Friday, March 01, 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.

Information Sign up

Sign up to be on our mailing list for updates.


Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
31 January 2011

The Tucson Screening Remembered

Print Email

pancho4flatWe all know life is full of ups and downs, and unexpected turns. Ask anyone who has seen our documentary: Pancho Barnes’ story certainly epitomizes the concept. When people ask, as they do on occasion, what lesson we might distill from her story Amanda and I often reply that Pancho “was a woman who got knocked down a lot, but never out. She came back fighting all the time.” Persistence in the face of challenge was this woman’s whole way of life, and she completely re-invented herself in the face of adversity not once but a dozen times. Her name says it all: she transformed from the demure socialite wife of South Pasadena’s Reverend Rankin Barnes -- “Florence Lowe Barnes” -- to a tough customer who dressed like a man, talked like a man, and smoked like a man, but who from that point forward did things few men even dared to do, redefined as that delicious yet indelicate persona “Pancho Barnes”. That first reinvention was of course the most important, but hardly the last. No wonder that on occasion, I’ve signed a DVD jacket with the words, “Don’t let the weenies get you down!” It’s not something I think Pancho ever said, but those are words I think she would believe in.

As some of you know onJune 27th, 2009 I was in Tucson, Arizona to present The Legend of Pancho Barnes as part of our barnstorming series of screenings. Only, this was no ordinary showing. It was intended as a joint fundraiser both for the film, and as an event for my friend Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ re-election campaign. This was not so much a case of a partisan display as much as it was a gesture of friendship. You see, Gabby Giffords and I went to University High School together in Tucson, and we’ve been in touch on-and-off ever since. Friends of mine have worked diligently on Gabby’s campaigns, and I’ve followed her political progress from day one, in 2001, when she was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives to 2006, when she ran for U.S. Congress. Screening in Tucson for Gabby, and with many mutual friends in attendance, how neat.

Funny how life works. I am a person who reads a lot of history, and works in the historical realm, and has many heroes from history -- Pancho for one, but there are many others. Most are people from other eras; few are actually alive today. Yet there are people in this modern world who I’ve come very much to admire. But in the media-saturated world we live in – where people are built up only to be torn down -- it’s always been difficult for me to label a public figure a personal hero. I realized at some point that Gabby was an exception, perhaps because I knew her personally, but also because I knew her vivacious, tough, strong spirit. I knew that she was politically active for all the right reasons, and I saw what she did in her campaigns and in office -- she was consistently great. Gabby fought for what she believed in and, at a time when government often seems to be at a standstill, full of partisan rancor and gridlock, she was a voice of reason. I knew from tracking her, that she made a tremendous difference to her constituents. So in addition to having my friendship, Gabby gained my admiration and my respect, in a way I would never have imagined possible back in high school.

GabbyThis was the reason I jumped at the opportunity to go to Tucson and screen the film for her supporters. Showing Pancho for Gabby just seemed so right in spirit. Here was a woman who, like Pancho, showned the ability to re-invent herself (it’s a long story but after high school Gabby seemed destined to either be working on Wall Street or in the “buck stretching” tire business), a great debater who fought tirelessly, wouldn’t take no for an answer if she believed she was right, a smart and savvy woman who knew the value of hard work and friendship, a lady who could talk eloquently on the floor of the House yet knew how to ride a horse and shoot a gun like a true rancher, a caring person who knew how to reach out and help people.

All of this great stuff, I wanted to say after the lights came up at our screening event! I thought a great way to start was to talk about the similarities between Pancho Barnes and Gabby. Well, the audience was having none of it! The moment I even began to make the slightest comparison between the two, a titter and then a roar of laughter rang through the auditorium and would not stop. Gabby, standing by my side with the microphone, had a big grin plastered on her face and was already launching into an emphatic denial. “Uhhh….!” You see I’d simply forgotten, that while Gabby and Pancho may have many things in common, one thing they do not is: looks. Gabby, with her winsome smile and petite figure, is blessed in that department. Pancho as we know was beyond the reach of “Oil of Olay” – well beyond!

