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

George Hurrell and Pancho Barnes

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Without Dr. Lou D'Elia, we wouldn't be making a film about Pancho. Reason being, Lou and his business partner, architect Mike Salazar, have preserved all of Pancho's papers, photographs, and other materials. When I first met Lou, several years ago, he had just acquired Pancho's "stuff" from her estate, and was storing over 90 banker's boxes of it, floor to ceiling, in a room in his home. Such a thing might have overwhelmed many people — after all it's one thing to collect stamps or shot glasses but another thing entirely to try to preserve the life and memory of another person. But for Lou, Pancho is person he admires and respects on many different levels, and it's a task he loves.

Over the years, going through Pancho's papers, contacting her friends and being contacted by her admirers, Lou has gained enormous insight into Pancho's career, personal life, and antics. It's the antics that Lou loves the most — get him talking about Pancho for more than a couple of minutes and he's sure to tell some wonderful story. It might be about how Howard Hughes bent her plane's propeller, or how Ramon Novarro sent her lovely flowers on her birthday, how she got her wings after just six hours of instruction...or...if you're lucky, Lou will tell you how she helped set photographer George Hurrell's career.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The reason that Lou D'Elia knows all about Pancho, is actually because of George Hurrell. Hurrell (1904-92), became extremely famous in the 1930's and 40's as a Hollywood glamour photographer. "I had been collecting photography for many years," Lou told Amanda Pope during our recent interview. "Actually since I was 16. Started in 1967, while I was still in high school. And I started to collect the photography of George Hurrell." Lou's passion for finding and preserving Hurrell's photos — one of his collections is now in the possession of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — led him to seek out photos of Pancho, and ended up in his and Mike's acquisition of her estate.

The why is it exactly that Pancho Barnes is affiliated with George Hurrell? Well, she helped launch his career.

Photo above right: George Hurrell later in life, courtesy of

"At that time," D'Elia explains, "Florence Barnes was splitting her time between her home in San Marino and Laguna Beach. George Hurrell had come out from Chicago to further his painting career. They met in 1925 at a party at another painter’s house. Anyway, if he wanted to paint something during the winter months, he'd shoot photographs during the summer. And so Pancho knew that he could do photography. So at one point, Pancho wanted to learn how to fly. And she had heard that Orville Wright, who signed your certificate, didn’t want to see women applying for a license. And so she decided, okay if he doesn’t like to see a woman apply, I’ll dress up like a man and put her on my license. So she asked George Hurrell to take a picture of her dressed like a man. As a spoof. And she’s smoking a cigarette." The story continues, that to make up for the decidedly unglamorous pilot's license photo, Hurrell volunteered to shoot some "nice" photos of Pancho. She showed the results to her friend, actor Ramon Novarro. He was impressed.

Photo: Dr. Lou D'Elia being interviewed for the film in the "Pancho Barnes Room" in his home. Behind him on the right is a painting Pancho commissioned of herself. It depicts Pancho at sea, dressed like a man, during an adventure in Mexico in the 1920's.

"And so," Lou continues, "George Hurrell then took photographs of Ramon Navarro. And they turned out really terrific. In fact he took those photographs back to his confidante at the studio, Norma Shearer, who was married at that time to the head of the studio, Irving Thalberg. She had a problem of her own, in that she was sort of the sweet girl next door type in silent films. And she wanted to ramp up her image and play a broader array of roles, including a sexy vamp. And this script had come across her desk called The Divorcee, which required her to be this very sexy vamp. And um, she went to her husband and said, 'Oh hon, you know, I’d really like to play this role.' And he says, 'Oh Norma, you’re sexy but you’re not sexy in that way.' Well, that really upset her."

Photo: George Hurrell and Norma Shearer during a photoshoot, from

"So she was then talking to her friend Ramon Navarro said, “Well why don’t you use George Hurrell and have him take some great pictures of you and show them to your husband? Maybe that’ll convince him. So - she did. They turned out terrific. Not only did she get the role, their - her marriage improved. And uh she won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year. And it was after that that George Hurrell was offered a role as - a job at MGM as a portrait photographer, which set his career."

Photo at right: Director Amanda Pope and cinematographer Clay Westervelt during our interview with Dr. Lou D'Elia.

