Thursday, May 23, 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)"
06 May 2009

Pancho Barnes Returns to the Big Apple !

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Those of you who have signed up to be on our email list (and if you haven’t, you should) were the first to hear that The Legend of Pancho Barnes was selected for the NewFest Film Festival in Manhattan.  This prestigious festival, which focuses on films of interest to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, represents our festival debut.  We’re proud to join an international group of films and filmmakers at NewFest, and we know Pancho herself would be happy to be a part of it! 

Pancho was a great friend of the gay community during her lifetime, and was close to many closeted luminaries including actor Ramon Novarro, writer Richard Halliburton and fellow aviatrix Bobbi Trout.  In fact, we’re often asked whether Pancho herself was gay or "swung" that way.  To be honest, it’s impossible to say!  Maybe . . . certainly many people seem to believe she was bisexual.  But at the same time, while she may have impersonated a man on numerous occasions, she was also married four times (!), and a notorious pursuer of the tanned and the handsome.

There’s a wonderful case in point which by co-incidence, represents one of the last times if not the last time that Pancho was in New York City.  It's a great story and I've been dying for an excuse to tell it, so here goes!! 

Back in August of 1934, when the Great Depression was at its height and Pancho’s finances were in disarray, she became obsessed with the plight of suave Latin actor Duncan Renaldo.  The dark-haired, olive-skinned Spaniard, who starred in features such as Trader Horn and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, had been arrested for overstaying his visa not by weeks or months, but by fifteen years.  He'd also supposedly lied about his visa status when returning from Africa after shooting Trader Horn.  Imprisoned and threatened with deportation, his case looked hopeless to nearly everyone but Pancho.  She determined that if she could somehow get back East and lobby on behalf of Renaldo, she’d win his release and perhaps – his heart as well!

But how to afford a flight to the East Coast at the height of the Depression?  It wasn't easy, but according to a video interview conducted with Bobbi Trout by Stan McClain and James Lowe,  Pancho finessed the Gilmore Gasoline Co. into sponsoring the trip.  Whether Gilmore knew they were financing the rescue mission of a Hollywood star is unclear.  The way it seems to have been presented to the executives, Women’s Air Reserve members Col. Pancho Barnes, Lt. Viola McNeil, Capt. Bobbi Trout, Capt. Nancy Chaffee and friends Capt. Mary Charles and Lt. Patty Willis were going to promote the company by flying three biplanes, emblazoned with Red Lion logos, cross-country.  If things worked out, the “Red Lion Flight” would get sponsorship to make the return trip and perhaps even be sent on a barn storming tour.Gilmore Oil Fliers

Things went well for the six women at first, but during a refueling stop in Arizona, a critical mistake was made.  Mary and Patty were flying a airplane neither was very familiar with, and it being the primitive era of early aviation no one knew how long it would fly until the tanks were empty.   “We put in what we guessed was enough,” Trout explained, “and it wasn’t.  They ran out of gas by Meteor Crater and had to set down on some rocks.  That broke the landing gear.”  Pancho and Bobbi flew on, oblivious to their friends’ fate for hours.  When it became clear the plane was too badly damaged to be repaired quickly, the four remaining aviatrixes resolved to press on without their friends.

Despite the accident, the mercy flight continued to Cleveland, and then on to Washington, D.C., where they each made a successful nighttime landing on an unlit airfield.  Aviatrix Phoebe Omelie, who was a good friend of President Roosevelt, met them there.  She had arranged for a police motorcycle convoy, complete with sirens and lights, to escort them to her home.

After a short stay, they flew on to New York City where the two biplanes made a big show of it, circling Lady Liberty wingtip to wingtip.  The celebrity aviatrixes Pancho Barnes red Lion Gilmore Gasoline Planewere greeted at Floyd Bennett Airport by an eager crowd of press photographers and reporters, and then whisked to the lavish St. Moritz Hotel, one of the poshest places in the city.  Their suite overlooked Central Park.  “Everyone in the hotel knew Pancho,” recalled Bobbi Trout, “because of her grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe.”  It seemed that Pancho’d really have a chance of lobbying the big wigs on behalf of Renaldo, but she reckoned without the red tape.  After nearly a month, Renaldo was still detained at McNeil Island Federal Prison, and the “Red Lion Flight” was nearly bankrupt.  Nearly all the money given to them by Gilmore was gone – spent on their four star hotel bill!  

Pancho and Bobbi tried one last attempt to free Renaldo, aided in part by Phoebe who was able to supply gas so they could get back to Washington.  Once there, they kept up the offensive, and were met with some success.  But things move slowly in officialdom, and with few financial resources left, the aviatrixes decided it was high time to get back to Los Angeles.  That proved to be extremely difficult.  Gilmore wasn’t interested in supplying more gasoline and according to Trout, attempts to sell their story to the newspapers fell flat.  Eventually, they pieced together enough money to get home – just barely.  Bobbi noted wryly in the biography Plane Crazy that when she arrived home in Los Angeles, her entire life savings amounted to seven cents.

Duncan Renaldo Pancho BarnesThe effort may have been half-baked, and certainly prolonged, but it turned out it was not in vain.  Eighteen months after he’d been arrested, Duncan Renaldo was freed through extraordinary means – a pardon direct from President Roosevelt himself.  Pancho put up a $1500 bond personally on Reynaldo’s behalf, and was there to greet the actor at the airport.  But things did not work out exactly as Pancho’d planned.  While Reynaldo was grateful for all her lobbying on his behalf, he was apparently only interested in friendship.  It must have been terrible disappointing to Pancho -- but by then she was on her way to bankruptcy and within months she'd be forced to leave Hollywood and move to the Mojave Desert. The broken heart, if she had one, would have been only one more tough deal to live with . . .

Renaldo didn't miss a beat.  He quickly returned to his screen acting career and later married. He starred in various serials and movies, including Zorro Rides Again and the similarly titled Lone Ranger Rides Again.  But his biggest career break came in television, when he accepted the starring role as the friendly Mexican caballero on the show Cisco Kid.  It ran from 1950-56.  His sidekick on that show was played by Leo Carrillo and named, ironic isn't it: Pancho !

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