Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 August 2015 04:31 06 May 2010 Nick Spark Hits: 2022
We've been invited to show The Legend of Pancho Barnes at Fullerton's Air Days celebration, also known as the Fly N Float Festival, on May 22nd. Hosted by the U.S. Coast Guard, this is a family-friendly event that will feature airplane and helicopter rides (!), a classic car show, and honored guests including members of the WASPs and Tuskeegee Airmen. It should be a blast, so plan on being there! Website is: http://auxguardian.com/Mission.html
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 August 2015 04:31 07 April 2010 Nick Spark Hits: 1844
We knew Pancho was a special gal, but now the film has garnered some truly special recognition: The Legend of Pancho Barnes won the "Best Documentary" at the 2010 Los Angeles Women's Film Festival. Take a bow Pancho you earned it!
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 August 2015 04:31 07 April 2010 Nick Spark Hits: 1143
Sun 'N Fun, one of the nation's largest airshows, will host a special screening of The Legend of Pancho Barnes on Saturday, April 17th as part of an "Aviation in Hollywood" event. Sun 'N Fun hosts more than 500 commercial exhibitors and tens of thousands of visitors who attend a daily airshow, and special events like a balloon race and author presentations. In addition to the screening, Nick Spark will make remarks about the film at noon on the 17th at the Florida Air Museum. For more information visit the event website here.
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 August 2015 04:31 01 April 2010 Nick Spark Hits: 3656
Today there's not much left of Pancho Barnes' airport — the barest outline of the runway can be seen on Google Earth. But back when the Rancho Oro Verde was a going concern, it was a busy and eventful place. The Barnes Airport hosted fly ins including an aerial treasure hunt, fleets of crop dusters hired to spray Pancho's and neighboring farms, and some interesting visitors including magician John Calvert who owned his own DC-3 (photo below). (At one time Pancho's fourth husband Mack McKendry was Calvert's pilot.)
Prior to WWII, Pancho opened a Civilian Pilot Training Program flight school at her airport, where she taught ground school. A romance blossomed between Pancho and a student pilot named "Nicky" Nichols, but it soon ended in divorce (her second). The school closed up right after Pearl Harbor, since all civilian flights were grounded. But the runway didn't stay inactive for long. It was located enough of a distance away from the ranch buildings to be considered a separate property and Pancho was allowed to rent it out to military contractors for flight testing. A company named Radioplane, founded by actor (and one sort of suspects good friend of Pancho's) Reginald Denny used the airport for testing of radio-controlled target drones. It was all pretty secret stuff, but given the secluded nature of the ranch it was secluded enough for the military's purposes.
After the war things really began to bustle at the ranch, and all sorts of people flew up for a visit. That included Howard Hughes, who came in a helicopter, and Walt Disney Co. animator Ward Kimball — who drew a nude woman cartoon in Pancho's guest book. Inevitably, Hollywood sought out the ranch as a location. A number of Western productions used the place as a base of operations and crew quarters while shooting in the Mojave. As far as we know only one of them used the airport, the 1949 film noir drama Johnny Stoolpigeon. Directed by William Castle, the film starred Howard Duff as a lawman, Dan Duryea as a drug-runner-turned-informant and Shelley Winters as love interest. In this rarely-seen film's climactic sequence, a shoot out ensues at Pancho's airport (left) as the bad guys attempt to escape. Before their plane can get off the runway, the lawmen manage to crash a car into the plane's landing gear, crippling it (photo at right) and take everyone into custody! Interestingly, Pancho owned a Cessna T-50 similar to the one seen in the movie. This unusual plane, which is more commonly known by the name "Bamboo Bomber", was also flown by Kirby Grant in the first season of the popular TV show "Sky King". It really seems possible Pancho's plane was used for the big sequence although I suspect the actual crash was a big r/c model.
For all the excitement at Pancho's airport, there were bound to be some negatives. One of them was that visitors had a tendency to accidentally fly into the air space of the nearby Air Force base. These incursions harmed Pancho's reputation as a good neighbor with the base, but it seems that there was very little she could do about it.
Sooner or later, Pancho's airport would have been forced to close down as the base expanded. It did close sometime after the fire at the ranch, and was later abandoned. The hangar survives — it was dismantled and is still in use at a private airport in Palmdale.
