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)"
10 August 2007

Barnes on 'AE'

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If one individual embodies the spirit of the female aviators of the twenties, that person would be Amelia Earhart. Often called simply by her initials "AE" — or by the moniker "the Lady Lindy" — Earhart's achievements in the air were without parallel. Her initial brush with fame came about in 1928 as a result of her becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. She did not make the crossing as a pilot, however, but as a passenger. That might have exposed her to ridicule from various circles, but Earhart backed herself up with real achievements. She flew in the Powder Puff Derby of 1929, set air speed and altitude records, and in 1932 she crossed the Atlantic solo — the first person to do so after Lindbergh. For that feat she received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Pancho Barnes met Amelia Earhart at the Powder Puff Derby, and while the two probably could not be characterized as close friends, they did get together socially. Pancho recounted Earhart calling her and visiting with her on a number of occasions. In July of 1932, when AE visited Los Angeles (on the occasion of completing her Atlantic solo), Pancho organized a celebratory banquet for her. Five years later almost to the day, Amelia would be missing. Her disappearance remains one of the great mysteries of 20th Century aviation history.

Photo: Pancho Barnes, Elizabeth McQueen, and AE at Clover Field in Santa Monica, 1929. Behind them is AE's Lockheed Vega.

In the 1970s, Pancho made a few speeches, and granted several interviews about her own life and career. Inevitably, the subject of Amelia Earhart came up. Pancho spoke forthrightly about her rival, noting that in her opinion Earhart initially was "a lousy pilot" who became an aviatrix only because her husband George Putnam "kept pushing her through." She recounted that, at the time Earhart flew the Atlantic in 1928, she really didn't know how to fly. "Frank Tomick, who was one of our motion picture pilots," Pancho told an interviewer, "taught her to fly after she made that flight."

In Pancho's opinion, Amelia Earhart and the legend surrounding her were the creation of Earhart's husband, George Putnam. "She was a publicity figure for him," said Pancho. "That’s what he hired her for."

Nevertheless, Pancho admired AE's accomplishments and her personality. She repeatedly said, though, that in her estimation Earhart had one flaw — she thought she was unbreakable. "She had to have this faith," Pancho noted. "She thought nothing could ever happen to her. She really thought that. And then eventually, you know, she did everything wrong about this flight around the world."

In March of 1937, Amelia Earhart set off to on the first leg of her world flight, travelling from Oakland to Honolulu in her Lockheed Electra. During departure from Luke Field, the Electra ground-looped, and the attempt was put on hold. "So she tried this going around the world once and she got as far as Honolulu," Pancho remembered, "and tried to take off and cracked up on the take-off. And once she came back I told her, I said, 'Why don’t you give it up Amelia, just quit?' No, she was going to be the first woman to fly around the world. Anyway, Paul Mantz rebuilt the plane. [Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan] started flying around the world in the other direction." They made it about two thirds of the way, to Lae in the Pacific, before the Electra vanished.

Pancho told her own version of the events of July 2, 1937, when Earhart and Noonan disappeared. It's hard to know if it's an accurate telling of events — but of course anyone who has done any reading about the disappearance will tell you it's nearly impossible to sort fact from fiction! (A good website to read about the continuing controversy and on-going efforts to solve the mystery is The Earhart Project)

According to Pancho, her friends in the Army Air Force were monitoring Amelia Earhart's radio transmissions on that fateful day, and keeping Pancho abreast of her whereabouts. "She was on the radio," Pancho told an interviewer. "The Navy didn’t pick her up, but the [Army] Air Force, who were just tracking her from an interest point — in other words it was none of their business but they were just curious and interested and enjoyed doing it — they were tracking her. And they picked her up. And she radioed that she was running out of gas 200 miles short of Howland Island and she was gonna have to ditch the ship. And they phoned me. She actually crashed about 7 o’clock in the morning. So they phoned me about 8 or 9 o’clock and told me she had crashed. And I said, 'Gee is there anybody out there looking for her?' They said, 'Don’t worry about it Pancho. She had the radio on when she crashed. We heard her crash. We heard her scream, and I don’t think — they said — they won’t find her. Now, I knew this a couple of hours after she crashed. And nobody knew it yet. The Navy didn’t know it. The news didn’t know it. Nobody knew it. But I knew it."

Pancho had her own opinion about what went wrong, which I'll get to, in a future Production Journal. Stay tuned!

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