More on our interview with Dr. D'Elia in a future Production Journal. Meantime, visit the website for the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate,

Russ McDaniel's Tribute to Pancho and Chuck

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Country artist Russ McDaniel knows a thing or two about how to play a guitar, and he also knows a bit about Pancho Barnes and Chuck Yeager. In fact, he's written two tribute songs to these great Americans that appear on his album, "Tribute to World Hero's Friends Places." You can stream them at his website, which you can get to via this link

What's really fun it to click on the link and read the lyrics to the Pancho Barnes tribute, which begins this way: "I'd call her a Matriarch, but she didn't talk that way... She just loved the boys that flew at Edwards Base...A world class lady pilot with speed records of her own...Set back now and just hang on for the legends of Pancho..." (The Legend Of Pancho Barnes (c) 2006 Russ McDaniel and Dave McDaniel)

McDaniel notes on the album that, "Legend of Pancho Barns is about The real Person,who had a Ranch,Bar,hotel,and resturant on the edge of Edwards Air force Base California.She was A friend of Chuck Yeager back when they had started to break the Sound Barrier 1947.She was there when they tested all the first Jet Aircraft.She was quite a Character Ya Gotta Hear This One." We agree!

To purchase the album visit this link

Yeager Weighs In, Part III A Party at Pancho's

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When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the news was kept secret from the public. But it would've been next to impossible to conceal what happened from folks who lived in and around Edwards AFB. "We made a pretty good sonic boom that really rattled the base," remembers Yeager. The thunderclap that heralded the supersonic age may have panicked some local residents, but the X-1 team expected it. "Well, we knew there’d be a sonic boom," Yeager notes, "because Dr. von Karman predicted it. And because it was not the first sonic boom ever made, that man heard, because meteorites make have shock waves comin off of em, and they make a tremendous sonic boom, but this was the first one ever made by an airplane."

Owing to the top-secret nature of the sound barrier effort — the Russians would not duplicate the feat for well over a year and even then lacked critical engineering insights — Yeager's accomplishment would not be publicized for many months. A small amount of laughing and scratching took place just after Yeager landed the X-1 on the Rogers Dry Lake: he got out of the cockpit and stood on the wing of the craft as it was towed back to the hangar. After debriefing, it was time to really kick back and marvel at what Yeager, Jackie Ridley, Bob Hoover, Dick Frost, Bob Cardenas and everyone else associated with the effort had accomplished. "We went out out to Dick Frost’s house," Yeager recalls, "Had a couple a martinis, and then went out to Pancho's. I was riding a motorcycle and Hoover and Dick Frost were followin' me in a car. Pancho knew we had got above Mach 1 but she didn’t know how." According to the legend, Pancho served Yeager a free steak dinner, but that's not exactly what Yeager remembers, suggesting that "The Right Stuff" may have gotten it wrong. "It made an excellent story – the first guy to go Mach 1 got a free steak, first guy to go Mach 2 gets a free steak - that’s all portrayed in The Right Stuff, by a writer for a producer," Yeager notes. "Well if you believe everything you see in the damn movie or read, be my guest."

For his part, Bob Hoover remembers the events of that night clearly. He'd flown as chase pilot and back-up pilot for Yeager during the test flights, and had his own reason to celebrate — he'd taken a million dollar photo of the X-1 whipping past his own plane at supersonic speed. "He came right by me and I could see his closing rate was enormous," says Hoover. "So I knew he had it accomplished. And he went by me and I got a picture. It shows - this was the first time we had had the diamond shock wave, coming out from the airplane. And we had that on President Truman’s desk the next day. Well it was a pretty wonderful accomplishment." Hoover continues, "We all went to Pancho’s, started partying. And I said ‘Pard you’re gonna get a free stake at Pancho’s tonight.’ And we were all celebrating and having fun talking about it, only to find out within a short time - somebody came over and said this is highly classified, you’re not to say anything more, that’s it. Well gee the cat was already out of the bag by then. But it broke up our party - it would of gone all night I’m sure!"

