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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"

The Tucson Screening Remembered

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pancho4flatWe all know life is full of ups and downs, and unexpected turns. Ask anyone who has seen our documentary: Pancho Barnes’ story certainly epitomizes the concept. When people ask, as they do on occasion, what lesson we might distill from her story Amanda and I often reply that Pancho “was a woman who got knocked down a lot, but never out. She came back fighting all the time.” Persistence in the face of challenge was this woman’s whole way of life, and she completely re-invented herself in the face of adversity not once but a dozen times. Her name says it all: she transformed from the demure socialite wife of South Pasadena’s Reverend Rankin Barnes -- “Florence Lowe Barnes” -- to a tough customer who dressed like a man, talked like a man, and smoked like a man, but who from that point forward did things few men even dared to do, redefined as that delicious yet indelicate persona “Pancho Barnes”. That first reinvention was of course the most important, but hardly the last. No wonder that on occasion, I’ve signed a DVD jacket with the words, “Don’t let the weenies get you down!” It’s not something I think Pancho ever said, but those are words I think she would believe in.

As some of you know onJune 27th, 2009 I was in Tucson, Arizona to present The Legend of Pancho Barnes as part of our barnstorming series of screenings. Only, this was no ordinary showing. It was intended as a joint fundraiser both for the film, and as an event for my friend Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ re-election campaign. This was not so much a case of a partisan display as much as it was a gesture of friendship. You see, Gabby Giffords and I went to University High School together in Tucson, and we’ve been in touch on-and-off ever since. Friends of mine have worked diligently on Gabby’s campaigns, and I’ve followed her political progress from day one, in 2001, when she was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives to 2006, when she ran for U.S. Congress. Screening in Tucson for Gabby, and with many mutual friends in attendance, how neat.

Funny how life works. I am a person who reads a lot of history, and works in the historical realm, and has many heroes from history -- Pancho for one, but there are many others. Most are people from other eras; few are actually alive today. Yet there are people in this modern world who I’ve come very much to admire. But in the media-saturated world we live in – where people are built up only to be torn down -- it’s always been difficult for me to label a public figure a personal hero. I realized at some point that Gabby was an exception, perhaps because I knew her personally, but also because I knew her vivacious, tough, strong spirit. I knew that she was politically active for all the right reasons, and I saw what she did in her campaigns and in office -- she was consistently great. Gabby fought for what she believed in and, at a time when government often seems to be at a standstill, full of partisan rancor and gridlock, she was a voice of reason. I knew from tracking her, that she made a tremendous difference to her constituents. So in addition to having my friendship, Gabby gained my admiration and my respect, in a way I would never have imagined possible back in high school.

GabbyThis was the reason I jumped at the opportunity to go to Tucson and screen the film for her supporters. Showing Pancho for Gabby just seemed so right in spirit. Here was a woman who, like Pancho, showned the ability to re-invent herself (it’s a long story but after high school Gabby seemed destined to either be working on Wall Street or in the “buck stretching” tire business), a great debater who fought tirelessly, wouldn’t take no for an answer if she believed she was right, a smart and savvy woman who knew the value of hard work and friendship, a lady who could talk eloquently on the floor of the House yet knew how to ride a horse and shoot a gun like a true rancher, a caring person who knew how to reach out and help people.

All of this great stuff, I wanted to say after the lights came up at our screening event! I thought a great way to start was to talk about the similarities between Pancho Barnes and Gabby. Well, the audience was having none of it! The moment I even began to make the slightest comparison between the two, a titter and then a roar of laughter rang through the auditorium and would not stop. Gabby, standing by my side with the microphone, had a big grin plastered on her face and was already launching into an emphatic denial. “Uhhh….!” You see I’d simply forgotten, that while Gabby and Pancho may have many things in common, one thing they do not is: looks. Gabby, with her winsome smile and petite figure, is blessed in that department. Pancho as we know was beyond the reach of “Oil of Olay” – well beyond!

After a good laugh all around, I did manage to make a personal endorsement of Gabby, and basked in a moment of reflected glory. You see, it was clear the real star in the room that day was not Pancho or me, but of course Gabby herself. My wife and I have some precious memories of the screening, including meeting Gabby’s family and her husband astronaut Commander Mark Kelly. It was a wonderful event that really seemed like one of the brightest moments of the year.

