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)"
13 August 2010

Walter Williams Tells ... Some

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It's amazing what you can find on the Internet if you look hard enough ... a few years ago while doing research on the film I stumbled across a wonderful electronic book entitled Recollections of Dryden History, The Early Years edited by Curtis Peebles and published in 2003.  You can download it for free at this link:

RecollectionsThis collection of oral histories features discussions with twelve or so "old timers" who worked at NACA from the years 1946-1958, when the organization formally became NASA.  Among those interviewed are test pilots A. Scott Crossfield and John Griffith, and perhaps most interestingly the "father of NASA Dryden" Walter Williams (1919-1995).  Williams recalled that when he first met Pancho and saw her hotel, she commented that she "didn't want families around" because "people come here to raise hell."  On page 17 he expands on this a bit (!), explaining that at one point he attended a party there where "quite a bit of drinking" was taking place, and some of Pancho's girls decided to disrobe and model for photographs.  "There was this one guy," Williams remembered, "a Texan who had on a blue gabardine suit, coat and tie and everything.  One of the girls was sitting across the pool, and he walked down the steps into the pool and walked over to her, fully dressed."  Needless to say, that was a memorable evening.  Another interesting entry you may stumble across, is the evening after first flight of the X-4 Bantam, during which an inebriated Scott Crossfield ended up in this same swimming pool -- only it was December and there were no girls around, and it was freezing cold water thank you very much!

Photo below: Walter Williams (right) poses with Captain Charles Chuck Yeager, USAF pilot and Gerald Truszynski, Head of Instrumentation circa 1948.

While stories like the gabardine suit are hilarious, the most interesting part of WilliaWalterWilliams3ms' oral history is far more serious.  It concerns Williams' recollections of Pancho's defamation case against the commander of Edwards AFB General Stanley Holtoner.  It's quite a chilling tale that gives some insight into the ugly atmosphere that existed at Edwards AFB as a result of Pancho and Holtoner's dispute.  Here it is in a nutshell: it turns out one of Williams' aide was Cliff Morris.  Cliff had a sideline at Pancho's place as a bartender and helper.  In fact he's the dapper, thin fellow in the photo below left, cutting his wedding cake at, where else, Pancho's restaurant (note Pancho in the left side of frame).  Anyway, despite his lightweight appearance Morris apparently had some huge cajones, and he did Pancho an enormous favor.  Holtoner spent quite a bit of time successfully dodging Pancho and her husband Mac's attempts to serve him legal papers, by simply denying them access to the base.   Morris then decided to help by taking the papers and served Holtoner himself.  Needless to say, that CliffMorrisdid not endear Morris to Holtoner, and Williams recalls flat out that "they wanted me to fire him."  Williams declined, and managed to show that Morris had been technically on leave when he served the papers, so he had done nothing wrong.   Holtoner persisted, at one point apparently intimating that Morris was a communist.  Back in that era such words might have ended Morris' career, but Morris' immediate boss Paul Bickle saw right through the accusation and refused to do anything, either.

It's the kind of scary story that underscores how Pancho, by taking on a ranking Air Force officer, really put herself in the crosshairs.  If Williams' comments are true, then the commander of the base would certainly have been guilty of abusing his rank and office in a misguided attempt to punish Pancho.

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