Friday, July 19, 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)"
21 September 2011

A Mystery No Longer!

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Now I have an actual, genuine, "scoop" to add to the ProductionRestoration000.. Journal, and the most exciting news in Pancho-land since the film won the Emmy Award.  It concerns the fate of Pancho's magnificent plane, the Travelair Mystery Ship.  Read on. . .

Pancho Barnes' Travel Air "Mystery Ship" symbolized her bold, fast, wild life of adventure.  It's a key part of her story and our documentary, and true to form an actual "mystery".   The entire time we were making the film, I wondered where Pancho's plane had ended up.  The last confirmed sighting of it was decades ago, when it was sold to an unnamed buyer.  Combing through magazine articles and internet postings, and asking everyone we came into contact with, yielded few answers.  A couple people seemed to know where it was, but said they "couldn't say" when pressed.  Vows of secrecy, non-disclosure agreements, or just people having fun with us?  One thing seemed clear:  whoever owned it, really wanted to keep the plane's whereabouts a mystery.  
Our Mystery Ship's MIA status was certainly true to form.  The plane itself was one of only five ever built and got its nickname because head designer Walter Beech and his underlings Herb Rawdon and Walter Burnham kept the "Model R"'s design a secret right up until the moment it was unveiled at the National Air Races in 1929.   The plane, with its clean lines and hefty radial engine, caught the crowd's attention.   Soon it stunned the field, as pilot Doug Davis flew #R614K at an astonishing 194.9 miles per hour to win the Thompson Trophy.  Davis was the first civilian pilot to win the coveted award, besting several Air Corps entries in handy fashion.  Pancho probably witnessed that race, as she herself was in Cleveland that year. 

After crashing in the Powder Puff Derby, Pancho was eager to prove herself and the meteor-like Mystery Ship proved irresistible.  She probably saw the one that she purchased, tail #R613K, on display at Cleveland.  Known as the "Chevrolair" Mystery Ship because it was equipped with a six-cylinder inline engine, it debuted there alongside its more powerful twin and eventually (at the time Pancho bought it) was reconfigured with a radial.  This was the plane that Pancho flew to fame, coasting from Oakland to Los Angeles in record time, and besting Amelia Earhart's air speed record at an average speed of 185 mph in 1930.  That proved to be the most triumphant moment of Barnes' aviation career.  Just a few years later she fell on hard times and couldn't afford hangar rent for the plane, much less avgas.  The zippy aircraft ended up in the hands of fellow stunt pilot Paul Mantz.  In Mantz' hands #R613K became a Hollywood star, appearing in a number of aviation films and serials including "Dive Bomber" and "Tailspin Tommy".  The plane's exotic fuselage allowed it to impersonate experimental fighter aircraft, a Schneider racer, and others before it fell into disuse and disrepair — probably during WWII when all West Coast-based civilian planes were grounded.   

Restoration4Paul Mantz, along with fellow stunt flier Frank Tallman, proved to be an avid collector of planes.  The two eventually opened the "Movieland of the Air" museum in Santa Ana, and the derelict Mystery Ship was on display there.  After Mantz was killed during the shooting of The Flight of the Phoenix, a large part of the collection was sold at auction including #R613K.  The aircraft was a prize part of the 1968 auction and expected to bring a premium price, but that's not what happened.  Given her unmistakeable looks and larger-than-life presence, it was hard for auction attendees not to notice Pancho, and when people realized that she hoped to win her plane back, they refused to bid against her.  In the end Pancho, her son Billy and his wife Shouling won the plane at a price that must have left auctioneers Parke-Bernet feeling like they'd been robbed.  It was clearly an amazing moment for Pancho, who posed with the plane and once again basked in the warm glow that belongs to winners. 

Restoration5Although Pancho and Bill declared that the aircraft would fly again, people who visited Barnes Aviation (Billy's FBO at Fox Field near Lancaster, Ca.) couldn't help but notice that progress on it was excruciatingly slow.  Apparently Billy's efforts were sporadic because he feared that Pancho, who was in ill health and hadn't had an active pilot's license in decades, swore  that she was going to take her trusty old steed up in the air as soon as it was flyable.  She also swore a blue streak to anyone who doubted her, and especially Billy.  But while her desire was strong, Pancho's heart was frail and she died in 1975.  In the wake of her death Billy made more progress on the old plane, and it looked like it might be ready for a rebirth.   But the Model R still was far from airworthy when he unexpectedly died after his favorite plane, a P-51 Mustang that Bill flew in air shows, caught fire during takeoff and plowed in.  

