WHO IS PANCHO BARNES ?
Pancho Barnes (1901 – 1975) is considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest American characters. During her lifetime, Pancho (born Florence Leontine Lowe) gained respect for her intelligence, individuality, outsized personality, creativity, entrepreneurship, humor, generosity and integrity. Pancho’s life philosophy was, “When you have a choice — choose happy.”
A legend in the aviation community, Pancho was one of the first female pilots to be licensed in the United States, and one of the most respected pilots of the Golden Age of Flight.
She began her flying career in the spring of 1928 and soloed after just six hours of formal instruction.
On February 22, 1929 she began her air-racing career when she entered the first women’s air race and won that 80-mile contest by completing the race 24 minutes ahead of the other well-known entrants. In early 1930, while inaugurating a new route for an airline, she became the first woman to fly into the interior of Mexico. Always up for the challenge, on August 4, 1930, Pancho beat the world’s speed record set by flying ace Amelia Earhart. Then, on August 9, 1930, she won the Tom Thumb race from Los Angeles to Santa Paula while flying to attend opening ceremonies at the new Santa Paula Airport. Later that month she competed in the first women’s transcontinental air race, the Powder Puff Derby.
Early in 1931 she set a speed record from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Then, on March 1, 1931, she set a Los Angeles-Sacramento round-trip speed record. The Governor of California presented her with a trophy that noted that she was “America’s fastest woman flier.”
Pancho Barnes holds the distinction of being Lockheed’s first female test pilot, and she subsequently established several other aviation records while working for Lockheed.
Because of her flying skills, Pancho became in-demand as a stunt pilot for films of the Silent and Sound eras, including Howard Hughes’ 1930 epic “Hell’s Angels.” Later, to Hughes’ chagrin, she founded one of the first unions in Hollywood, The Associated Motion Picture Pilots’ (AMPP).
Pancho’s extraordinary life and outsized personality have been dramatized as part of the sprawling 1983 classic “The Right Stuff” from Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, in which stage and film great Kim Stanley portrayed her. In a 1988 CBS TV biographical movie “Pancho Barnes,” Valerie Bertinelli portrayed her. In 2010 a PBS documentary about her life aired internationally titled, “The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.” The voice of Pancho Barnes was played by Academy Award winning actress Kathy Bates, and the documentary was narrated by acclaimed actor, Tom Skerritt. The documentary won the Emmy for best documentary in Arts & History. In fact, the true story of Pancho’s magnificent life is packed with all the adventure and right stuff for a streaming series or major motion picture all its own.
THE EARLY YEARS[Her childhood home in Pasadena, California.]
Born into a family of wealth and privilege in Pasadena, California, little Florence Lowe enjoyed the benefits of nannies and tutors who instructed her in all the social graces that a proper young lady should exhibit given her social class. She was greatly influenced by her grandfather (famous inventor and legendary Civil War balloonist, Thaddeus Lowe – “the most shot at man in the Civil War”). Grandfather Lowe delighted in Florence’s high spirits and always encouraged her to be herself. For instance, at a very early age, she learned to ride lady-like on a horse. However, in her ‘teens,’ she would frequently go to school riding her pony like a Cossack — standing up in the saddle with the pony in a mad run. Later in life, she went on to set the record for the farthest distance jumped on a horse. Also classically trained in dance and ballet, she had become so accomplished that at age 10 she performed on stage with the legendary Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (1831 – 1931), the most celebrated dancer of her time.
Florence’s grandfather took her to the first American Aviation Exhibition held at Dominguez Hills, California in 1910. He predicted that one day she too would have a flying machine. Later, in her 20’s, she would become one of the first female licensed pilots, barnstormer and text pilot (her license is signed by none other than Orville Wright), and soon destined to become the ‘fastest woman flyer on earth,’ setting the women’s speed record in her Travel Air ‘Mystery Ship’ airplane.
