Flying High in Kern: Pancho Barnes

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Florence Lowe made a name for herself in the aviation world. But that name wasn’t Florence. And it certainly wasn’t Flo or any other derivation…

No, the world would come to know her as Pancho, a moniker far removed in every way from her background; and the world would come to celebrate her life and legacy as an aviatrix, entrepreneur, and innovator.

 
Known as Pancho, Florence Lowe made a name for herself in the aviation world.

Known as Pancho, Florence Lowe made a name for herself in the aviation world.

Born into a life of wealth and luxury in Pasadena in 1901, the woman who would become Pancho Barnes came from a family that prized the great outdoors. Her grandfather, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, pioneered the field of American aviation when he established the nation’s first military air unit—the Army of the Potomac’s balloon corps—during the Civil War, and it’s also well-known that Lowe took his granddaughter to an early air show when she was just 10 years old.

Flying was in her blood, but it would be some years later before she’d actually take to the skies.

First, she would marry Reverend C. Rankin Barnes in 1919 and soon after have a son, William.

Second, she would spend months abroad in Mexico immersing herself in the revolutionary culture while escaping the attention of authorities by disguising herself as a man. It was at this point in her life that she began calling herself Pancho.

Finally, further eschewing all social expectations for women at the time, Barnes, who had driven her cousin to his flying lesson, convinced his flight instructor (a World War I veteran) that she too would like to learn to pilot a plane. So that day in 1928, she climbed into the cockpit. After just six hours of formal instruction, Barnes soloed for the first time, and would soon become one of the first licensed female pilots in the U.S.

Flying became her life; she ran an ad-hoc barnstorming show and began competing in all the air races she could. On February 22, 1929, she entered the first women’s air race (known as the Powder Puff Derby) and subsequently won the 80-mile contest by finishing nearly 25 minutes ahead of the other more well-known entrants.

Poster for the film The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, produced and written by Nick Spark. Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive. Used with permission.

Poster for the film The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, produced and written by Nick Spark. Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive. Used with permission.

While inaugurating a new route for an airline in 1930, she became the first woman to fly into the interior of Mexico. On August 4, 1930, Barnes won the Women’s Air Derby while sponsored by Union Oil Company (after crashing during the previous year’s race) and soared past Amelia Earhart’s women’s speed record by blazing through the sky at 196.19 miles per hour to become the “Fastest Woman on Earth.” Just a few days later, she won the Tom Thumb race, which took pilots from L.A. to Santa Paula. Barnes set more speed records in 1931. That year, the Governor of California awarded her a trophy that proclaimed her “America’s fastest woman flyer.”

Then, while working for Lockheed (the first female test pilot to do so), Barnes set even more aviation records and put their Vega through the paces. She was unstoppable in the skies.Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.

When her contract with Union expired, Barnes moved to Hollywood and began working as a stunt pilot for films, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, and by 1931 had founded the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, a union for stunt flyers that advocated safe flying and standardized pay. Though Hughes was rumored to be quite upset at this, it didn’t stop him from hiring Barnes to fly her Mystery Ship (the Type R “Mystery Ships” were wide-braced, low-wing racing airplanes built in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s and so called because the first aircraft in the series were built in secrecy) around microphones that had been set up outdoors so that he could capture the sound and dub the airplanes in the film, nor remain a friend to Barnes.

In 1934, while trying to stay afloat during the Great Depression, Barnes made a decision that would help cement her legacy in aviation history and bring a lot of notoriety to the deserts of Kern County. While piloting planes over the Mojave, Barnes noticed sprawling ranch land near what is now Edwards Air Force Base (then Muroc). She bought the land—380 acres of alfalfa fields—and named it Rancho Oro Verde. It was at this location that the intrepid Barnes founded the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

The Club was a way for Barnes to celebrate the aviator/aviatrix lifestyle with fellow pilots, celebrities of the day, politicians, and other big names. She organized rodeos on the farm, made a dance hall, installed a pool (legend has it that the circular pool’s inclined ramp was installed so that Barnes could ride her horse into the water to cool down after spending the day in the hot Mojave desert), and started a restaurant. There was also a hotel for those guests that didn’t want to leave after just one day at the Club. The Happy Bottom Riding Club also had a regulation airfield and drive-in!

Barnes with fellow aviatrix Amelia Earhart in 1929, at Clover Field in Santa Monica. Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.

Barnes with fellow aviatrix Amelia Earhart in 1929, at Clover Field in Santa Monica.
Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.

Barnes offered a free steak dinner to anyone who broke the sound barrier. As we all know, Chuck Yeager, who was Barnes’ pal, became the first man to claim that prize in 1947.

Barnes was also known as a woman who loved to have fun. She’d organize treasure hunts for members with maps and clues leading to prizes (including a pot of 200 silver dollars).

During the heyday of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, membership swelled to over 9,000 people worldwide.

But the Club that brought so much joy not only to pilots and guests but to Barnes, herself, would not make it past 1953.

Theories and rumors still persist about what really happened between Barnes and the U.S. Air Force in the early ’50s, but after Muroc Army Air Base was renamed Edwards Air Force Base—which came with a change of command and new plans to increase the length and number of the runways to accommodate increased flights—Barnes was approached and offered a price for her ranch and the Happy Bottom Riding Club (since it was where the new runway strips were scheduled to go). At the time, there was also increased traffic to Barnes’ airstrip.

Barnes refused to sell and soon after, allegations that the Happy Bottom Riding Club was a brothel surfaced. While the rumors were widely discredited, the Air Force prohibited servicemen from visiting the club, which drastically cut down the majority of her business. This was all during the time when she was in negotiations with the government, which, soon after the allegations, added a suit to appropriate the ranch. Barnes countersued, but it was all for naught. Though she would win every lawsuit (one of her arguments was that her grandfather had essentially founded the Air Force 100 years before), a mysterious fire destroyed the Club on November 13, 1953, just before the rulings came in.

Barnes, frustrated and betrayed, moved to nearby Cantil, and the Air Force took control of the land. The proposed runway extensions—at the heart of the original proposal—were never implemented.

She’d planned to reestablish the Club on her land in Cantil, but never did so before her death in 1975. However, to this day, servicemen at Edwards hold an annual BBQ in November on the site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club in remembrance of Barnes.

In the 1950s, Barnes entertained test pilots, including Charles “Chuck” Yeager, at her “Happy Bottom Riding Club.” Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.

In the 1950s, Barnes entertained test pilots, including Charles “Chuck” Yeager, at her “Happy Bottom Riding Club.”
Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.

In the nearly 30 years since her death, the interest in Barnes has only grown. In addition to being heavily featured in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, and the 1983 movie adaptation, she is the subject of a 2010 Emmy Award winning documentary titled The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, which chronicles her life—the sweet and the sour—as one of the most prominent figures in U.S. aviation history. The film, which can be streamed or purchased on Amazon, is still often played on PBS (and you can find out more by visiting www.thelegendofpanchobarnes.com).

It’s said in a 2011 Forgotten Newsmakers article that Barnes’ friends and family were given permission by Edwards Air Force Base to spread her ashes via airplane over the grounds of the Happy Bottom Riding Club in 1975… and that as the ashes were making their way down to the ground a crosswind blew them back into the cockpit of the plane. Pancho Barnes apparently wanted one more ride.

Article appeared in our 31-3 Issue – August 2014

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