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 May 2007

Yeager Weighs In: Breaking the Barrier

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Of course, Chuck Yeager is most famous for breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. It was a feat that wasn't discussed openly at first — initially it was a military secret after all. Once the government decided to let the cat out of the bag, of course, he was universally acclaimed, given the McKay and Harmon trophies, and appeared on the front cover of Time magazine.

Military secret or no, most people who lived around the air base knew what Yeager had done. It's hard to explain away something like a sonic boom, is one thing. Pancho Barnes knew all about the attempt to break the sound barrier. "Slick" Goodlin, a civilian pilot of the Bell X-1 originally tapped to make the attempt, was a friend. So was Yeager. He and the X-1 team, which included Jackie Ridley (Engineer in Charge), Bob Hoover (Backup pilot), Bob Cardenas (Drop pilot), Ed Swindell (Flight engineer), Dick Frost (Bell), Jack Russell (Crew chief), and Al Boyd (Commanding Officer) all hung out at Pancho's place. "Pancho was pretty generous with her drinks," recalls Yeager. "Most of the guys, like myself and Hoover and the test pilots, she wouldn't even charge us. But she charged the civilian pilots triple. It was pretty amusing, 'cuz she knew they made ten times the money we did."

Pancho's ranch factors into the story of the sound barrier. The way Yeager remembers it, on Sunday night October the 12th, he asked his wife Glennis "You want to go out to Pancho's and get a steak, and dance, and have a little fun?" Yeager takes it from here: So we got a babysitter for the two boys, and drove over across Rosamond Dry Lake, to Pancho’s, and had dinner. Then after dinner Pancho said, “You wanna go riding?” Glennis loved to ride, and I did too. So we got out the horses, took out in the desert, we was out there for an hour or so, and we were racin back, and some idiot had closed the gate! And I was in the lead. By the time you see – it’s dark – by the time you see the gate and you bend the horse, hell, he’s in as much trouble as you are. And he hit the fence, and flipped and I flew off and broke two ribs on my right side. The test pilot who was suppose to break the sound barrier in two days' time, now had a couple of broken ribs.

Photo: one of many gates into Pancho's corrals, and possibly the gate?

Despite the injury, Yeager was convined he could still fly the X-1. But he didn't want to risk being grounded by a filght surgeon. So, on Monday he visited the closest thing to a doctor he could find outside of the base, a veterinarian in Rosemond. Then the test pilot consulted with his friend and Engineer-in-Charge Jackie Ridley. "I told him about breaking the ribs," Yeager remembers, "and he laughed." The only concern the two shared, was that Yeager might have a problem closing the door of the plane, which operated on a lever. "I couldn’t get enough strength from my right side. It hurt me," Yeager recalls. Ridley looked at the door, then went and got a broom stick. He sawed a piece off and fitted it between two rods on the door. Yeager was then able to shut the door with his left hand, and that's exactly how he did it the next day, when he made the Mach 1.0 attempt.

Photo: Yeager and Ridley pose in front of the X-1, strapped to the B-29 mothership.

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