Throughout her life, she clearly demonstrated that she loved people, cherished life, and lived by her motto: “Be Yourself!” As her grandfather Thaddeus Lowe had encouraged her, she encouraged others to be all they could be — and more. She would tell others, “Don’t even try to be like someone else, because we’ve seen it already!”
LIFE AS THE WIFE OF AN EPISCOPAL PRIEST
At age 20 (1921), by family arrangement she married the most eligible bachelor in town, Reverend C. Rankin Barnes, a handsome and prominent pastor of St. James Episcopal Church in South Pasadena. She was now Florence Barnes. A little over 9 months later, their son Billy was born, and she settled into domestic life, living at the parish rectory on Mission Street. However, it quickly became apparent to her that all the women in the church’s congregation were also in love with the dashing Reverend Barnes. Early in the marriage, she tried to ignore what appeared to be his special interest in some of his parishioners and remained the dutiful wife and mother. She attended church functions and supported the Reverend in all his efforts to achieve his goal of eventually becoming a Bishop of the church. But more and more, church functions seemed to require that the Reverend be away from the home. Understandably, she became quite lonely. She tried to get his attention, but nothing she did seemed to work – until she learned to fly. The church congregation to this day still talks about how she would frequently ‘buzz’ her husband’s church in her Travel Air Mystery ‘S’ plane during Sunday services.
After a few short years, the marriage had become quite strained, and they separated. Although they truly cared for each other, they lived mostly separate lives until they officially divorced. Eventually, the Reverend Barnes married his longtime church secretary.
During this personally trying time, her mother suddenly passed away. Florence went into deep depression, and soon suffered a nervous breakdown. Unable to accept a life as ‘the Reverend’s wife,” and without her loving mother, Florence would soon have to bust out of her tailspin in quite a big way.
HOLLYWOOD AND GEORGE HURRELL
One of her closest friends in the 1920’s and 1930’s was Ramon Novarro (1899 – 1968), the dashingly handsome Latin film star who then ranked as the world’s number one box-office attraction. Their mutual respect led to their becoming each other’s most trusted confidant. Their antics, adventures and misadventures were legendary, and for years they were inseparable. Taking trips to Mexico in her plane, hosting wild parties, and spending time with friends at her family estates in San Marino (near Pasadena) and Laguna Beach – the Roaring Twenties were alive and well.[Her friend, film star Ramon Novarro was there the day she soloed for the first time][PICTURE MISSING]
http://web.archive.org/web/20070621142743/http://www.panchobarnes.com/images/pic1.jpg[The bluff top home at Laguna Beach had its own landing strip so her friends could fly in for visits.]
Florence had a keen eye for art and artistic talent, and is credited with discovering legendary Hollywood glamour photographer George Hurrell (1904 – 1992). Hurrell arrived in the quintessential artist colony of Laguna Beach, California in 1925, and soon they met. He began eking out a living as a painter and photographer. She initially hired him to shoot photographs of socialite parties and flying jaunts around the
country and to Mexico. It was Hurrell that took her iconic photograph – dressed as a man, smoking a cigarette – for her pilot’s license application, signed by Orville Wright. She loved the photos he took of her, especially the ones that made her look glamorous, a look that most of Hurrell’s shots achieved. To boost Hurrell in his career, she introduced him to all her Hollywood friends. Hurrell’s first Hollywood photos were of Ramon Novarro, then of Novarro’s friend Norma Shearer (who’s husband ran MGM Studios), and soon Hurrell was the chief portrait photographer for MGM Studios.[This is a circa 1927 George Hurrell photograph of Ramon Novarro that was taken with her horse. When she saw this photograph she said, “If George Hurrell can make my horse look as beautiful as the most handsome man in America, then everyone should be using George Hurrell as their photographer!”]
George Hurrell eventually went on to become the most famous and in-demand photographer in Hollywood. In addition to Hurrell being an extremely gifted photographer, he also enjoyed a good time, so it was inevitable that George and Pancho became lasting friends. In later years, Hurrell regaled his family with stories of his frequent adventures with ‘Mrs. Barnes,’ especially delighting in how he wing-walked on her plane after his successful interview with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM.