Following Bill's death, his widow Shouling struggled mightily to keep Barnes Aviation afloat, but she refused to sell the Travelair at any cost.  Eventually however she must have realized that restoring the airplane was a big project that required a lot of commitment and deep pockets.  An historic aircraft collector from England contacted her about purchasing the plane, but initially Shouling didn't reply.  After eight months of silence, she finally sent word that she was willing to talk about it.  The collector flew out to Lancaster and, after a bit of protracted discussions, bought the plane.  It then did a vanishing act worth of Houdini. 

At a certain point during pre-production of the film, the plane's fate seemed extremely important to Amanda and I.  At that time we hadn't been able to locate any film footage of Pancho or the Mystery Ship, and so we were thinking that Restoration1we'd have to shoot some re-enactments to bring these portions of the film to life.  For that we'd need a Model R, and while a nice replica was offered to us, the real deal seemed alluring.  But where was the aircraft?  Shouling Barnes wasn't talking, and no one else seemed to know much except that it was "in the U.K."   Rumors abounded.  One person told us it was in pieces, in a garage.  Another told us it was part of a disputed estate.  A third swore she'd been to the UK and seen it undergoing restoration.  And so on...

Eventually we located some amazing home movies of the Travelair Factory that included never-before-seen footage of several Model Rs, and newsreel footage of Pancho from her racing days, that made the re-enactments unnecessary.  Although it was less important to us, Amanda and I still wondered where the plane might be. And, while struggling with the ending of the film (something that proved quite tricky) we once again toyed with the "what if" idea — what if we could find that plane and incorporate it into the film?  We imagined the thrill of being able to show off the aircraft as part of the ending of the movie.  In this scenario the plane, now fully restored and ready for its maiden flight, would be seen at daybreak being rolled out of a vintage hangar and prepped for flight.  A pilot eerily similar in look to Pancho would swagger across the runway, board the aircraft, and the engine would roar to life.  The plane would rumble past the camera, the pilot saluting with a wave.  Then the plane would race down the runway, its engine singing a throaty hum, and leap into the dawn as the music swelled. Fade down and roll credits... 

Restoration2But of course, we didn't end the movie that way and we're glad we did not — the ending turned out to be more about Pancho's connection to Edwards AFB than anything else.  But as the film made its way into the world, Amanda and I fielded a persistent question at every screening, "Where is Pancho's plane today?"  The fact that we couldn't answer surprised everyone, and made us look a little foolish.  "The location of Pancho's plane," we would laugh, "is similar to the location of Earhart's.  We just don't know."

Eventually the publicity surrounding the film broke the logjam.   One day I opened an untitled email and learned that I'd been contacted by the Mystery Ship's owner.  He sent along a couple photos of the plane, which now looked to be in magnificent condition albeit without an engine.  The owner confessed that he'd known about our film for some time, but said he hadn't contacted us out of respect for our own sanity.  The reason being, he recognized that if we had access to the plane, we'd most likely want to film it in flight.  Yet the restoration effort had been an extremely tough and glacially slow process, and after years of work the plane still wasn't flying and no date for a first flight had been set.  Rather than ground loop our production with a first-class distraction, he chose to ignore us.  That's a fact I'm now grateful for, because I am certain that if we had been aware of the plane's location, we wouldn't have been able to resist trying to incorporate it into the film.

A few weeks ago I got to meet the owners of Pancho's plane, who were passing through Los Angeles on their way back to England.  For now, these charming Restored9people prefer to remain anonymous.  I can tell you however that the Mystery Ship is in very good hands.  The restoration was absolutely world class, completely immaculate, with special attention paid to returning the aircraft to the condition it was in during its heyday.  The photos that you see here represent the very first time the owners have granted permission to show off the airplane  — so you are among the first people to get to see it.  The photos speak volumes so I won't bother to waste adjectives or your time on that.  What is intriguing are some of the things you don't see in these images, the story of the restoration itself and what was uncovered during it.  For example, underneath the tattered layers of paint added by Paul Mantz to camouflage the plane for Hollywood, was found the original red and yellow paint scheme, as well as a blue scheme Pancho used while flying for Union Oil.  Also, evidence of frame damage emerged during the work, possibly from an incident Pancho frequently mentioned in which Howard Hughes dinged the plane and then refused to pay the repair bill!  These and other details are bound to surprise and delight, once the aircraft takes flight and makes its formal debut on the pages of plane restoration magazines around the world.  Exactly when that will happen we don't know, but stay tuned.

One thing is for certain: if Pancho were around today, she'd be grateful that her plane has been so lovingly restored.  In my mind the plane with its stubby wings, distinctive wheel pants and strong streamlined shape, seems to embody so many things about Pancho.  One thing above all else stands out — like its former owner, it is a survivor.  In the coming years, it will add a new chapter to its story, and burnish the legacy of the Golden Age of Air Racing and Pancho Barnes. 


Please note: Photos from Skyfire Corporation and Heather Alexander are subject to copyright and may not be reposted without express permission.

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