The secrecy surrounding the feat seemed to bother Pancho more than it did Chuck Yeager. "After he made it, they kept it quiet," she recalled in an interview conducted in the 1970's. "And they made it top secret. They held it for six months – we couldn’t get any publicity on the news or anything. And then it came out, when it finally came out, you know, time had passed. Anyway, nobody did anything for Yeager." Realizing the enormity of what Yeager had accomplished, and being an expert at publicity, Pancho thought she'd take things into her own hands. "So I got incensed about this, [Yeager] being my close friend and everything. So I went and bought the biggest trophy, this high, you know, real fancy trophy. Had it made specially. And we took it down to the Picture Palace meeting, and we had a formal presentation with the Motion Picture Pilots." The trophy presentation, at which Yeager was given an honorary membership in the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots Association, was one of the first events at which the young pilot was celebrated. It certainly was not the last.

"So I got incensed about this, [Yeager] being my close friend and everything. So I went and bought the biggest trophy, this high, you know, real fancy trophy. Had it made specially. And we took it down to the Picture Palace meeting, and we had a formal presentation with the Motion Picture Pilots." The trophy presentation, at which Yeager was given an honorary membership in the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots Association, was one of the first events at which the young pilot was celebrated. It certainly was not the last.

One final little footnote: also in the audience at the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots event that evening was a former stundent from Pancho's flying school. "I had a student came to me," remembered Pancho, "And he said, 'Pancho, I haven’t got any money. And I haven’t got any education. And I can’t be a government student, but I want to learn to fly an airplane, can you figure anything for me?' And I said, 'Yup, I’ll give you a job.'" Pancho traded him work in her dairy and corrals for flying lessons. He ended up getting his commercial license, joined the British Royal Air Force ferrying planes to England, and later started TransInternational Airlines and one of the great builders of Las Vegas. The young student's name? Kirk Kerkorian.

Pancho Speaks to the EAA Part II

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On January 16, 1971, Pancho Barnes entertained an appreciative crowd at the EAA meeting in Lancaster, California (see previous entry). It was a bit of a free-for-all evening, as Pancho didn't write any remarks, instead relying on her friend Ted Tate and the audience to prompt her with questions. Of course, one of the inevitable topics was Pancho's love/hate friendship with Howard Hughes. Like Pancho, Hughes was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the two could relate to each other — and argue with one another without ending up bitter enemies!

"Howard was really a real great person," Pancho said in her preface. "He was young then, he hadn't gotten strange or anything." (It being the 70's, when Hughes was in the news for his eccentric behavior more than anything else, this comment was of course greeted by a few laughs from the audience!)

Pancho went on: "[Howard] thought an awful lot of his pilots. He just really worshiped them. He really looked up to them. They were his heroes. Frank Clark and those guys that flew for him. He just thought there was nothing better than those guys."

Hughes might have worshipped his pilots, but that didn't prevent him from trying to make his movie, Hells Angels, cheaply. He'd often use amateur fliers and on more than one occasion was accused of asking veterans to fly extremely dangerous stunts for very little money. That type of behavior, from a millionaire like Hughes, rubbed Pancho the wrong way.


At one point, Pancho was working as technical director on the William Boyd film The Flying Fool. "I had a chance to hire the pilots and set up all the flying," Pancho recalled. "I picked Frank Clark and Leo Noomis and Roy Wilson as the three best pilots of the bunch. Howard was only paying them about $25 a day." Pancho paid them $100 a day, on the condition that they work out storylines and stunts on the ground, something she figured would make them more efficient in the air.

In the middle of shooting, Pancho said, "Howard Hughes came down to me and he said, 'Pancho, I've got to have Frank Clark.' I said, 'I'm using Frank Clark.' He said, 'Well I've got have Frank Clark. You know, he's playing Lieutenant Von Bruen in the picture. I need him in front of the camera.'"

Pancho would have none of it, and Hughes had to pull some strings with the studio making Flying Fool. "It got to be an inner-studio brawl," Pancho told the EAA crowd," in which they decided - the great gods that be - that I had to give Frank Clark to Hughes. I said, 'Okay, on one consideration - that he pays the pilots $100 a day from now on. I want that in writing.' He gave it in writing."

That battle, between Pancho and Hughes, was a turning point. Pilots recognized that they could have some pull with Hughes and other filmmakers, and they looked to Pancho as the person who'd made it possible.