During one of the many parties at her mansion on the cliffs of Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach (which had its own private landing strip so her friends could fly in), Florence jokingly proposed an impromptu adventure to her friends – a drive up the coast to San Pedro to catch the next banana boat heading out for South America. “Let’s visit the Lost City and those pyramids we’ve all been hearing about. We’re going to Machu Picchu!” On a dare, she went up to San Pedro with a group of friends to do exactly that. However, once the party arrived at the docks, she was the only one who didn’t chicken out at the last minute. Noticing that there were only crewmen on the schooner, she quickly borrowed some clothes from one of her retreating friends. After her outfit change, and a few strategically rolled-up bandanas for ‘male enhancement,’ she was dressed as a man in the hopes of ‘blending in.’ She was able to join the crew of the banana boat. However, once the boat was safely out to sea, the port flag was lowered, and a Panamanian flag was hoisted high as she then learned that the boat was actually running guns to Mexican revolutionaries. Naturally, Florence was delighted. Another adventure!
On board she met helmsman, Roger Chute, a Stanford educated fisheries expert, who had also come aboard for some adventure as the ship’s cook. Chute quickly figured out that the ‘new’ crew member was definitely female. The ruse exposed, with some slight embarrassment she introduced herself: “I’m Florence Barnes and I just left a bunch of pud knockers back on the dock.” When she told him about her desire to see the Lost City of Machu Picchu and the pyramids in South America, he offered a compromise. “How about we jump ship, and I’ll take you to see the pyramids in the Yucatan?” So under the cover of darkness, they decided to jump ship as the boat anchored at San Blas, Mexico and they spent the next four months roaming through the revolution-torn interior. At one point on their cross- country journey, with Chute riding a white horse and Florence astride a donkey, she looked up at him and said, “Hey, you look like Don Quixote.” And he looked down and shot back, “And you look like Pancho!” She busted out laughing and replied, “No you idiot, it’s ‘Sancho,’ not ‘Pancho.’ But I like the name Pancho, and I think I’ll keep it!” And she did. And her days as Florence Lowe Barnes were forever left behind. She was now Pancho Barnes!
Returning as “Pancho,” she had a new spirit and felt invigorated by life itself. And Pancho still had a heart of gold, as her generosity was legendary during the tough decade that was to follow. Throughout her lifetime she lived the philosophy of giving and helping others in need. She was fond of saying, “I’ve never seen a Brinks truck follow a hearse!” She believed that her good fortune in life should be at the expense of no one, and she proved time and again to be of generous spirit and a good friend to all that crossed her path.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many lost their jobs and even more went homeless and hungry, Pancho, because of her vast family wealth, provided food and arranged lodging accommodations for friends who were out of work. She began to buy apartment buildings throughout the region, housing friends and acquaintances (and some strangers as well) that were either down on their luck or those whose luck had plain run
out. With her family fortune beginning to be strained by her lavish spending (and by those taking advantage of her wealth), she was beginning to feel the impact of the Great Depression. Undaunted, she continued to help those friends in need, frequently (and often anonymously) paying the hospital bills for people she knew or learned of that were financially strapped. In 1934 she helped found and organize the ‘Women’s Air Reserve’ to fly in aid to victims of national emergencies, as the country reeled in the Great Depression and the effects of the Dust Bowl disaster.
THE DESERT DIVA YEARS – RANCHO ORO VERDE
Unfortunately, Pancho was not immune from the effects of the Great Depression and by late 1934 realized that her life was about to take a dramatic change. Close to depleting her fortune through both her lavish lifestyle and immense generosity, she sold her famed “Mystery Ship” airplane to pay off her debts. Pancho and her teenage son Billy prepared to take on a new adventure, away from the struggling masses that were flocking to southern California, and up and moved to California’s Mojave high desert area to begin a new phase of her life.
