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)"
23 February 2010

A Pancho Connection Brings Tears

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Every now and then something really noteworthy, and unexpected, happens as a result of the film.  It could be like the other day, when Amanda Pope and I went to present the film at Northrop Grumman's facility in El Segundo, California.  Much to our delight, we discovered that Northrop Grumman had invited a group of high school students from the Da Vinci School to attend the event.  Not only that, but NG honcho Scott Sommer had challenged the students to produce short films inspired by Pancho's life story.  The results were terrific, and we were able to turn our presentation into a learning experience not only about Pancho, but about the process of filmmaking.  What a satisfying turn of events!

A few months ago I had another experience worth sharing.  It all started with a photo of Pancho in the collection of the Pancho PestControlBarnes Trust Estate that shows Pancho sitting on the wing of a crop duster at her airport.  The plane is marked A/V Pest Control, or Antelope Valley Pest Control, and it caught my eye because it was a funny-looking shot of Pancho.  I mentally filed it away for the future, not realizing that one day it would make a big difference to someone I'd never even met.

So "a funny thing happened".   Late last year, I noticed that there were some 16mm films for sale on eBay that were marked "crop dusting TBM, Lancaster".  Not knowing anything about the films, but knowing that Pancho's airport sometimes hosted crop dusters, I decided to bid on them.  I was able to acquire them cheaply enough, and when they arrived at my house I took a look.  There was no sign of Pancho or her ranch anywhere in the films but there were crop dusters, including a war surplus TBM Avenger modified as an aerial sprayer.   Although similar to the plane in the photo of Pancho, the planes in the film were not marked A/V Pest Control but "Cisco".  On the off chance I did a search for this company on the internet and I turned up an interesting website put up by a fellow named Hunter Betts.  The website was a memorial to his beloved father James Lynden Betts, an accomplished pilot who flew dangerous, covert missions in Laos during the Vietnam War.  Prior to doing "low and slow" flying over the jungle, Betts was a crop duster pilot who owned a company known as Cisco.  Interesting.

pestcontrol2So I got in touch with Hunter Betts, told him what I had, and asked him if he knew who Pancho Barnes was.  He wrote back immediately that Cisco was originally called "A/V Pest Control".  Not only did his father know Pancho, but he was a good friend who sprayed her alfalfa fields and drank at her bar on a frequent basis.  He took her up in a helicopter he'd built from a kit, which was a little scary not just because it was a kit, but because he was a self-taught rotary pilot.   "You have no idea how floored I am right now!" Hunter emailed.  "My dad passed away in 1996 and had a huge amount of 16MM film of his aviation career but lost it all in a storage fire while we were living in Laos. I would be so excited to see this other film you have!!!!"

Long story short, we got the films transferred and Hunter soon had a DVD in his hands.  For the first time in a decade, he would see his father in motion.  "Well Nick," he wrote to me in an email after getting them in the mail, " I have just been absolutely FLOORED!! What a great gift you have given me and my kids. I can't thank you enough Nick. The shots of him flying face on are a one in a lifetime prize. I feel like crying." 

He wasn't the only one!

You can see the movies on-line and learn more about James Lyndon Betts, at Hunter's website.

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