In between screenings and trips, I followed Gabby’s re-election campaign. It was incredibly close and looked for a little while like it might not go in her favor. Unlike nearly every other race, it was not called on election night. But finally a few days later I heard that Gabby had won, albeit by the narrowest of margins: just four thousand votes. A win is a win, is a win, and I let out a little cheer. Then a few weeks later I got a form letter in the mail, remarking on the victory. At the bottom was a hand signed flourish: “Nick, thank you for the last minute infusion of Pancho Barnes passion! It must have some great power. … So happy to have you help.” Gabby2

I can’t look at that letter today without deep sadness. The emptiness and the melancholy that has affected me, and many of my friends in Tucson and our extended families across the country in recent weeks, is hard to bear. We lost six great people the other day in Tucson, and Gabby was terribly injured and hung on only thanks to luck, heroic action by an aide and medical staff, and her own grit. For now the details of what happened and why they happened, are not important, the important thing is that she has remained with us. This has been a time of reflection, and retrospection, and prayer for a friend and her family. Fortunately with each passing day the news has been encouraging. Surrounded as she is by such strong and caring people, the outcome for Gabby seems hopeful.

For me, the most important thing this month has been to reach out to those I know who have been touched by this senseless tragedy, and to comfort them in any way possible. As part of that effort and to shake off my own sense of helplessness, I contacted friends in my high school class and beyond, and I wrote to the people who arranged the screening. I simply expressed my hope that they can find the strength to get through these tough times, and passed along my hopes for Gabby’s recovery. With time, the news on that front has steadily improved, and just the other day Gabby left the ICU to begin rehab. It’s remarkable given the odds.

Anyway, I guess despite my efforts to be positive in the face of all this chaos, and despite some good news, some melancholy must have crept into one of my recent emails. I was surprised the other day to get a gentle reprimand from Gabby’s staffer Linda Quinn in my in-box. “You know full well that Gabby has as much determination and grit as Pancho,” she wrote in her email. “We’ll get all three of you together at some future point and do another screening.” Well Linda of course I have realized, that you are absolutely, exactly, perfectly damn right. If anyone could stage a comeback from this, it’s going to be Gabby Giffords. I’d absolutely bet on it, because she’s got that Pancho spirit. Even given her situation, Gabby remains a leader -- a force of nature who is as inspiring many people in this moment of personal crisis; in fact she is as inspiring as she’s ever been. She’s tough, and by golly, she’s defied the odds and escaped by narrow margins many times before. There’s simply no reason to believe she can’t do it again.  She's down but she’s not out, and I have every reason to believe she's going to come back fighting like a champ.  It appears she's already doing just that . . .


Some friends of mine, and fans of the film, have generously asked what they can do regarding the situation in Tucson. I will simply repeat here what Gabby's husband Mark Kelly stated in a brief press release: "There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling. If you are inspired to make a positive gesture, consider two organizations that Gabby has long valued and supported: Tucson’s Community Food Bank and the American Red Cross."

Community Food Bank
3003 S Country Club Rd # 221
Tucson, AZ 85713-4084
(520) 622-0525

American Red Cross, Southern Arizona Chapter
2916 East Broadway Boulevard
Tucson, AZ 85716
(520) 318-6740

Another Fight for Pancho

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This post was originally planned for October but due to some unexpected delays ... well here it is now with apologies.

BCPancho4Pancho's legacy as an aviatrix and adventurer is well known, but one part of her story that I'd like to shed some light on, is not.  Like most of the challenges in her extraordinary life, this one chapter is true to form -- Pancho got knocked down but she got up and came back swinging.  The year was 1958, five years after the biggest shock of her life -- the moment she'd lost her ranch to the U.S. Government in eminent domain.  By now Pancho'd regrouped, having won a substantial monetary settlement.  She and her fourth husband Mac were trying their darndest to start life again, and build a new resort north of Edwards that included an artificial lake and Marina.  That was just about the time that Pancho discovered a small lump in her right breast.  According to Lauren Kessler's biography The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho was initially told that it wasn't cancer.  Three days after celebrating the good news, a letter arrived with a dumbfounding correction: the lump was definitely malignant.  Fearing the absolute worst, Pancho consoled herself by visiting a number of friends.  One of them, pilot Russ Schleeh, had survived a terrible accident a number of years earlier.  The Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing he was conducting high speed taxi tests on, suffered a nosewheel collapse and was consumed in the resulting crash and fire.  Despite a broken back Schleeh managed to get out of the plane, had rehabilitated himself, gotten out of the USAF and gone on to a championship career in boat racing.  "This was the kind of fighter that she needed to talk to," Kessler writes, "the kind of story she needed to hear." 