During her flying days, while test piloting the Lockheed Vega over the vast Mojave desert, Pancho noted that not all below were dry lake beds, parched sand and those prickly Joshua trees. She often spotted a solitary patch of green that she thought must be the only oasis in the middle of all those dry lake beds. The image of the lush farm with the only ‘real’ trees for miles around made an indelible imprint that now beckoned her.
Pancho traded her last major asset, an apartment building in Hollywood, for the ‘oasis’ of her test-pilot days: 80 acres of desert alfalfa farmland on a natural aquifer on the rim of the isolated Muroc Dry Lake Bed. The lakebed appealed to her not only for its fertile soil and agricultural potential, but also because it was the largest natural flat space on earth and therefore an ideal take-off and landing spot for the planes owned by her friends. At her new ranch in Muroc, Pancho dubbed it ‘Rancho Oro Verde’, for her green- gold cash crop of alfalfa, and began to raise hogs and cattle, as well as establishing a dairy. She and Billy began anew, and they worked and worked to make Rancho Oro Verde their new home, often hiring locals and becoming quite popular in the process. It was not uncommon to see Pancho driving her pigs around in a large Cadillac convertible or in one of her several Ford Country Squire “Woody” station wagons.
But the very natural attributes that attracted her to the area were not lost on the US government, and soon the Muroc Army AirField (later to become Edwards Air Force Base) was being developed as her only neighbor. Birds in the sky were soon replaced by planes, often flying in formation and usually dropping artillery shells and bombs all around the dry lake bed. This was the ideal place for the U.S. Army to test out new types of airplanes and bombs without a soul around – except for Pancho and the Rancho Oro Verde. As Pancho quickly learned to accept her new neighbors, she built a landing strip to the west of her ranch for friends to visit and to teach the locals how to fly. While Pancho was too busy to be leisurely flying around, between the demands of raising Billy and managing the large and growing farm and ranch, she began a flight school, and soon a thriving Barnes Field was on the aviation map.
As the Base expanded, so did her visions of enlarging her business. She soon approached the base with a novel idea that would not only benefit all, but propel her farm and ranch into becoming a necessary component of the Air Base. Ever the entrepreneur, Pancho pioneered a novel ‘recycling’ arrangement with Edwards Air Force Base. She struck a contract with the Base to haul away all edible garbage from the mess halls and kitchen. Pancho
would then return to her ranch to fatten up her hogs. Eventually pork products from her hogs were sold back to Edwards Air Force Base for food. This was perhaps the original ‘green’ business in the Antelope
Valley desert. Soon her dairy was providing milk for the base as well. Rancho Oro Verde and the Air Base seemed to be getting along.
Pancho saw Rancho Oro Verde as a venue for creating fun. She would later recall to a reporter that, “We had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime!” She hosted innumerable parties and became legendary for adding a twist when creating some new diversion. For instance, her notorious rodeos were famous for opening with the arrival of a voluptuous woman presented as Lady Godiva, wearing a skin-colored body stocking that made it appear that she was only wearing a long blond wig. There were also treasure hunts where pilots were given written clues, and then had to fly all over the lake bed searching for a buried jackpot of silver dollars.
Because of the increasing need for military pilots, at the request of the US Government, Pancho established the Civilian Pilot Training Program at the ranch and trained many of the early pilots, including her former employee and ranch hand, Kirk Kerkorian, who later went on to own TWA and MGM Studios, and today owns several Las Vegas casinos.
There were all those men at the Base with absolutely nothing to do during their off-time. And Pancho felt they deserved to have a relaxing yet fun place to escape the desolate Air Base environment. Pancho opened up her café and dance hall to any and all that ventured to her ranch. The test pilots and airmen felt a sense of comfort with Pancho, as they could shoot the breeze or talk shop with her, and she knew just as much if not more than they did about aviation and flying. She also knew what else the airmen really wanted, and so she revealed her ‘secret weapon’ on the flyers: “the girls.”
