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)"
22 September 2007

The Mystery of the Mystery Ship, Part 7

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It's been some time since the topic of the "Mystery Ship", Pancho Barnes' famous airplane has been discussed in the Production Journal (see February 8th entry). For those of you whose memory is 1929 Pancho saw pilot Doug Davis win the Thompson Trophy at the National Air Races in Cleveland. Davis was flying a new and radical monoplane, the Travelair Model R. The aircraft, which outperformed military planes entered in the races, humiliated the armed forces. It had been designed and built in secrecy. Thus, the moniker was born, "Mystery Ship."

Although only five ended up being built, the plane went on to set many records and became extremely famous. Many of the greats in aviation flew it including Jimmy Doolittle, Clarence Clark (the Travelair test pilot), Frank Tallman, Paul Mantz, Jimmy Haizlip and Frank Hawks. (Hawks' plane, the Texaco No. 13, is on display in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago).

In 1930, Pancho bought a Model R for around $13K, and in August of that year she shattered Amelia Earhart's air speed record, flying 196.19 miles per hour on a closed course at Van Nuys Airport.

The definitive book on the Model R is Ed Phillips' "Mystery Ship!", published in 1999 by Flying Books International. Phillips, who has an international reputation as an aviation historian, outdid himself with this book. It contains over 90 pages of photos, drawings and text, detailing the history of each Model R built, and chronicling an entire era in the process.

Earlier this year, Ed Phillips got in touch with us, offering his expertise and promising to answer any lingering questions about Pancho's plane not answered in his book. Actually, the book is so complete that there were no points seeming to need clarification! But, I did have one question for Ed � did he know of any motion picture footage of Pancho's plane, or any of the Mystery Ships?

Turns out, Ed did have a videotape featuring historic Model R footage. The provenance of the tape, and the film on it, was quite amazing. Back in the 20's, two brothers worked for the Travel Air company as ferry pilots, delivering airplanes to clients across the United States. Their names were Newman and Truman Wadlow. Of course, they were friends with everyone at Travel Air, including Clarence Clark and company founder Walter Beech. They also got to meet many of the visiting pilots and customers -- a who's who of aviation in those days that might include aviatrix Louise Thaden on one Saturday and Army Air Force flier Jimmy Doolittle the next.

In addition to having a love of airplanes, Truman Wadlow loved movies, and bought a nice 16mm movie camera. Over the years he shot home films of his family, including his twin daughters Nancy and Betty, and an occasional trip. He also shot two cross-country ferry trips, a trip the National Air Races, and ... ta da ... footage of an open house at Travel Air, where the Mystery Ships were the center of attention.

Photo: Truman Wadlow poses with his nieces (frame pull from 16mm motion picture film)

Truman Wadlow's footage provides a unique window into a lost era, showing the Travel Air company in full swing, just before the Great Depression. Some of the people who appear in the footage include a young Jimmy Doolittle (see photo), Frank Hawks, Walter Beech, and others. Several of Model Rs are seen in the film -- including "Texaco No. 13" and the "Shell Mystery Ship" -- along with other types of Travel Air planes including the Type 6B cabin monoplane.

The history of the "Shell Mystery Ship", as detailed in Phillip's book, gives some idea of the reason the aircraft is so strongly affiliated with the "Golden Age of Flight". It was flashy, fast, beautiful -- and dangerous to fly.

The Shell Mystery Ship was constructed over about six weeks at the Travel Air Factory in Wichita, and finished in February 1930. It was initially flown by James Haizlip and Jimmy Doolittle, who were both employed by Shell Oil for publicity purposes. Haizlip took the plane to the Detroit aircraft show, and participated in air shows in St. Louis and Columbia, South Carolina. It wasn't easy flying. On his flight back from Detroit, for instance, the plane's engine died during takeoff and he had to make an emergency landing. Later, a couple of the airplane's wing wires separated, placing the plane in a dangerous condition. Despite the problems, Haizlip continued to fly the craft. He placed second in the 1930 Chicago Air Races, flying an average speed of 199 miles per hour over the pylon course. He might have won, except for the fact that his engine began to burn oil. Later that same year his luck ran out entirely, as he crashed the colorful racer. The culprit was once again, engine failure during takeoff.

Photo: The Texaco Mystery Ship in flight, and on the ground at the Travel Air field, from 16mm home movie shot by Truman Wadlow

Jimmy Doolittle ended up buying the wrecked plane from Shell, and rebuilt it into what he hoped would be an aircraft capable of achieving a speed close to 300 mph. The craft, registration NR482N, was equipped with a 560 hp Wasp Jr. engine. It was ready in June of 1931. During an initial test flight, Doolittle took the plane up to 250 mph. Observers on the ground noted, as Phillips recounts, that the plane suddenly appeared to have "struck a bunch of birds". In actuality, the right wing was disintegrating. As the left aileron departed, Doolittle put the ship into a climb, rolled it over, and jumped out. As he did so, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute. He was only about 300 feet off the ground, but miraculously he survived. His only injury was a minor abrasion, caused by his parachute cords briefly catching his neck. The plane was totally destroyed.

For Doolittle, it was his second close call in as many years. He had "hit the silk" while escaping from a Curtiss Hawk at the 1929 National Air Races, after a wing failed during acrobatic maneuvers. This time, however, Doolittle did not blame his plane, but himself. By introducing a new wing fairing design, he acknowledged after the crash, he inadvertently weakened the wing structure while encouraging flutter.

Truman Wadlow's home movies don't show Jimmy Doolittle's crash, nor do they feature any footage of Pancho Barnes' Model R. But, they are important to our project. Without question, some of this rare, never-before-seen material will be included in the film, along with some other, extremely precious footage we've managed to locate of Pancho's plane.

A special thanks is owed to Truman Wadlow's family, in particular his daughter Nancy, for making the film available to us. Thanks as well to Edward H. Phillips for documenting the "History of the Mystery" and for generously assisting us with the project.

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