What happened next was classic Hughes, and classic Pancho. "At this time, Howard Hughes was in love with Billy Dove," Pancho explained. "He was making a star out of her. He had a man overseeing her by the name of A.B Green. Green reported to [Hughes] that he thought Billy Dove was flirting a little too much with Frank Clarke. This made Howard Hughes very unhappy."Photo: Pancho with fellow stunt pilots around the time of the shooting of Hell's Angels

To get Clarke out of the picture, Hughes assigned Clark the duty of watching over the DeHavilland V-8, which Pancho described as "practically falling apart."

"That aggravated everybody, including Billy Dove," Pancho remembered. "You know what it is when you say you can't have something. Billy Dove decided Frank Clark was pretty nice. We all moved out. We set up a regular Indian camp in the vicinity of the V-8. I got a piece of tin and made a great big sheriff star and pinned it on Frank Clark."

Howard Hughes was not happy, of course, and "raised hell." The pilots were disgusted with Hughes, and delighted with Pancho and Clarke.

Wealthy heiress Pancho might not have been your typical union organizer — although as a young lady she was friends with socialists Will and Ariel Durant — but that night, under the wing of the V-8, she persuaded the stunt pilots that they ought to form a union. Thus the Association of Motion Picture Stunt Pilots was created. It was the first stunt pilot union ever formed, and soon became a signatory of movie making contracts throughout Hollywood.

Pancho Speaks to the EAA

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How did I end up producing a documentary film about Pancho Barnes, you might ask? Well, it's an interesting story. I had always had something of a fascination with Pancho — such a rebel and an icon in the aviation world. I persuaded my editor at "Wings" magazine that I could come up with a new angle on the old gal. What I hoped to do, in a nutshell, was track down a tape recording of a famous speech Pancho gave at an Experimental Aircraft Association event in 1971. For decades afterwards, folks talked about the "night Pancho Barnes took the mike" and let loose!

Well, I did manage to track down the speech. But in the process I met a fellow named Dr. Lou D'Elia, who has been mentioned on the blog previously. Dr. D'Elia, it so happens, had recently acquired Pancho's personal archives, including her letters, photos, tax records, pilot's license, and yes, a tape recording of that speech came with it. Seeing and reading all this marvelous stuff convinced me a documentary film was possible. But it also proved a bit distracting! Although I did write an article for "Wings", I never did incorporate Pancho's speech into it.

Here's a little background on Pancho's speech. In the late 1960's, after battling breast cancer and a serious illness linked to her thyroid, Pancho staged a comeback. She re-emerged into the public eye, thanks in part to her friend Ted Tate (see earlier in the Production Journal). She attended the Barnstormer's Reunion, joined the Aerobatics Club of America, and joined Jimmy Doolittle at a special EAA — Experimental Aircraft Association — banquet in his honor. On January 16, 1971, the Lancaster California Chapter of the EAA (link

) held a special event of their own to honor Pancho. Ted Tate introduced her to an excited crowd, who knew her by name and legend more than anything else. "She is like General Doolittle," Tate said, "she is one of my favorite people. In a more serious vein, I like him," he went on, "I am very proud of knowing him. But Pancho is someone that I love. She is one of my favorite people and I am sure she will be one of yours."

Photo: A haggard Pancho, still undergoing treatment for her thyroid problems, sits next to Ted Tate while Lyle Thomas (?) emcees the evening.

Pancho began her remarks that night talking about her new-found friendships with some of the members of the 1971-72 U.S. aerobatic team, including aviatrix Mary Gaffney. But, very shortly, she reached back into her memory and began talking frankly about the early days of motion picture stunt flying. Her audience was quickly transfixed, as Pancho recounted some of the funny personalities she encountered in this world of daredevils, and the crazy antics they pulled.

"They had a lot of good times and a lot of foolishness," Pancho remembered. "One of the greatest was Leo Loomis. He had a way of being able to spin an airplane right down to the ground and pull out. I said, 'Leo, how do you know when to pull out? You are just barely touching the ground.' He said, "Well I'll tell you what I do. I watch very, very closely and when I know it's time to pull out, I make one more turn."

That is the kind of remark that left the audience in stitches, and in the palm of Pancho's sun-spotted hand.

The evening was not all schucks and grins. Inevitably, Pancho paused to remember some of the tragedies that occurred in a time when stunt flying was virtually unregulated. Loomis, Pancho recalled, had a little difficulty during the making a movie called "File Drawers" and wound up hospitalized for six months. When he came out, flat broke, he took a job on a movie called "Sky Dive."