Sending out her head hostess, Dazzling Dallas Morely went to Los Angeles’s Roosevelt Hotel to interview nude models that were looking for stimulating work, but not in the nude. She knew that the test pilots were a bunch of smart cookies, so she hired the most beautiful girls with brains to work at her café and dining hall, serving the flyers, dancing and, well, there were the rumors about the hostesses… but Pancho would have none of that, and actually looked out for her hostesses as if they really were her daughters. And Pancho also knew that rumors were good for business!
THE HAPPY BOTTOM RIDING CLUB
The ranch started to be referred to as ‘The Happy Bottom Riding Club’ after her old friend, General Jimmy Doolittle, went on a long ride on a new horse and was asked by Pancho if he liked the animal. General Doolittle replied, “Oh yes, it gave me a happy bottom. While Pancho’s Fly In, Drive-In Hotel was becoming very popular, she knew she stumbled on the right name, and so the Happy Bottom Riding Club was born. Pancho went on to eventually built a thriving 9,000 member dude ranch with glamorous hostesses, its own airport, a Fly-in/Drive-in ranch hotel, the restaurant, dance hall, gambling casino, swimming pool, stables and well-stocked horse corral and championship rodeo stadium. And during all of this hard work, she also presided over the bar where she hosted what she called the “fastest and bravest men on earth.”[Pancho serving a guest at the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ bar.]
Quickly, the Rancho Oro Verde came to be known world-wide as the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club,’ and was the clubhouse for the test pilots, military personnel, designers, mechanics and engineers responsible for advancing aircraft design and breaking the sound barrier. It is amazing to imagine now, but before Chuck Yeager actually broke the sound barrier for the first time, it was widely believed that this achievement was going to be impossible. But as Pancho used to tell the naysayers, “Impossible is NOT a fact. It is an opinion.” She was proved correct one afternoon in October 1947 when her friend, Chuck Yeager, broke the sound barrier in the X-1.
The ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ was home to General Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, A. Scott Crossfield, H. H. Arnold, Pete Everest, Bob Hoover, Jack Ridley, and all the pilots with the Right Stuff . In a few short years, Pancho’s Ranch Oro Verde had been transformed from a barren flat parcel of desert land into a verdant oasis in the desert and the site of a lifestyle as outrageous as its host.[Pancho out for a ride with friends at the ranch.][Click on the above button to visit Pancho’s good friend, General Chuck Yeager’s website. General Yeager has a ‘special feature’ section for Pancho on his website.][Original brochure for Pancho’s Rancho Oro Verde, circa 1945-1946.]
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the glow from Pancho’s large swimming pool at her ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ became the unmistakable landmark and beacon for pilots flying over the Muroc Lake bed. After the Tehachapi earthquake, Pancho replaced her large rectangular pool with a uniquely circular pool, outfitted with a long curved ramp that she often rode her horses on into the pool – or so the rumors go. Pilots landed on Pancho’s private airstrip to pay tribute to the famous aviatrix, swap stories and partake of her generous hospitality and to relax at what had become the watering hole for the most famous pilots of the day. Pancho’s ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ had become center stage for not just the superstar pilots of the entire supersonic age. And there were also some rumors floating around about a couple of impromptu nude underwater ballets staged in her pool![Pancho with some of the hostesses from the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’.]
As Pancho’s ranch boomed in popularity, her parties and the activities there became the stuff of the popular press and sometimes the tabloids. It was the place to feast on the best steak of your life, ride horses, attend horse shows and rodeos, play cards, play the slots, go on treasure hunts, hear live bands, and rub elbows not only with Air Force test pilots but also with military generals, captains of American Industry, movie stars, and just plain folks. Pancho always made certain that her guests – all of her guests – enjoyed a memorable experience. If music wasn’t playing constantly on the jukebox, it was coming from a bandstand that featured a jazz combo with vocalists. Pancho was also an accomplished songwriter and member of ASCAP. In the Fifties, she enjoyed seeing one of her song compositions, ‘By Your Side,’ sell more than a million copies and reach the Hit Parade.[Pancho and friends trying out one of her latest compositions.]
