Tuesday, October 15, 2019

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 April 2008

Pancho's Powder Puff Comes to an End

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The fourth day of the Power Puff Derby spanned three states. The fliers started in Douglas, Arizona, and then flew to Columbus, New Mexico, before crossing into Texas and visiting El Paso before going on to Midland.

The emotions that the participants now faced are hard to know. As they flew East, they went farther and farther away from the site where Marvel Crosson had died, but the sense of her absence was omnipresent. The tragedy surrounding that sad event would be hard to shake, as would the uncertainty with regards to the cause. The women had complained earlier in the race that their planes were being sabotaged, but it was only after Crosson crashed that organizers took them seriously. Now, organizers promised, armed guards would protect the planes on the ground at each stop. That was something, but probably did little to reassure the pilots, whose lives were on the line.

The flight into New Mexico was over the desert, and dehydration was a real issue for everyone, even Earhart in her Vega. By the time the first women neared the Rio Grande however, the weather had changed from sunny to overcast. A summer storm had whipped up and visibility quickly plummeted. The race was cut short, and everyone was unexpectedly forced to spend the night in El Paso.

One benefit of the unexpected stop, was that Pancho and several of the other women had the opportunity to cross the border into Juarez. For Pancho, who had run away to Tijuana as a school girl, and who traversed much of Mexico on foot in the late 1920’s, South of the Border was home. She probably had a couple of margaritas, or at least a local cerveza or six, before bedtime.

Whether she was nursing a hangover or not, the next day would be a bad one for Pancho. It began with her plane's engine having a mechanical problem, which forced her to turn around after take-off and return to El Paso. As a result she was late getting into Pecos. The town, had a population of about 3,000 people in 1929 (it now has roughly 9,000), and just about everyone was at the airport to watch the racers land. Spectators parked their autos at the side of the runway, and mobbed the small, improvised field, creating a dangerous situation. It was similar to what had happened a few days earlier (see 3.26.08 journal). For whatever reason, race organizers hadn't learned a lesson from San Bernardino, and it was Pancho who would pay the price for their lack of action...

Pancho didn’t see the accident coming for a number of reasons. “The Travelair did not have very good forward visibility,” she’d later explain. “And I couldn’t see directly ahead. As I came in there, someone drove their car across the field, right in front of me!” The car slammed into her plane, causing it to make a ground loop. The driver then quickly drove off the field, and disappeared, leaving spectators in a panic. Fortunately, as Pancho made her way out of her plane, it was clear that she was uninjured. The plane was not so lucky, though: the right side was a shambles. She’d have no choice, but to withdraw from the race.

The contest would continue without Pancho, for four more grueling days and 1600 more miles. In the end, five other women would be forced out of the competition. But, despite all the odds and the nay-sayers, fourteen women managed to reach the finish line. Louise Thaden won the heavy aircraft class, and Phoebe Omlie took home the light class trophy.

It may sound corny, but in a very real sense, everyone who participated in the race was a winner. Even Marvel Crosson. Her death was not in vain, by any means, and she died doing what she loved to do -- fly.

The Powder Puff Derby would have an impact, and change things, in subtle ways, in the coming decades. Clearly, the success of the race, and the courage of the women who flew in it, made headlines and changed opinions. “This was the first time that young girls got to see that women could fly,” Gene Nora Jessen says. “And that they could, too.” The next generation of aviatrixes and the Womens Air Service Pilots, would owe their own ground-breaking opportunities to the courageous pioneers who flew in the inaugural Powder Puff Derby.

Postscript: Pancho borrowed a plane, and flew to Cleveland in time to see the 1929 National Air Races, and joined her fellow aviatrixes there. It was during that trip that she first saw the Travelair Mystery Ship, the plane that would later become so intimately identified with her (see 1.17.07 entry). According to Barbara Schultz’s biography Pancho, PB would have other opportunities to fly in the Powder Puff Derby, including 1930 when she attempted to enter her Mystery Ship in the competition. Unfortunately, the race rules were written in such a way that the MS did not qualify, a situation that outraged Pancho. She did fly in the 1931 race, but quickly fell behind in the standings. This time she made it to Cleveland, but she never contended for first place.

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