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 August 2015 04:31 28 March 2010 Nick Spark Hits: 540
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 August 2015 04:31 25 March 2010 Nick Spark Hits: 2242
I received sad news today, that aviatrix Elinor Smith had passed on at the age of 98. Although I never got the chance to meet Elinor, I visited with her son Patrick Sullivan in early February at the San Francisco Airport Museum. The occasion was a special screening of The Legend of Pancho, and Patrick came as a representative for his mother who was too frail to come herself. One of the many highlights of the evening (and there were many) was having Patrick make a few remarks after the screening about his mother, Pancho, and Amelia Earhart.
For those of you who haven't heard of Elinor Smith well, you really should have and now you will! Once known by the moniker "The Flying Flapper of Freeport", she was took her first airplane ride at the age of six, started taking lessons at the age of 10, and soloed by the time she was 15. She soon became the youngest licensed pilot in the United States and started out to make a name for herself. She did it with panache by flying under all four of the bridges on the East River of Manhattan. According to Sullivan, who discussed the stunt at some length, she actually had to dodge several ships in the process!
Smith then set out to grab an endurance record in an open-cockpit biplane. Flying out of New York in the middle of the winter, Smith was ill-equipped to deal with the intense cold. After staying aloft for 13.5 hours, Elinor realized that she needed to make an emergency landing. It was now twilight, and due to a foul-up the airport's runway lights were off. Fortunately fellow pilot Jimmy Doolittle saw Smith's distress flare and recognized her predicament, and led her in. It was a brush with disaster but fortunately Smith ended up on the front page and not in the obituaries.
Smith's record was later taken away by Bobbi Trout who flew 17 hours, but just a short time later Smith flew for over 26. But interestingly, Smith's most famous achievement was one that she and Bobbi Trout worked on together -- setting an endurance record using mid-air refueling in 1929. Anyone who has witnessed mid-air refueling today knows what a precision, computer-aided ballet it is. Well now, picture how Smith and Trout did it back in "the day"! They used basically a fire hose and a primitive funnel arrangement, and relied on gravity and human hands to grab the nozzle of the gas line and reel it in. The flight of the "Sunbeam" biplane nearly ended in disaster on the first attempt, as Bobbi Trout lost control of the hose and ended up getting fuel dumped all over her, yikes! Despite this setback and several others, Trout and Smith persevered and eventually achieved a record flight of 42.5 hours. When they landed, the two became instant international superstars and why not? They had guts and skill that most people couldn't even dream of!
After the endurance flight, Smith had a steady career as a broadcaster (covering aviation for NBC), a stunt pilot, and kept setting records including a women's altitude record. But like Pancho, the Great Depression effectively put an end to Elinor Smith's competitive flying. She did keep her hand in the aviation arena however, and later in her life was invited to fly the T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer and the twin radial engine C-119 Flying Boxcar.
You can find her autobiography on Amazon by following this link.
Incidentally, I've been asked several times today whether Pancho and Elinor Smith knew each other. The answer is absolutely "yes". According to Patrick Sullivan they were not great friends, but they certainly knew one another and shared a good friend in Bobbi Trout.
Which leads me to this. At the conclusion of our presentation in San Francisco, I gave Patrick Sullivan a DVD of the film to share with Elinor. Today after sending him a note about his loss, he replied with these words: Sorry to report that by the time it was shown, and you graciously gave me a copy for her, Elinor had beome so ill that she was unable to concentrate on reading or on films. She told me that she wanted to see the film, but asked me to keep it until she felt better. . . . . . sadly, that didn't occur. You should know that she was pleased to learn about the film and about the interest it is creating about Pancho Barnes. As for myself, I think the film is a terrific piece of work and I hope it is shown to as many audiences as possible. . . . . .particularly to young girls so they may know that their future is whatever they choose it to be. I hope it may be comforting to know that she knew about your work and was pleased to learn what you have accomplished.
Thank you for sharing that sentiment Patrick. Our condolences; we and everyone else who loves aviation share your loss today.
Special thanks to Brian Palfrey for putting me in touch with Patrick Sullivan. Brian is currently making a documentary about Lady Mary Heath, and interviewed Smith for that project. It was her last video interview.