Monday, July 22, 2024

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)"
02 March 2009

Rare Footage of Pancho Barnes Surfaces

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Back in October of last year, Amanda Pope and I pronounced “The Legend of Pancho Barnes” to be picture locked.  That meant, after almost a year of solid work, we were finished with the visual portion of the film.  What a great relief it was to finally put all the seemingly endless editorial work -- writing and re-writing the script, doing research, tracking down and then trolling through stock footage and photographs to illustrate our story – to bed.  Our editor Monique had done a terrific job bringing everything together, and was a pleasure to work with, but now we would part company and move on to doing sound work.  We worked on the score with Nathan Wang and Knox Summerour,  and then spent solid months with sound designer Adam King, adding sound effects to the picture.   And never for a moment during the sound post, did Amanda or I ever consider revisiting the picture.  That was something we’d only ever do under extraordinary circumstances.  But recently, that’s exactly what we did!Pancho Barnes at Santa Paula Airport 1930

Here's what happened.  In early January, I received an email from a Glendale-based attorney named Paul Ayers.  Mr. Ayers’ grandfather Farel Hart Ayers, was quite active in the community of Santa Paula in the 1920s.  He was married to the daughter of a prominent farmer, G.W. Faulkner, whose historic home and farm are preserved today as part of a University of California land trust.  That was all very interesting, but hardly prepared me for the next bit of news in the email.  “My grandfather was an avid camera buff,” Paul wrote, “and I have transferred some 16mm film my grandfather shot from 1929 to 1934 to DVD.”  He continued, “One of the reels is depicts the dedication of the Santa Paula Airport on August 10, 1930. There is one shot featuring Pancho and other aviators that competed in the Tom Thumb Derby that day.”

Now, please understand, it’s been very difficult for us to make a film about Pancho for a lot of reasons -- but one of the biggest hurdles, was that film footage featuring her has been very hard to find.  The Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, for instance, which was the source of many of the photos used in the film, does not contain any motion picture film footage of Pancho from her flying days.  So, you can imagine how excited we were to hear about this material!

Some historic context...  Back in 1928, a Santa Paula rancher named Paul Dickenson raised the money to build a small airport – the first in Ventura County and one that is still in operation to this day.  When it opened on August 9-10 of 1930,  there was a big celebration that included a lot of aviation notables including Art Goebel, Hawley Bowlus, and Roscoe Turner.  Pancho was also present, competing in a “Tom Thumb” Derby which included a jaunt from Santa Paula to Long Beach.  She was supposed to be flying against a field of what was supposed to be fourteen women aviators or "aviatrixes" as the newspaper liked to say.   Only, a heavy fog that day made flying very dangerous, and only four women -- Pancho, Selma Granger, Gladys O’Donnell and Gertrude Meyer -- had the courage to take off and head south over the Santa Monica Mountains.
Pancho Barnes at Santa Paula Airport
The day's events were covered in the Los Angeles Times, and Paul Dickenson actually had the dedication ceremony filmed.  He cut together a movie for promotional purposes and for posterity, and it was a great thing for us that he did.   His film is now part of the collection of the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula and, wiith the permission of the Museum, we were generously given access to it.  That's how it came to be that a wonderful, informal shot of Pancho – wearing flying leathers, a beret and smoking a cigarette -- ended up in the film.  

Paul Ayers’ film, if it was as he described, sounded like a wonderful complement to the Paul Dickenson film.  But beyond that, it made my pulse race to think we might have found a new shot of Pancho.  Well, after speaking about it on the phone,  Paul Ayers must have sensed how eager I was to see the shot in question.  He agreed to come right over for a visit, 16mm film in hand.  Good thing because otherwise I probably couldn't sleep otherwise!

Wow was it exciting to watch the film!  There was the opening of the airport, including glider flights by Hawley Bowlus, a trimotor landing, and a grandstand review featuring the Mayor of Santa Paula, M.L. Steckel.  And there was Pancho!  She appears in the film posing in front of a plane with her fellow competitors, just prior to taking off for Long Beach.  
Pancho Barnes Wins Tom Thumb Derby
The film was a little hard to make out, so after agreeing to let us use it, Paul also consented to have it re-transferred.  The results are a great deal better than what you see here; and now that we’ve added a couple of shots from Paul’s footage to the film, it’s a funny thing, but they seem like they were always there.

 Oh and one more thing: the "Tom Thumb Derby".  It was won by, who else, Pancho Barnes.  She finished with a time of about one hour, forty minutes, beating Gladys O'Donnell by a mere twenty-eight seconds. 

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