After a good laugh all around, I did manage to make a personal endorsement of Gabby, and basked in a moment of reflected glory. You see, it was clear the real star in the room that day was not Pancho or me, but of course Gabby herself. My wife and I have some precious memories of the screening, including meeting Gabby’s family and her husband astronaut Commander Mark Kelly. It was a wonderful event that really seemed like one of the brightest moments of the year.

In between screenings and trips, I followed Gabby’s re-election campaign. It was incredibly close and looked for a little while like it might not go in her favor. Unlike nearly every other race, it was not called on election night. But finally a few days later I heard that Gabby had won, albeit by the narrowest of margins: just four thousand votes. A win is a win, is a win, and I let out a little cheer. Then a few weeks later I got a form letter in the mail, remarking on the victory. At the bottom was a hand signed flourish: “Nick, thank you for the last minute infusion of Pancho Barnes passion! It must have some great power. … So happy to have you help.” Gabby2

I can’t look at that letter today without deep sadness. The emptiness and the melancholy that has affected me, and many of my friends in Tucson and our extended families across the country in recent weeks, is hard to bear. We lost six great people the other day in Tucson, and Gabby was terribly injured and hung on only thanks to luck, heroic action by an aide and medical staff, and her own grit. For now the details of what happened and why they happened, are not important, the important thing is that she has remained with us. This has been a time of reflection, and retrospection, and prayer for a friend and her family. Fortunately with each passing day the news has been encouraging. Surrounded as she is by such strong and caring people, the outcome for Gabby seems hopeful.

For me, the most important thing this month has been to reach out to those I know who have been touched by this senseless tragedy, and to comfort them in any way possible. As part of that effort and to shake off my own sense of helplessness, I contacted friends in my high school class and beyond, and I wrote to the people who arranged the screening. I simply expressed my hope that they can find the strength to get through these tough times, and passed along my hopes for Gabby’s recovery. With time, the news on that front has steadily improved, and just the other day Gabby left the ICU to begin rehab. It’s remarkable given the odds.

Anyway, I guess despite my efforts to be positive in the face of all this chaos, and despite some good news, some melancholy must have crept into one of my recent emails. I was surprised the other day to get a gentle reprimand from Gabby’s staffer Linda Quinn in my in-box. “You know full well that Gabby has as much determination and grit as Pancho,” she wrote in her email. “We’ll get all three of you together at some future point and do another screening.” Well Linda of course I have realized, that you are absolutely, exactly, perfectly damn right. If anyone could stage a comeback from this, it’s going to be Gabby Giffords. I’d absolutely bet on it, because she’s got that Pancho spirit. Even given her situation, Gabby remains a leader -- a force of nature who is as inspiring many people in this moment of personal crisis; in fact she is as inspiring as she’s ever been. She’s tough, and by golly, she’s defied the odds and escaped by narrow margins many times before. There’s simply no reason to believe she can’t do it again.  She's down but she’s not out, and I have every reason to believe she's going to come back fighting like a champ.  It appears she's already doing just that . . .


Some friends of mine, and fans of the film, have generously asked what they can do regarding the situation in Tucson. I will simply repeat here what Gabby's husband Mark Kelly stated in a brief press release: "There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling. If you are inspired to make a positive gesture, consider two organizations that Gabby has long valued and supported: Tucson’s Community Food Bank and the American Red Cross."

Community Food Bank
3003 S Country Club Rd # 221
Tucson, AZ 85713-4084
(520) 622-0525

American Red Cross, Southern Arizona Chapter
2916 East Broadway Boulevard
Tucson, AZ 85716
(520) 318-6740

Facebook Box

You Can Help

Your tax-deductible donation can help make "The Legend of Pancho Barnes!" a reality.


News Letter

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