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

Doors, Photos and Where You Find 'Em

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There's an old saying in science, "Research is the act of going up alleys to see if they are blind." Well, the same thing could be said to apply to the archival research I've been doing in support of the Pancho Barnes documentary. Making a film like this one, about a person who was somewhat but not hugely famous, can be a lot more difficult than making of a profile of someone like, say, Eleanor Roosevelt. Sure, Pancho was photographed by the media and interviewed even before her flying days in the late 1920's, but finding these tidbits can be time-consuming. Fortunately, thanks in large part to the Internet, research is a bit easier nowadays. In fact, I've got a lot of leads as to where the "bones are buried" so to speak. The trick now is finding time to dig them all up!

Some of the things you get to see when you do this kind of research are quite neat! For instance, if you travel up to Edwards Air Force Base and visit the Flight Test museum, you get to see the door to Pancho's ranch pick-up truck (above). It's displayed in a corner. Neat...but not necessarily that important from the standpoint of making a film. More important are the materials preserved in the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, whose caretaker is Dr. Lou D'Elia. In Lou's collection you'll find thousands of items ranging from Pancho's personal papers, to photos, a painting painted by Pancho when she was a young lady, and . . .well would you believe it? Another door (left) from Pancho's pick-up truck!

Sometimes chasing down a "lead" on some Pancho-related materials can be quite exciting. A great deal of the work takes place over the phone and email, but of course it's a lot more interesting when there's a local connection. A recent example, is that in early January I visited with the Los Angeles Public Library's photo curator, Carolyn Cole. A true renaissance lady, Carol has the enviable job of presiding over a collection of something like a zillion (well okay maybe just a half million or so) rare photographs that tell the story of Los Angeles. In fact you can visit their database on-line, at this site:

LAPL Photo Collection

The database on the site is growing every day, as Carol and her staff digitize photos and make them available for the public. Meanwhile, if you want to really peruse the collection and see what's not yet on the website, you have to make an appointment.

Anyway, my visit was simply thrilling. It turns out a number of years ago Carol helped set up a special exhibit featuring images of aviation in Los Angeles. Not only did she know all about Pancho, but she took time out to sit with me as I went through some of the photos in the Security Pacific Bank Collection. Some of them are terrific, including several I'd never seen before. There was Pancho, posing in front of a Lockheed Vega before doing some maximum load test-flights...and there she was with Bobbi Trout dressed in a "Betsy Ross Corps" flying uniform. Truly exciting stuff, and getting to meet Carol and see some of her favority photos was worth the price of admission. There really are some amazing photos in the L.A. Public Library but. . . no car doors! At least that's what I thought. Then Carol pointed out that if I did a search on the website I might be surprised. Sure enough, the search terms "car door" brought up this delightful photo (below). The subject? The driver's side car door on gangster Mickey Cohen's Cadillac, showing off the bullet proof glass!

 

The Other Side of the Family

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A great deal of attention is always focused on the relationship between young Florence "Pancho" Barnes and her eccentric grandfather, Prof. Thaddeus Lowe. Lowe was after all a prodigious inventor who flew balloons during the Civil War for the Union Army, developed gas works and gas patents, and the builder of the Mount Lowe Railway. It's easy to forget that the other side of Pancho's family — her mother Florence was from the Philadelphia Main Line Dobbins family — was equally accomplished and celebrated in their time. Her grandfather Richard Dobbins was a famous architect who designed many of the buildings for the 1876 Centennial celebration. Caroline Dobbins, her grandmother, was a philanthropist who left much of her estate to endow CalTech. Their son (and Pancho's uncle) Horace was a shrewd investor and developer who became mayor of Pasadena. One of the things Horace is best known for, is building the "California Cycleway" in the late 1890's. An elevated wooden tollroad that ran through the heart of Pasadena, the Cycleway was a freeway for bicycles.

The cycleway was celebrated in a 1900 article as "an elevated perfectly adjusted road running from the heart of Pasadena to the Plaza of Los Angeles. In appearance it somewhat resembles the elevated road in New York, being apparently as high in places; but it is built of wood instead of iron..." The article concluded that the cycleway would have an income of approximately $20,000 a month "if half of the wheelmen in two cities patronize the road once a month". Unfortunately, these figures did not hold true, as the emergence of the automobile greatly decreased interest in the bicycle. In the end, the Cycleway was never completed, and portions of it were torn down to make way for commercial development. It's worth noting that four years after the "bicycle freeway" opened, a pair of bicycle mechanics named Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first men to perform powered flights in their home-built airplane!

Don't piss on my boots...

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It's not every day that one gets a chance to meet a living legend. For Barbara Little, that time came in the late 1960's when she lived in Lancaster, California. She was writing for a local newsmagazine — sort of as a lark — when her editor suggested she write a profile of Pancho. "'Pancho who?' I remember asking," says Barbara. "It was the kind of question that, after you met Pancho Barnes just once, you never had to ask again!"

