood was strong."

Indeed, aviation and the film business seemed intimately intertwined in the 1920's and 30's. Films with titles like "Air Mail", "Air Hawks", "Dawn Patrol", "Flight Angels" and "Wings" and "Hell's Angels" packed theaters nationwide, and inspired the aviation dreams of an entire generation. Just as the subject of aviation anchored many a Hollywood plot, airplanes changed how movies were shot, and created a whole new career — the motion picture stunt pilot. These were a special breed of men, and incidentally I do mean men, since with the exception of Pancho Barnes, there were no women stunt fliers in those days! (See 6/17/07 entry for the story of how Pancho started the stunt flier's union).

Poster at right: The feature Test Pilot starred three of Hollywood's biggest stars. Clark Gable played Jim Lane, a nervy flier who might be one of the best — if only he could stay sober!

The stunt pilots were truly a band apart, the likes of which you rarely see today. I suppose some of the participants in the "X-Games" and some of the modern air racers have the kind of nerve, and sheer sense of recklessness, embodied by these fellows. Some of them were veterans of the Lafayette Escadrille and had flown in WWI in Europe — "lost boys" who knew life was cheap and had a Hemingwayesque disdain for the routine. Others came to find a career in stunt flying because normal flying wasn't thrilling enough. Frank Clarke, for instance, grew up on a ranch and might have become a rodeo cowboy had he not gotten bitten by the flying bug. Paul Mantz enrolled as a flying cadet in 1927 but was kicked out after buzzing a train; he soon found a career where such antics were not only encouraged, but they were the norm!

Photo: Goofing around on the set of Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels", stunt pilots perform pre-flight checks on a machine-gun toting pony. Al Wilson, who mentored Frank Clarke, is at the far left, and Roscoe Turner just beside him. Clarke is behind the mare, second to Turner's left.

It's one thing to watch some of the great aviation movies of the golden era, and another thing entirely to read about how they were made. In many cases the stories are more compelling than the pulp fiction screenplays.

A wonderful book to get ahold of, is H. Hugh Wynne's The Motion Picture Stunt Pilots, published in 1987 by Pictorial Histories. It's out of print, but you can find used copies for sale on Amazon for around $10-15.

Wynne, who is now sadly deceased, was an architect with a passion for aviation history. He was one of the founders of Cross and Cockade, a WWI aviation historical group. He had unique access to many of the people who lived through the "golden era" of Hollywood stunt flying, including Moye Stephens, Dick Grace, Garland Lincoln, and others. He was also able to interview the son of stunt flier Leo Noomis, the daughter of Elmer Dyer, and the nephew of Al Wilson. The result is a book that is filled with anecdotes, many of them directly out of the mouths of the participants, and dozens and dozens of photos.

Another excellent read is James H. Farmer's "Celluloid Wings", published in 1984 by Tab Books, and also out-of-print but available used. This encyclopedic work, which is just short of 375 pages in large 8.5x11 format, chronicles the impact of movies on aviation, and vice versa, from 1912's Mack Sennett comedy "A Dash Through the Clouds" to 1949's "Twelve O'Clock High". Filled with photos, the book also includes an unexpected bonus: capsule reviews of scores of aviation movies.

Incidentally, I should mention that in the course of writing this book, James Farmer interviewed many of the legends of aviation, including Pappy Boyington, Douglas Corrigan, Jimmy Doolittle, Frank Tallman — and Pancho Barnes. In fact, some of the comments Pancho made during her interview with Farmer have found their way into our script! (With his permission of course).

If you do get this book, make sure to also purchase a DVD of "Twelve O'Clock High", and have it handy for when you read the chapter concerning that flick. It adds a whole new level of insight into what is one of WWII's, and aviation's, greatest moments in Hollywood's spotlight.

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