Photo: Pancho poses with husband Mac in happier days.

She would need all the spirit she could muster.  Breast cancer back in the 50s, before the era of chemotherapy, always meant mastectomy.  It was a much more fearsome surgery than what is performed today (as bad as that is), with the incision running from Pancho's lower rib right up to her armpit.  As Kessler notes, the surgery would leave deep physical scars and cut so much muscle that it even threatened to deprive Pancho with the use of her right arm.  It didn't, but only because Pancho refused to be beaten by the cancer and the surgery — as soon as she got home she began exercising her arm by chopping wood.  It seemed like an outright victory, but in 1960 the specter of death reappeared in the form of a tumor in her left breast.  That was devastating news, coming just after she'd begun to recover from the first surgery.  If the cancer didn't break her at that point the other problems in her life threatened to: by now her marriage to Mac was beginning to fall apart, her government settlement money was nBCPancho3early all gone, her marina was a dustbowl, and she was by most accounts on the brink of bankruptcy.

The cancer was one more milepost on a long road of decline for Pancho.  By the end of the 1950s she'd be forced to give up the idea of building a new Happy Bottom Riding Club and face a far grimmer, sadder future.  In the coming years she'd lose nearly everything: her real estate holdings and investments, her luxury Cadillacs, her airplanes, her husband, and her health.  But she never lost her sense of perspective, or her sense of humor.  Amazingly, at least some of what she found funny, was directly linked to her cancer.  Pancho had always cultivated an androgynous look — obviously you can't go from being named "Florence" to being called "Pancho" without that.  Now flat-chested, she may have felt even closer to her alternate persona, and tougher too.  She boldly offered to show her surgery scars to anyone who asked about her health, and would crudely announce "I had some health problems so I had to have my tits cut off" just to get a reaction.  In the interview we conducted with Patrice Demory, she recalled that she once went with Pancho to the post office.  It was a memorable day to say the least.  Pancho was delighted to have received a package which she opened to reveal a set of "falsies".  She then proceeded to wave them in the air, approaching bewildered post office customers and staff and announcing with glee that "I finally got my tits!"  Demory herself was shocked and amazed, but says "one of the things I learned from Pancho that I really liked, was that it doesn't matter what kind of fun you are haivng as long as you are not hurting anyone else." 

BCPancho1Fifteen years after Pancho's battle with cancer, she was living all alone in the Mojave Desert, in poor health and scratching out a living.  That's when a fellow named Ted Tate came and knocked on her door.  Tate is generally credited with being the man who helped rehabilitate Pancho, and who (with the help of others) brought the wild card that was Pancho back into the deck at Edwards.  Through their friendship, Pancho would find a new role on the base, make many new friends, and reclaim her position as the "First Lady of Edwards".  For his part, Tate loved to relate the story of his first meeting with Pancho, how he'd knocked on the door of her house, not knowing what to expect.  A harsh voice said through the door, "Are you here on business or is it a social call?"  When Tate responded that it was the latter, Pancho promptly shot back: "Well then give me a minute.  I've got to put my tits on."  It was classic Pancho, in all her faded glory.  Aviatrix, adventurer, legend . . . and breast cancer survivor.

HOMEBASE Benefit November 11th

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We're proud to announce that The Legend of Pancho Barnes will be screenedHomebase in Phoenix, Arizona to benefit HomeBase Youth Services.  This wonderful non-profit looks after some of the most vulnerable members of society -- homeless youth.  The programs and services HomeBase offers include Street Outreach, Mobile Medical Outreach, Employment and Life Skills Training, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Care, a Resource Center, a Transitional Living Program, and an Independent Living Program.