What was originally planned as a short profile of Pancho grew into a major, four- part series, and what might have been just a casual acquaintance made on a weekend afternoon grew into a friendship that lasted until the end of Pancho's life. Some of Pancho's spirit and attitude doubtless rubbed off on Barbara Little. Years after she'd written her series on Pancho, she became active in local politics. Eventually she became the first female mayor of Lancaster. Pancho would've been proud!

Photo: Barbara Little (right) poses with her good friend Lynn Harrison (left). Little was Lancaster's first female mayor, and Harrison the second. Can you say "neat"?!

During a lengthy stay in front of our camera's lens, an animated Barbara Little recounted the interviews she conducted with Pancho. "She really told it like it was," Barbara noted with a straight face, and then a laugh. "She would say, 'Don't piss on my boots and tell me it's raining!"

Although they are not available in print or on the internet anywhere (maybe in the future), Little's articles make for really interesting reading. More than that, they are important from the standpoint that they represent a fairly accurate presentation of the facts of Pancho's life. Where other authors and commentators have drawn on interviews with Pancho's friends, books, and scuttlebutt, most of the details in Little's articles came from the proverbial horse's (well, Pancho's) mouth. The fact that Little took notes in shorthand adds to the accuracy of the quotes and details presented in the articles. In many ways, these articles as close to a Pancho autobiography as one is likely to find.

Pancho herself was so excited by the reaction the articles engendered, that she asked Barbara Little to help her write a real autobiography. "I remember standing in my kitchen and Pancho came to visit," she explained. "She tried to corner me and get me to write a book. Believe me, I wanted to do it, but I had two kids to take care of, and that was my priority at the time." Little always believed in her heart that she would take Pancho up on her offer, if she could only find the time. But when Pancho passed away in 1975, she realized the opportunity had passed her by... Fortunately, Barbara is still with us, and able to share her experiences and her article with us. What a wonderful morning we had!

Hopalong and Pancho

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Recently, I posted some mystery photographs found in the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, featuring Pancho on the set of an unknown movie. Well, Carl Bennett, who is the editor of the very cool website www.silentera.com , took a look at the photos. His conclusion? The actor in the photo is Sessue Hayakawa, one of the most famous Japanese-American stars of the silent era. He frequently worked with famed directors Cecil B. Demille and King Vidor. Carl Bennett noted that the actress in the South Seas costume could actually be Vidor's wife, Florence. Hayakawa and Vidor made the following films together, and perhaps this still is from one of them: Hashimura Togo (1917), The Secret Game (1917), The Bravest Way (1918), The Hidden Pearls (1918), The Honor of His House (1918), The White Man's Law (1918).

In her lifetime, Pancho Barnes was affilated with a number of actors and actresses. She was good friends with director and actor Erich von Stroheim, flew with gleaming bright star Ramon Novarro, and once rescued Duncan Reynaldo ('The Cisco Kid') from the clutches of the U.S. Immigration Service. One actor she had a lifelong friendship with was William Boyd, better known to most as Hopalong Cassidy. Before he was Hopalong, however, Boyd tried hard to be a real leading man. One of his major roles was in "The Flying Fool", a cute cherry tomato of a picture. Boyd plays a brother who tries to protect his sibling from falling in love with a girl who he believes may be trying to take advantage of him. Of course, he ends up falling in love with her himself! The movie featured quite a bit of flying, and Pancho got a job working on it as a technical director.

The flying stunt crew on the movie included Frank Clarke, one of Pancho's good friends and quite simply one of the best stunt fliers of his generation. (In the photo at right, Clarke is the second from right, and Boyd appears to his right wearing the black sweater.) Pancho was apparently thrilled with the picture and her role in making it. When a banquet was held for the participants in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby all-women's air race in San Bernardino, "The Flying Fool" was shown as part of the evening's entertainment.

Women's History Month + Us !

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When you're creating a project like this one, that chronicles the life of a dynamic woman, it's hard to miss the fact that March is Women's History Month. One thing we've learned in the course of making this film, is that Pancho inspired a whole generation of women to go forth and achieve, both in the air and on the ground. Whether it was Babe Story, who became a Women's Air Service Pilot, or Shirley Hufstedler who became our nation's first Secretary of Education, or authors Gene Nora Jessen or Lauren Kessler, we've sure met some truly dynamic and wonderful women while making this project. Next week we'll be up in the Antelope Valley for two days, shooting additional interviews for the film. More on this later on! One little tease, however, is that among our interviewees is a former mayor of the City of Lancaster...and actually...as it happens on this film...she turns out to be the very first female mayor of that fair city.

If you're interested in the story of women in aviation, then you need to visit the International Women's Air & Space Museum website. IWASM link. This Museum, located in Cleveland Ohio, is a terrific resource. Although I've never visited, I understand they have wonderful exhibits and a strong and growing collection of memorabilia. The 99's Museum in Oklahoma City also has a website, 99's link. We're hoping to visit the Museum sometime later this year to look through their collections, meet their staff, and do some filming.

