Saturday, February 24, 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)"
30 November 2007

Journeying Back to Pancho's Place

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It's a little-known fact, but Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club still exists. At least, the outlines of it do. They are located near the Rogers Dry Lake, well inside the boundaries of Edwards Air Force Base. If you get the right permissions, and the folks at Edwards are not doing anything top-secret that day, and the nearby shooting range is not open for business, and you have an official escort, you can get out to see what remains of Pancho's spread. (Or, to make it slightly easier, get yourself invited to the somewhat-exclusive "Pancho Barnes Day" activities. That's a once-a-year celebration, that takes place near the ruins. But you might have to sweet-talk the General to get in!) Photo above: Documentary director Amanda Pope surveys the ruins of the HBRC. Behind her is what remains of Pancho's dairy. Photo below: the moon rises over the dairy. In the foreground is a rock chimney, a prominent feature of the ranch that appeared in many photos over the years -- see 11.12 blog entry!

It's interesting that anything remains of Pancho's, actually! Because one of the reasons for the demise of the place, was that the Air Force acquired Pancho's property, and that of all her neighbors, to bulldoze it. The idea was to clear the area so that a new, seven-mile-long runway could be built for nuclear-powered bombers (see production journal entry for 3-3-07). Well, the "reactors in the sky" concept never panned out, and the runway was never built, so Pancho's got a reprieve. Sort of! The government had still bought the place, and there'd also been a fire (subject of a future journal entry) that destroyed quite a bit of the place. Pancho sold off her hangar (shown in the photo below), and the motel buildings, and they were trucked away and are still in use. What remained was scavenged by Pancho and a lot of other people who helped themselves to whatever they could find in the derelict ranch.

Some of the things that remain to this day, are ruins of Pancho's dairy, the foundations of her hotel, her fountain -- which was built in the shape of the USAF logo -- and her unique circular swimming pool. Less obvious are the faint outlines of the runway that qualified the ranch as a "Fly-Inn" and Pancho's rodeo grounds.

Now, there is going to be one really amazing way to visit the Happy Bottom Riding Club, debuting in the near future. It comes to us courtesy of Randy Cain. Randy is an aviation buff, and a devotee of the computer program Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. Yes, I know what you are thinking, why would anyone be a fan of three year old software? Well, turns out that the latest version of MFS doesn't support what Randy and other aficionados like himself do. Which is, create their own marvelous worlds, in the form of computer models, and fly through them via their mouse.

This past April, Randy and his friend Tom Gibson recreated Denver's now-defunct Stapleton Airport. Wow! It looks just as it looked in 1958. Click here to take a look

It turns out that after working all that time in snowy Denver, he thought it was time to take a trip to the sunny desert. So, he's been making a Happy Bottom Riding Club scenery package. Using vintage photos supplied by the Edwards Air Force Base History Office, and a bit of guesswork, he's put together quite an amazing representation of the ranch. It includes the hotel, the airport, swimming pool, and even the gate house (seen at right). He's omitted a few details, some by choice and some not. For instance, the main barn was excluded because it burned in the fire. Joshua Trees, which proliferate in the Mojave, were not properly modeled in MFS, so for now there are none.

The release date for the scenery was originally October, but it had to be postponed due to unforeseen events. Randy tells me hopefully that it will be available in the coming months. When it is, we'll post a link. Meantime, if you're looking for a challenge, and want an interesting view of Pancho's today, you can always try to do a little scouting on Google Maps using the satellite view. here

Photo: a jeep sits outside the hangar at Randy Cain's simulated HBRC airport. The actual hangar, which appeared in the noirish gangster movie "Johnny Stoolpigeon", was disassembled, relocated, and is still in use today.

New Article About Film in Airport Journal

A terrific article about the Pancho Barnes documentary is in November's issue of the the Airport Journal. You can read it here. Special thanks to author Clayton Moore (no relation to the Lone Ranger!) for taking the time to share our story, and Pancho's, with the world.

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