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)"
03 June 2007

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."

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