Tuesday, June 25, 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)"
03 June 2010

Pancho's Favorite Daredevil

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Barbara Rowland, a good friend of Pancho's, once told me that Pancho had confessed to her that the "big love of her life" was a stunt pilot who died in a plane crash.  It's a mystery exactly who she meant -- Pancho had affairs with a lot of stunt pilots and carried on quite a bit with famed flier Ira Reed -- but I'd wager ten dollars to petunias that the fellow in question was Frank Clarke (below, pictured in the cockpit).  Clarke2 Clarke, Pancho wrote in her unfinished autobiography (printed as The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus -- see Nov. 29, '09 entry), was "the most talented and colorful" of all the stunt pilots.  He was a "diabolical soul" who could fly her airplane and "make it talk". Blessed with such good looks that people often compared him to Clark Gable, Frank Clark ran rum during Prohibition days, and got his adrenalin satisfied by flying stunts, getting into fights, and running wild.  "I adored him," Pancho says in Pegasus.  "I was his shadow.  He was the most exciting man in my life.  He was not boy friend or sweetheart but someone I loved and wanted to be around all the time."

ClarkeClarke (pictured with another friend of Pancho's, Paul Mantz at left) answered to the nickname "Spook", because he seemed to know a lot of things simply by intuition or instinct.  "If I called him on the phone," Pancho recounted, "He'd always answer 'Hello Pancho' before I said a word."  Like all the stunt pilots, he drank, gambled, caroused, and played rough. Once, he and a friend named Hugh Kimmel were drinking heavily and got into a fight.  According to Pancho, Kimmel landed a punch that broke Clarke's jaw, and Clarke then promptly bent Kimmel's arm back until it broke.  "Then they both cried," Pancho recalled, "and, arm-in-arm, went to the hospital."  Another time Clarke got miffed at fellow pilot Roy Wilson, who accidentally flew to close and clipped his plane while performing a stunt.  Wilson didn't make things right, so the next day Clarke flew a head-on game of aerial chicken with Wilson, recklessly chased him, and then managed to lock wings with him.  Needless to say, Wilson kept a wide berth after that.  

His peers called Clarke the "greatest living stunt pilot" and "The King of Hollywood" for many reasons.  Much of his reputation came from his work on Hell's Angels.  He built "Caddo Field" where the production took place, and served as lead pilot and co-ordinator for dozens of planes and pilots.  According to Don Dwiggins, who profiled Clarke in his magnificent book The Air Devils, Clarke learned to fly in 1918.  Supposedly Clarke4the same day he soloed, he took up "twelve passengers at ten dollars a head".  He later took up wing walking and made a career out of doing wild stunts like plane-to-plane mid-air transfers while crowds watched, bedazzled.  Then there was the bit of madness where Clark would climb out on the tail, and have his co-pilot dive the plane so that he could then leap forward into the cockpit. It was the type of insanity you just don't see today, not at the X-Games, the Red Bull Air Races or even in the movies.  "I never heard of a man saying 'I want to be a wing walker'", Clarke once told a reporter.  "Flying stunt men just appear."

(Photo at right: Clarke stands at upper left, while Pancho sits at lower right in this official membership snapshot of the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots.)

Once Clarke broke into Hollywood, he cemented his reputation rather quickly.  For the movie Stranger Than Fiction with Katherine MacDonald, he had his Jenny biplane assembled atop the roof of the 13-story Los Angeles Railway Building (photo below), then under construction in downtown Los Angeles.  In a bit of daring right out of James Bond, Clarke flew the plane off the roof using sheer guts and a small wooden ramp that provided some lift assist.  Not only was it a spectacular stunt, but an amazing publicity grab.  Clarke barely escaped being arrested -- it turned out anxious officials were moments away from seizing his plane when he took off!  The headlines were splashed with news and photos of the stunt, and it became the stuff of legend.  Clarke's career was full of these kind of stories.  Who knows how much of what you read in these accounts is really true?  Supposedly Clarke once flew by a hotel in Tucson and threw a love Clarke1letter through the window of the woman he was romancing.  He also allegedly once distracted a passenger on his plane, and then ducked into the depths of his cockpit unnoticed and started flying it using the control cables.  The terrified passenger, producer Jerry Fairbanks, was convinced Clarke had actually bailed out.  Of course it was all just in good fun ... and no one was hurt although I am sure Fairbanks lost a year or two out of his life that day. 

Clarke crashed many planes during his storied career, both intentionally and unintentionally.  One time he got distracted by a pretty actress on the set of a movie and flew right into a tree.  That time and many others he managed to walk away.  The last, and fatal accident, occurred in 1948 when he was making a visit up to his and Pancho's old friend Frank Tomick at a remote silver mine.  According to Dwiggins' book, Frank Clarke decided to have some fun with Tomick and for that purpose loaded a sack of manure into his BT-13's cockpit.  He intended to dump it on Tomick but the manure bag slipped and jammed behind the plane's control stick, locking it.  The plane slammed into the ground and exploded right in front of a stunned Tomick. According to Dwiggins, "all the old timers showed up at Clarke's funeral, but there were not many tears.  Clarke had died the way he would have wanted to go, pulling off a gag for a friend."  The one nasty aspect of the incident, Dwiggins noted, was that Clarke's passenger also died that day.  That was something Clarke would have been upset about.

It is a shame Clarke didn't live a longer life, but so few of the early stunt pilots achieved longevity.  For Pancho his loss was obviously deeply personal.  One has to wonder, had he not been killed, could Pancho have convinced Clarke to marry her.  Now that would have been quite a stunt!

On a side note, we used a lot of footage from a wonderful old public domain stunt flying film The Air Maniacs in the documentary.  The featured pilot in that movie is none other than Clarke, and in fact when you're watching our film and you see Pancho buzz her husband's church -- you are in fact seeing her good friend Frank Clarke, fly one last final stunt.  Appropriate, isn't it?

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