By 1952, her dear friend, base commander General Al Boyd, had been transferred to head-up Wright Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and a new base commander, General Stan Holtoner, was brought in to replace him. As soon as the new commander arrived on the scene, the entire atmosphere at the base began to change. General Holtener initially referred to Pancho as the ‘garbage collector,’ and it seemed to be downhill from that point on. Flight test activity at Edwards Air Force Base greatly increased and some military brass decided that it was time to purchase more land to expand the base. Soon rumors circulated about an atomic-powered plane, larger than anything yet known to aviation. And when the rumors proved to be true, as the Cold War was beginning to heat up, there was talk of a new runway: a very large, long runway.
A VERY COLD WAR APPROACHES
Without her friend General Boyd at the helm, and with what was shaping up as a personal ‘cold war’ between Pancho and the new general, a surprise demand was made of Pancho – sell the entire property that she had built into a world-famous resort of 380 acres, for what she considered only the property value so that the Air Force could expand their test airstrip to accommodate supersonic aircraft. Pancho balked at the offer, commenting that her ranch was not in the way of any planned future expansion at
Edwards that had been previously acknowledged to her. She also knew that her land and business were worth far more than what had been offered. Pancho made a few telephone calls and business continued as usual for a time at the ranch. However, some men in the Air Force were envious of Pancho’s business savvy and connections, and conspired to destroy her business and close her ranch so that her land could be acquired even more inexpensively. They started a scandalous rumor that Pancho was actually a madam running a house of ill repute at the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club.’ When Pancho found this out, her immediate reply was, “They picked the wrong gal to push around!”[Don’t mess with Pancho!]
The effect of the rumor was immediate. It was a well-known fact that the government historically placed any establishment ‘off-limits’ if there was even a hint of moral issues. The ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ was no exception, and Pancho’s entire ranch was subsequently placed ‘off limits’ to all military personnel, cutting off most of her patronage and causing her business to greatly suffer. Then she was served with condemnation papers for her ranch, with a paltry sum offered and a demand to vacate the land through eminent domain.
Pancho was incredulous that, after all she had done for the United States and the morale-boosting she had provided for the airmen stationed at the airbase, that her country would apparently condone such a plan. She firmly believed that it was her patriotic duty to expose the scoundrels within the government who would perpetuate such an injustice. So she decided to sue the government so that she could obtain depositions from those who were wrongly accusing her, and catch them lying under oath so that they could be exposed and expelled from the government and the Air Force.
Serving as her own attorney, Pancho battled in the courts for several months. She countersued for inappropriate taking of land, slander, harassment and conspiracy. The press delighted in reporting Pancho’s every volley and frequently commented that it looked like she might actually win her legal battle with the government. The court fight became news world-wide, and was referred to as ‘The Undeclared War of the Mojave.’ Pancho countered with, “Oh it’s declared, alright.”
Pancho seemed to be winning the war, and this was not lost on those that sought to oust her. Within days of the end of the trail over what she called the ‘taking of her land,’ on November 13, 1953, the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ burned to the ground under highly mysterious circumstances.[Pancho’s fourth husband, Mac McKendry surveying the damage after the fire. In the foreground you can see the ramp leading into the circular pool. Legend has it that Pancho designed the pool with the ramp so that she could ride with her horse into the pool to cool off after a hot day on horseback.]
Within days of the fire that destroyed many personal possessions, trophies, records, her home & dance hall, and two of her prized Dalmatian dogs, the trial was over and Pancho was not only cleared of all morals charges, she received a formal apology and over four times what the government had originally offered for her land. She fought the government and she won. However, the will of the scoundrels prevailed. The ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ was gone forever. Pancho, her health compromised from the stress of the long court battle, took some time off to re- group, contemplate her situation and plan her future.
As an interesting historical sidebar, despite the intense battle for Pancho’s land, as of 2022 (almost 70 years later), no expansion of the airstrip near or over her land has ever occurred.