"I said, 'Leo is not fit to fly,'" Pancho recalled. But the technical director of the film prevailed. "One of the things he had to do was spin to the limit," Pancho noted. "I guess he didn't make that extra turn because he spun right in."

An equally tragic incident occured with Roy Wilson, who made an extremely hard, three-point landing while doing a stunt. He was taken to a hospital, where he died of internal injuries. Dick Grace, a fellow stunt pilot, took his friend's death very hard. "He called up everybody, one after another," Pancho remembered, "and he said, 'Oh, this is a terrible, terrible thing. We aren't good to our friends. We don't appreciate our friends. We aren't right to them when they are alive.'" Grace went so far as to send Frank Clarke a bouquet of flowers because as he said, "I think he is going to get it pretty soon. I want him to appreciate the bouquet."

Frank called Pancho the moment he received the flowers and said, "I don't know whether to kick or kiss the bastard! I don't know what to do with it."

In the end, Clarke sent the flowers his girlfriend Ellie, who was in the hospital for a minor procedure. "Ellie was mad as the dickens," Pancho recalled with a smile. "She called him up. She said, 'I'm not dead yet, you so-and-so.' We used to have a lot of fun with all these things."

Yeager Weighs In: Breaking the Barrier

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Of course, Chuck Yeager is most famous for breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. It was a feat that wasn't discussed openly at first — initially it was a military secret after all. Once the government decided to let the cat out of the bag, of course, he was universally acclaimed, given the McKay and Harmon trophies, and appeared on the front cover of Time magazine.

Military secret or no, most people who lived around the air base knew what Yeager had done. It's hard to explain away something like a sonic boom, is one thing. Pancho Barnes knew all about the attempt to break the sound barrier. "Slick" Goodlin, a civilian pilot of the Bell X-1 originally tapped to make the attempt, was a friend. So was Yeager. He and the X-1 team, which included Jackie Ridley (Engineer in Charge), Bob Hoover (Backup pilot), Bob Cardenas (Drop pilot), Ed Swindell (Flight engineer), Dick Frost (Bell), Jack Russell (Crew chief), and Al Boyd (Commanding Officer) all hung out at Pancho's place. "Pancho was pretty generous with her drinks," recalls Yeager. "Most of the guys, like myself and Hoover and the test pilots, she wouldn't even charge us. But she charged the civilian pilots triple. It was pretty amusing, 'cuz she knew they made ten times the money we did."

Pancho's ranch factors into the story of the sound barrier. The way Yeager remembers it, on Sunday night October the 12th, he asked his wife Glennis "You want to go out to Pancho's and get a steak, and dance, and have a little fun?" Yeager takes it from here: So we got a babysitter for the two boys, and drove over across Rosamond Dry Lake, to Pancho’s, and had dinner. Then after dinner Pancho said, “You wanna go riding?” Glennis loved to ride, and I did too. So we got out the horses, took out in the desert, we was out there for an hour or so, and we were racin back, and some idiot had closed the gate! And I was in the lead. By the time you see – it’s dark – by the time you see the gate and you bend the horse, hell, he’s in as much trouble as you are. And he hit the fence, and flipped and I flew off and broke two ribs on my right side. The test pilot who was suppose to break the sound barrier in two days' time, now had a couple of broken ribs.

Photo: one of many gates into Pancho's corrals, and possibly the gate?

Despite the injury, Yeager was convined he could still fly the X-1. But he didn't want to risk being grounded by a filght surgeon. So, on Monday he visited the closest thing to a doctor he could find outside of the base, a veterinarian in Rosemond. Then the test pilot consulted with his friend and Engineer-in-Charge Jackie Ridley. "I told him about breaking the ribs," Yeager remembers, "and he laughed." The only concern the two shared, was that Yeager might have a problem closing the door of the plane, which operated on a lever. "I couldn’t get enough strength from my right side. It hurt me," Yeager recalls. Ridley looked at the door, then went and got a broom stick. He sawed a piece off and fitted it between two rods on the door. Yeager was then able to shut the door with his left hand, and that's exactly how he did it the next day, when he made the Mach 1.0 attempt.

Photo: Yeager and Ridley pose in front of the X-1, strapped to the B-29 mothership.

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