Thursday, November 30, 2023

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)"
30 September 2007

The Record That Never Was

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Pancho Barnes held the women's air speed record, and a speed record for flying from Oakland to Los Angeles. But, if things had turned out different, she might have also had the distinction of setting an endurance record.

The story goes like this: after learning to fly, Pancho started ferrying planes for Beechcraft and Travel Air. She wanted to make a name for herself, and six months after getting her pilot's license, decided an endurance record might be the ticket. The Lockheed Vega clearly would be the best ship available to make an attempt on the record — which then stood around 35 hours.

Lockheed's management was willing. "There was a fellow named Erickson," Pancho remembered, "who had this under his control. He decided to give me a chance."

Pancho's first step in making the attempt, would be a series of test flights intended to reveal the Vega's maximum load. How much fuel could it carry? To find out, Pancho made a series of flights carrying sandbags, and soon was taking off with up to 2000 pounds stowed aboard. The flights were tricky, since if the load shifted in flight or during takeoff or landing, disaster could result. Plus, the overloaded airplane handled like a brick...

Photo: Pancho in front of the Lockheed Vega she hoped to fly into the record books

Shortly before Pancho was going to make the record flight, she noticed that the airplane's shock cords (shock absorbers) had become worn out. She returned the plane to the factory to have them replaced, and when she came back in a few days' time, the plane was all cleaned up and "looked beautiful." She loaded up the Vega with weight, and asked a couple of friends to come on board for a short flight. "I piled them into the airplane," she remembered. "We took off and it got off, and then landed back. When I set down — I made a beautiful three-point landing — all the shock guards let loose at once."

The cause of the incident was soon discovered: the Lockheed workers had painted the cords, and as a result they didn't apply properly on landing. The damage to the plane was minor, but the sight of the shock cords coming apart didn't look good to observers.

Word of the incident leaked out, and a nervous Lockheed sent Pancho to complete her tests in the desert north of Los Angeles. That proved to be a fateful decision in more ways than one. While Pancho was flying her tests in the Mojave, she spotted a small ranch from the air. "It had big trees, and green alfalfa," she recounted. "I thought, if you hunted the world over, there was nothing [like that]. I made my mind up, [one day] I’d like to get ahold of that ranch…"

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Lockheed executives began getting nervous. Their head test pilot, Herb Fahy, had found out what had transpired with the shock cords.

Pancho tells it this way: [Fahy] went to the bosses in Lockheed and said, "Wouldn't it be a terrible thing is anything happened to Pancho? Think of the adverse of publicity of a woman being killed in a Lockheed." He said, 'I think, for the sake of the safety, I better fly the record.' He had found out — the yellow so-and-so — that the airplane would do it. And I had done all the work!"

So, Fahy flew the record attempt, and made it. His new mark stood at 36 hours, 56 minutes. Not one to be too bitter, Pancho flew as chase pilot for Fahy, taking temperature recordings and monitoring the weather. She also took up Fahy's wife, aviatrix Claire Fahy, so that she could wave to her husband.

Actually, Claire Fahy probably did more than just wave. She was a flier in her own right who later flew in the Powder Puff Derby with Pancho, Amelia Earhart and Bobbi Trout.

Ironically, just a few months after he made the record flight, Herb Fahy would nearly be killed flying a Lockheed. The accident occurred while he was piloting the City of Tacoma, an experimental monoplane built for Lt. Harold Bromley. The plane, which was supposed to be capable of making a flight from Oakland to Tokyo, Japan, lost its rudder after Fahy made a figure-eight. It was only about 200 feet in the air, and quickly plunged to the ground and burned near the corner of Victory Blvd. and Burbank Avenue.

In 1930, after recuperating from the Tacoma crash, Herb Fahy's luck ran out. While demonstrating takeoffs and landings in a Lockheed Sirius on a private runway, he hit a tree stump, and the plane flipped. He died without regaining consciousness. Claire, who was aboard as co-pilot, survived with minor injuries.

Unfortunately, Claire Fahy had only escaped death for the moment. In December of 1930, roughly seven months after her husband was killed, Claire was flying out of Tonopah, Nevada. Her plane's engine cut out on takeoff, and she was unable to recover. She lingered for a time in a coma, but finally succumbed. It was a terrible tragedy — the kind that was all too frequent in those days. The price these pioneers of flight paid for their wings, could be terribly high.

One postscript worth a mention: the ranch that Pancho saw from the air, while piloting the Vega on the test flights, was the one she ended up buying in the mid-1930's. She renamed it the Rancho Oro Verde or, as we more commonly know it, the Happy Bottom Riding Club!

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