THE FINAL YEARS
After the sale of her ranch land to the government, Pancho moved to an even more remote desert location in Cantil, California, with the high hopes of rebuilding her business. And, as one might expect,
she had some pretty wild plans! However, despite grand ideas and plans, it was not to be. She continued to pursue her many interests, including writing and publishing music and raising and racing thoroughbred horses. With the passage of time, she lost touch with many of her aviation buddies on the base and elsewhere.
Then in 1961, Pancho was ‘re-discovered’ and deemed a living legend of aviation. She was officially welcomed back into the fold at Edwards Air Force Base. She was now respectfully and affectionately referred to as “The Mother of Edwards Air Force Base.” The officer’s dining room at the Base was re- christened “The Pancho Barnes Room,” and showcased memorabilia from her numerous life’s adventures. In 1968, Billy, her son, bought back for her at auction her long-lost, beloved Travel Air ‘Mystery Ship’ airplane. This inspired Pancho to renew contact with her old aviation buddies. There were rounds of parties, recognition dinners and awards. With the repurchase of her ‘Mystery Ship’ it seemed that her life had come full circle. She was back regaling a whole new generation of pilots with her stories and encouraging them all to “go for it!”
On April 5, 1975, Pancho was scheduled to be keynote speaker at the Antelope Valley Aero Museum’s annual “Barnstormers Reunion.” However, several days before her scheduled appearance, Pancho passed away. In fragile health during her last years, she was 74 years old. And so the planned reunion changed to a testimonial wake for Pancho. Those in attendance included present and past greats of the entertainment and aviation worlds — from Susan Oliver to Richard Arlen, Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin to General Jimmy Doolittle. At the meeting, General Doolittle gave the following sentimental, yet realistic, eulogy for Pancho:
“Good Evening. Ladies and gentlemen, we have recently lost a true friend. In this day and age, real friends you can depend on in a pinch are rare indeed. Florence Lowe Barnes left us late last month. She was an expert pilot and a good organizer. She had a fine mind, and was intensely loyal. When the going was rough, you knew that she would always offer a willing hand. There was no extent to which she would not go to help a friend who was in need.
“During the Great Depression of ’31 and ’32, aviation, the newest industry, was the hardest hit. Many pilots — and pilots led a precarious existence at best in those days — were out of a job. In most cases that meant out of food and out of home. Pancho turned her large Pasadena home into a pilots’ hostel. No indigent pilot went without food or shelter as long as Pancho had a buck in her purse. And don’t forget, she also was hard hit by the Depression and wasn’t too affluent at the time. Many an itinerant pilot in those days had occasion to appreciate the fact that Pancho had ‘a heart as big as a ham.’
“A movie actor friend, Duncan Renaldo, found himself in difficulty with the immigration people and Pancho went all the way to Washington, D.C., at her own expense to plead his case — and successfully, I might add.
“In a few words, she put great store by courage, honor and integrity. She despised dishonesty and cowardice. She was straight forward and couldn’t abide dissimulation — abhorred sham. She was outspoken, and she said exactly what she thought and believed.
“You know, I can just see her up there at this very minute. In her inimitable way, with a wry smile, she is probably remarking to some old and dear friend who preceded her, ‘I wondered what the little old bald-headed bastard was going to say.’
“God love her. And may I now propose a toast: Ladies and gentlemen — to Pancho Barnes. Pancho Barnes!”
gambling activities.][Circa 2003 view of the original dairy barn which housed the Club’s
[Circa 2003 view of the remains of Pancho’s special circular swimming pool.]
Little remains today of what once was the raucous desert playground known as the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club.’ However, surviving ruins do hint at the high style and outrageousness that were Pancho’s trademarks. In addition to an amazing rock and boulder four-tiered cascading fountain (originally topped
by a statue of a nude goddess!) that graced the hotel esplanade, the double-sided fireplace and door frames from the dining room and bar still stand, as well as some outbuildings including the concrete shell of the dairy barn which housed the gambling activities.
On the east side of the ranch stands the infamous wooden gate which Chuck Yeager struck on horseback – breaking two ribs – the night before he became the first man to break the sound barrier. Also still remaining is the circular swimming pool with special options demanded by Pancho, including recessed underwater lighting and a gently sloping ramp that, rumor has it, allowed Pancho and her horse to cool off after a hot afternoons ride by walking directly into the pool.