The event will take place on Thursday, November 11th from 5 to 8:30 p.m., and will feature a happy hour, silent auction, and a performance by a live band.

To purchase tickets or for more information, contact Jo Ellen McNamara at (602) 651-1815 or via email, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.    You can also visit the HomeBase website here.

Pancho and Monique Win "Best Editing"

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We're happy to report that The Legend of Pancho Barnes won the 2010 Editing Award at the DOCUTAH Film Docutah2Festival.  This award is very well deserved, as our editor Monique Zavistovski labored on the documentary for nearly a year, and the results speak for themselves.  Still, editors almost always work in virtual anonymity, so it's wonderful to have a bit of recognition.  Well done Mo!

Screening at AOPA Summit 2010

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On Saturday, November 13  we will be AOPAspeaking about the film at the Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association summit in Long Beach. The AOPA Aviation Summit is a three day event, full of aviation-themed action for all ages and levels of aviation enthusiasm. Our presentation is in the Women's Wing of the summit, and will run from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.  We're honored to be part of one of aviation's finest events.... Hope to see you there!

Fly In at Edwards AFB 2010

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Since we came out with "Pancho" over a year ago, Amanda Pope and I have had some Flyingupincredible adventures.  We've personally shown the film in eight states, at film festivals from Manhattan to San Francisco, and at the biggest air show in the world.  Nothing stacks up though, to the adventure we had last week -- and right in Pancho's backyard.  The occasion was literally history-in-the-making, and it involved "Pancho Day".  Those of you who have seen our movie, know that each and every year the USAF and the Flight Test Historical Foundation have celebrated Pancho's legacy with a BBQ at the ruins of the Happy Bottom Riding Club.  Well, almost each and every year!  Last year there was no Pancho Day due to various factors including cost, the fragility of the HBRC grounds, and last but certainly not least the issue of base security.  Security is also an issue with the annual Edwards Air Show, which attracts an incredible number of people but creates a real headache at a base home to so many "restricted" and sensitive defense and research programs.

EdwardsAFB2010_010_2Apparently for some time, there has been some considerable thought given to the idea that the Edwards Air Show ought to take place at a somewhat remote area, removed from the base's more sensitive areas. One such area is the mostly-unused Rosamond Dry Lake, which sits adjacent to the larger Rogers Lake.  (Rogers is home to the Edwards main base and the place where the Space Shuttle sometimes lands.)  Bill Koukourikos of the AFFTC Flight Safety Office came up with a novel idea, to do a "dry run" for the air show at Rosamond and see how it might work.  He dreamed up a civilian fly in, where  up to 150 pilots could land on dry lake.  It seemed like a pretty wild idea, but Maj. Gen. David J. Eichhorn, the Air Force Flight Test Center commander, immediately embraced it.  From that point forward there was a wild scramble to make it happen, and a deadline of sorts: Eichhorn planned to relinquish command on October 5th.  The event would be his unofficial send-off.

Those of you who track our facebook page know that word of the event, and the lottery to select Welcomethe 150 planes to land on the lakebed, spread like butter with a hot knife.  People from all over the United States put in tail numbers in hopes of being part of history.  And it would be history -- as far as we know, this would be the largest collection of civilian aircraft ever to fly in to the confines of Edwards AFB, and land on the lakebed.

The event would also represent a "flashback" to another era, in that when Pancho's Rancho Oro Verde Airport was in business, she'd sometimes host scores of civilian planes and pilots.  At one point, she even hosted an aerial treasure hunt where pilots had to fly from airport to airport looking for clues!  So while the Edwards Fly In would not be a "Pancho Day", Pancho and her spirit necessarily became part of the event.  Word went out to the four corners of the earth that a "Pancho impersonator" was needed.  Several people applied for the job, including believe it or not our good friend John Lyon.  (While his personality was absolutely in line, he was rejected due to his unwillingness to shave off his mustache.)

