Documentary filmmaker brings aviation history to life
Documentary filmmaker Nick T. Spark wanted to make a movie about aviation legend Pancho Barnes for a long time.
Spark, guest speaker at the “Women, Wine and Wings” event held at the Dakota Territory Air Museum, Minot, on Wednesday evening, said he remembers hearing about Barnes, the test pilot. That stood out to him, wondering about women being test pilots in the ’20s and ’30s.
He said she was also friends with Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier and had conversations with her at her bar near Edwards Air Force Base in California. He said it was a place where all the greatest pilots in the world came to blow off steam, relax and party.
Barnes was considered one of the most colorful and accomplished female pilots of the early 20th century. She was one of the first female pilots to be licensed in the United States and became a barnstormer, Lockheed’s first female test pilot, a Hollywood stunt pilot and an entrepreneur.
She was friends with aviation pioneer and famed World War II commander Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, flying ace and record-setting test pilot Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and many others known and not so well known in aviation and entertainment.
When he finished film school, Spark said he was looking for work. Not finding a lot of work in the entertainment business, he started writing aviation history articles for a magazine called Wings and Airpower.
He said his boss came to him one day to tell him he wanted to do a big anniversary issue for the release of “The Right Stuff,” the 1983 movie about the space race. His boss said it would be an incredible issue and would include Yeager and other stories. He asked Spark what he would like to do for the issue.
“I just burst out. I said, ‘I want to do an article on Pancho Barnes,'” Spark recalled.
But Spark’s boss wasn’t too interested in his proposal to do an article about Barnes. His boss also said Barnes’ bar, restaurant and hotel burned to the ground and there’s no photos of it because everything is gone.
That didn’t stop Spark. He started calling around and came upon a rumor that a man named Dr. Lou D’Elia had some photographs of Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, her bar, restaurant and hotel she owned and operated on her ranch near Edwards AFB. Spark called D’Elia and D’Elia suggested Spark meet him in Pasadena, California, at his apartment where he would show Spark what he had.
Spark went to the D’Elia’s residence, where D’Elia brought out a banker’s box, put it on his table and popped the top off.
“I looked in this box and the very first thing on the top was this photo of Pancho Barnes with her arm around General Jimmy Doolittle. Next thing is Pancho Barnes’s flying certificate signed by one of the Wright Brothers. Next layer down is Pancho Barnes with a bunch of women pilots I didn’t recognize but there’s Amelia Earhart right next to her. And the next photos are of this Happy Bottom Riding Club bar with Chuck Yeager in it and people dancing.
“I was thinking, ‘My god, this is unbelievable. Some of these photos had singe marks on them. They had been through this fire,” Spark said.
He said D’Elia was watching him as he looked at the photos. D’Elia told him the building was on fire but the story he was told was that people were so connected to this place that they ran in there at the risk of their own lives and pulled things off the walls and took them.
Spark said he finished going through the box, thinking, “This is pretty awesome. I’ve got everything I need for this magazine article.”
Then he said D’Elia said to him, “‘Nick, I kinda think you understand what’s in this box.’ He said, ‘I think you know more about this than I do because I just recently bought these things.’ He said, ‘I have some other stuff. Would you want to see it?'”
Spark told him, “Yeah, sure. I have some time.”
Spark said they walked down the hall, D’Elia opened the door and there was a room full of boxes.
“He had bought an entire railroad car full of Pancho Barnes stuff. What had happened was there was this huge fire, a lot of stuff was destroyed. It turned out Pancho had insurance. She was no dummy, so she concealed from a lot of people how much was destroyed and all this stuff was saved by her ex-husband who thought he was going to open a museum and he never did. He had died and Dr. D’Elia acquired everything,” Spark said.
Barnes, born in 1901, died in 1975.
Spark said when he saw the collection of Barnes’ life – a woman in aviation connected to some of his personal heroes: the Chuck Yeagers, the Bob Hoovers, the Buzz Aldrins of the world, he said, “I could make a film about this, and that’s what I did.”
The documentary film, “Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club,” chronicles the life of Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes. It was written and produced by Spark and directed by Amanda Pope, a University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts professor. Spark is an alumnus of the school.
Spark said he just “dove in” to making the movie. He said it was “kind of miraculous to actually be able to tell the story and do what I had dreamed of doing, which was actually to interview ‘the team,'” referring to those who were there when the sound barrier was broken for the first time.
The documentary was released in 2009 and has won an Emmy and multiple film festival awards. The film continues to be shown.