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)"
16 September 2007

Pancho and Marvel

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The 1929 Women's Transcontinental Air Race — better known as the 'Powder Puff Derby' — attracted some of the best aviatrixes of the era, including Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden, Bobbi Trout and Pancho Barnes. Another participant, Marvel Crosson, isn't as well known today, but certainly seemed poised for the limelight. Her name was Marvel Crosson, and she was good friends with Pancho. They were the same age, 28, and both shared a passion for aviation and had good-natured personalities. Shortly after meeting, the two resolved to be 'buddies' during the Derby, and they were roommates on the first night of the race.

Born in Indiana, Crosson had moved with her family to San Diego in the early 1920's. As she told a reporter, she was inspired to fly when she first "...saw that first airplane high in the sky above my little ranch home in the San Bernardino Mountains." At her urging, and with some of her money, her brother Joe bought a surplus U.S. Army biplane. She took to the sky like a natural, and said that flying "...has been so good to me. It has given me splendid 'breaks' every so often."

Marvel went on to do something spectacular. In 1927, she accompanied Joe to Alaska Territory, where he had sought work as a bush pilot. In a short time, she became the first woman to receive an Alaska pilot's license. At that time, airplanes were fairly new to Alaska, and their arrival was not welcome by mushers, whose dog sleds moved goods around the state. Some local businesses even put up signs on their doors that read, "No dogs nor pilots allowed". The Crossons did their best to prove that aviation had its place in the wilderness, and in 1928 they flew cross-country together. Later that same year, Marvel returned to California after her brother decided to embark with Hubert Wilkins' Polar Expedition. (He soon became the first pilot to fly over the Southern Polar Continent.)

Once back in San Diego, Marvel Crosson decided to try to set a new women's altitude record, held by Louise Thaden. She managed to do it, soaring to 23,996 feet. "The breaks were all in my favor," she said of the flight. "Can't you see how good aviation has been to me? Surely, you understand why I fly, don't you?" When asked by another reporter if she'd had enough of danger, if she should give up flying, she declared, "I don't think I'll ever give up flying. It means everything to me. Oh, yes, I used to play tennis and go to dances, but they're not in it with flying for pleasure. And besides, I'm combining fun and work."

Competing in the Powder Puff Derby would be another big feather in Marvel Crosson's hat. Winning it might have even brought the kind of notoriety reserved for Amelia Earhart. "Why do I fly?" Crosson replied, when a reporter asked her that question, on the eve of the Derby. "Because it is my profession, my way of earning a living — and because I love it."

But right from the start, Crosson and other race participants ran into trouble. Accusations and suspicions haunted the event, as several of the racers complained their aircraft had been tampered with. Ruth Elder discovered oil in her gas tank. Claire Fahy insisted someone had damaged one of her plane's wing wires. Pancho recalled, in a speech given at the EAA, that Marvel,"...was very, very worried because she said something was wrong with her airplane. She thought it was sabotage. I said, "Oh, that is ridiculous, who would do anything like that?"

On August 19, 1929, Marvel Crosson's plane failed to reach Phoenix. Initially, that was not cause for any great alarm, but as time passed the situation began to look grim. Finally, on the 20th, the report came from Yuma. Crosson's plane had been found near Wellton, where it had crashed. According to one report, a rancher had seen it wobble in the air, and then spin into a grove of cottonwood trees. Crosson was killed on impact.

Despite the tragedy, the race continued. As Gene Nora Jessen recounts in her book, "The Powder Puff Derby of 1929", the other participants felt that Marvel would want them to continue despite the tragedy. After all, aviation had been good to her.

The cause of Marvel Crosson's death was never determined. While some of her friends felt her plane must have been tampered with, others were not so sure. Louise Thaden, who went on to win the race in the same type of Travelair that Crosson flew, had previously experienced an in-flight bout of carbon monoxide poisoning. It was caused by fumes from her plane's engine, which entered the cockpit due to a badly-designed exhaust system. So perhaps Crosson had passed out, after breathing in carbon monoxide? It's impossible to know, but one fact is indisputable: Travelair modified their planes' exhaust system in the wake of Crosson's death.

Postscript: Regarding Marvel's brother, Joe Crosson went on to have a storied career as a pilot. He made the first-ever airplane landing on Mt. McKinley, flew serum to the Alaska coast to prevent a plague, helped Wiley Post complete his flight around the world, and helped retrieve Post's and Will Rogers' bodies after their fatal crash in 1935. Joe Crosson passed away in 1949 in Seattle, Washington.

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