PanchoatEdwardsAmanda and I were invited to the event, and the Air Force planned to screen the film in the presentation tent for USAF personnell after the sun went down.  But while the idea of making one more drive up from Los Angeles to Edwards sounded about as appealing as another Jerry Brown / Meg Whitman debate, the notion of flying up to Edwards and landing on the lakebed — that sounded incredible!  Fortunately, we are friends with one lucky woman, pilot and adventurer Ramona Cox.  Ramona, who has flown all over the world and who's been flying pretty much since she was 10, won one of the lucky lottery tickets.  Turns out the odds of that were not good, as over 1200 people applied for the 150 slots!  But Ramona is one of these people who, like Pancho, tends to make her own luck and before you knew it, we had a landing slot and seats reserved in her Cessna.

The day was completely awesome.  It started with an early-morning wake-up and drive to the Van Nuys Airport, where we connected with our friends Dean and Shelly Siracusa.  Dean, who served as co-pilot on the trip, is also a master photographer and a lot of the great photos here are shot by him...  Anyway, we departed Van Nuys on the now-famous (thank you Brian Terwiliger) runway 1-6 Right and crossed over into the Valley.  The Rosamond Dry Lake is visible from many miles away, and as we approached its clay skillet outskirts, we could see a large white rectangle.  This turned out to be a tent, erected by the Air Force and contractors, who managed to convert a lakebed into a fully functioning airport and recreation area in a mere 48 hours.   It's not that hard to do actually, because it turns out the surface of the lakebed is super flat, and to prepare it for aircraft landings all that had to be done was to compact the outer surface of clay, and paint markings on it.  For air traffic control, a large truck was used.  Yes, this control tower had wheels and could do 35 mph no problem.Eichorn

Guided by Ramona's steady hands -- she's landed at Burning Man's desert strip for many years now -- our landing was smooth as could be, with a satisfying "crunch" as the wheels bit into the clay.  As soon as we were on the ground, we were surrounded by military personnel.  Fortunately this wasn't Groom Lake.  They were quite friendly, directing us to park the plane and pointing out the pancake serving area and "latrine".  Yes you know you're on an Air Force Base when they use that word! 

As things turned out, less than 150 aircraft made the trip to Edwards, but there was still a good amount — probably over 120.  Some of these included warbirds such as a P-51 Mustang, a B-25, and a DC-3 flown by our friends at Flabob.  Many other people joined us who had driven in by car.  Spending time ogling various planes took up a bit of the morning, and there was an air show of sorts put on by pilots flying out of Edwards (including an F-16 at fairly low level).  In addition, there were EdwardsAFB2010_096_2presentations about flight safety including how to avoid mid-air collisions with military aircraft, a discussion by Joshua Control (FAA) about procedures, a wonderful discussion of women in aviation by USAF pilot Col. Dawn Dunlop (412th Test Wing commander), and B-2 test pilot Maj. Jennifer Jeffords, spoke about her life in aviation.

One real highlight was the arrival of "Pancho Barnes" by airplane in the middle of the event.  Pancho (played by aviatrix and 99's member Leslie Dinius) lived up to her wild reputation by asking General Eichhorn if he was married.  It was all in good fun, and no one got hurt (least of all John Lyon).

Speaking of Pancho, Amanda and I were invited to give a few remarks about her and the film.  Having the microphone thrust in my hand, I suddenly realized this would be the only chance a civilian — someone who didn't help organize the event — would have to speak to everyone.  EdwardsAFB2010_151_2So I took a few moments to publicly thank Gen. Eichhorn, his staff, and all the great people who made the Edwards Fly In possible.  I also said this: Pancho Barnes was an outrageous, wild, wonderful, accomplished woman, the type of individual that only could have existed in the United States of America.  This fly in event also, was the kind of thing that would only happen in these United States. We should all be very proud about that, and the great job the USAF is doing for our nation.

In short, it was a marvelous, marvelous event and we are thrilled we got to be part of it. 

Thanks to Ramona, Dean, Phil Salisbury for all his help, the Flight Test HIstorical Foundation, Lou D'Elia  and everyone who came and played a part.

Sorry you missed it?  Well, there's likely to be another fly in, in the year 2012, and next year look for the Edwards Air Show to take place on the Rosamond playa.

Also, one final note, they never did get to show the movie in the tent.  Shortly after sundown a big windstorm put a big dent in the canopy.  Hopefully get another shot at showing "Pancho" at Edwards!

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