Wednesday, April 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)"
17 June 2007

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.

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