CELEBRATING PANCHO’S LIFE AND SPIRIT, and Archive.
Throughout her life, Pancho loved her country and especially the men and women of the United States Air Force. Each year, thousands of people convene where the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ and ranch once stood to celebrate the life and times of this great American character with an annual “Pancho Barnes Day” party sponsored by the Edwards Air Force Base Company Grade Officers Council (CGOC) and the Flight Test Historical Foundation. In 2010 Edwards Air Force Base celebrated the 30th Annual Pancho Barnes Day Party, and the 80th Anniversary of her world speed record. In the words of the United States Air Force, “We keep her alive.”
The annual Pancho Barnes Party has been paused for the past several years due to restricted public access to Edwards Air Force Base following the 9/11 attacks. The Air Force Flight Test Museum is currently being rebuilt and relocated just outside the West Gate to Edwards Air Force Base. When the new museum buildings are completed, unrestricted public access will once again be possible and the Annual Pancho Barnes Party will resume. The annual party will be held on site at the new Air Force Flight Test Museum.
Pancho Barnes led such a fascinating and significant life, and she knew that she was in the forefront of so many firsts. She was a meticulous record keeper throughout her life, and so when the fire destroyed her ranch, it also took some of aviation’s most prized trophies and records. But not all was lost. At the insistence of her friends and with her better judgment, Pancho knew that once again she could use a rumor to this time protect her – protect her from the arsonists that likely tried to destroy everything she owned. But we know today that they didn’t. Much of her lifelong collection of personal papers, photos, recordings, film and business documents remained untouched in her business office she kept at her hotel. While the arsonist(s) ultimately broke her spirit, they did not get everything.
From the day of the fire, with the help of some close friends, all of her remaining personal papers and photographs were secretly spirited out of the ranch’s remaining structures in boxes and then stored at a secret desert locale for what ended up as decades. Pancho feared that whomever burned her out would try again if they learned that she still had many personal papers, so she went along with the rumors that all was lost in the fire. Back then, these things were not insured, and had no intrinsic value to anyone, other than sentimental value to the owner.
Stowed away in an abandoned rail car far from the Happy Bottom Riding Club, where perhaps a hundred boxes of papers, photographs and other items from Pancho Barnes’ long and storied life, saved by friends from the fire that destroyed her dream. With the passing of Pancho’s fourth husband in the late 1990s, Pancho’s ‘estate’ was slated to be either sold as a collection or more likely broken up into individual items, some sold on eBay, some sent to aviation auctions, some sold at garage sales, and likely some just thrown away.
In 2003 the entire estate of Pancho Barnes, including all copyrights, trademarks and service marks was rescued by two individuals, drawn to the life of Pancho Barnes. These two individuals shared a common dedication and goal to preserve her archive and her memory, and to ‘get the word out’ about Pancho Barnes, through licensing her name, image and other Trademarks and Service Marks created by Pancho Barnes during her lifetime. This website is part of those efforts. All the profits from the sale of Happy Bottom Riding Club, HBRC, Rancho Oro Verde, and Pancho Barnes branded licensed merchandise
supports the Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base and its ongoing STEM educational programs.
With several licensing contracts in place today, and a 2010 Emmy Award winning documentary film that aired on PBS and internationally, Pancho Barnes is well on her way to becoming famous all over again for who she was, what she accomplished, what she stood for, and how she lived her life.
Note: All content, photographs, artwork and images appearing on this website are copyrighted by the Estate of Pancho Barnes doing business as California Lifestyle Brands, Inc. (a California Corporation). Happy Bottom Riding Club, the logo of a woman on horseback looking backwards, HBRC, Pancho Barnes, Rancho Oro Verde and the logo for Rancho Oro Verde consisting of the letter ‘O’ superimposed over a stylized version of the letter ‘V’ are trademarks and service marks of California Lifestyle Brands, Inc.