While we're on the subject of Women's History Month, people often ask me, "Is there a book that recounts the history of women in flight?" The answer is, yes! A good book to seek out, either on eBay or through a site like Bookfinder, is "Women Aloft" by Valerie Moolman. This book was published in 1981 as part of a Time-Life series of books entitled "The Epic of Flight". Fortunately you don't have to buy all twenty-odd volumes of the series nowadays as you did when these books first came out!

"Women Aloft" presents a great overview of the history of the aviatrixes, beginning in 1784 when Elisabeth Thible of Lyons, France first soared into the air in a hot air balloon. It's filled with a lot of incredible photos, memorabilia, and riveting commentary. Sadly, the book ends in WWII, so it does not discuss the achievements of folks like Jackie Cochrane, Sally Ride, Jeanna Yeager, Eileen Collins and the list goes on. Perhaps one of the younger readers of this journal will take it as challenge and write a sequel?

The Seven Mile Runway

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Friday the 3rd of March finds us up at Edwards Air Force Base. We're not shooting today, but doing a "location scout" and meeting with Dr. Raymond Puffer. Puffer and Dr. Jim Young, both from the History Office at EAFB, are experts on Pancho and the "Happy Bottom Riding Club". More on this later, after we interview Ray in a couple weeks' time! Dr. Puffer was kind enough to take us on a short tour of the Flight Test Historical Foundation's beautiful museum, located in the middle of the South Base.

Here's a link. The Museum celebrates all things related to Edwards, from the early days when it was called Muroc (after the Corum family who lived in the vicinity), to the era when the first jets were tested on the lakebed, to the X-1 era and the rocket planes, to the Space Shuttle era and beyond. It's a fascinating place to visit.

One of the highlights of the Museum is a gorgeous mural painted by famed aviation artist Mike Machat. . That's Ray Puffer posing in front of it in the photo, by the way! The mural depicts all of the X-planes and experimental platforms which flew at Edwards over the decades and, as Dr. Puffer showed us, it contains a few surprises.

One of these hidden gems is located on the right side of the painting, where you can make out Pancho's ranch and runway. Just above it streak two jet aircraft... The story goes that one day a couple pilots buzzed Pancho's early in the morning. When they returned to the base the commander, Colonel Boyd, called them into his office and dressed them down, asking "What were you doing buzzing Pancho's?!" One of the two pilots sheepishly came up with a lame excuse and then asked, "How did you know we did that?" A brief and embarrassed pause followed, and it became apparent that Col. Boyd knew they'd buzzed Pancho's because he'd been there that morning, either shacked up with a gal or sleeping off the night's liquor. Needless to say, neither pilot was disciplined!

On the wall of the Museum is a very large photo of Edwards taken from high altitude. Ray took a moment to give us a history lesson in front of it. We all know that the chief reason Pancho had to close her Happy Bottom Riding Club was that the government wanted to expand Edwards, and sought the land it sat on. The Air Force had plans on the books to make the main runway at the base a whopping seven miles long! If you look at the photo, you can see how this would have worked and why it would have affected Pancho's place. You can clearly see the main runway at the base. If you draw a straight line from there, you'll see a second runway. This is an emergency runway used by pilots whose engines stall or cut off or have another problem during take-off. Directly beyond that, where the red arrow is, is Pancho's place. As you can see, it's a straight line.

Now, why would the Air Force have wanted to expand the Edwards runway to seven miles? As Puffer explained, plans were on the books in the 50's to build nuclear-powered airplanes. These giant bombers would have the ability to stay in flight for months at a time, and would have provided the kind of nuclear deterrent that the Polaris submarines offered — one that would not be vulnerable to a first-strike nuclear attack. The Air Force did a whole test program related to this, using a modified B-36 equipped with an air-cooled nuclear reactor (which incidentally did not power the airplane) and a lead shielded crew compartment.

The concept called for a very, very long runway for the planned bombers, such as those depicted in the Lockheed concept art shown here. They would have been incredibly heavy owing to the lead shielding. Thus the planned seven mile runway. Of course, the idea proved to be impractical for a number of other reasons, not the least of which was the fear that if a nuclear-powered plane crashed there could be some serious "fallout". Nevertheless, even though the proposal was abandoned and the runway was never expanded that much, the Air Force did buy up the land near Edwards including Pancho's. Probably they would have done that sooner or later, anyway, owing to security concerns. The fact that it happened the way that it did, for the sake of this fantastical nuclear-powered wonder plane, must have seemed like something out of a B-movie to Pancho and her neighbors...that is...if they even knew about it. Most likely, the exact reason for the expansion was kept secret, which must have made it all that much tougher on all the parties involved.

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