The following interview is excerpted from the forthcoming book VOICES FROM THE HAPPY BOTTOM RIDING CLUB. Dr. Barney Oldfield was an aircraft design engineer and was head of the flight research instrumentation group for Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York. He was a charter member of Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club. His membership card is dated 1942.
My name is Dr. Bernard Oldfield. My friends call me Barney. Although I was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada to American parents, I grew up in Buffalo, New York. After University I was hired by the Bell Aircraft Company as head of the Flight Research Instrumentation Group to work on America’s first jet aircraft, the XP-59A. This was a top-secret project, as secret as the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Because of its top-secret nature, Larry Bell, who was the owner/founder of Bell Aircraft, decided to send us all out to California to the Muroc Army Air Corps Base to conduct the flight-testing phase of the project in November 1942.
About the XP-59A:
- Top speed: 413 mph
- Length: 38′
- Range: 520 mi
- Weight: 7,950 lbs
- First flight: October 1, 1942
- Engine type: General Electric J31
- Manufacturer: Bell Aircraft
When we first arrived at Muroc from Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York, we were known as “The Boys from Buffalo.” Later on we became known as the Jet Pioneers of America, and Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club was our clubhouse. We would get up early to ride Pancho’s horses out into the desert for a couple of hours, then ride back to the ranch to have a hearty breakfast; mostly it was ham steak, eggs and potatoes. In the afternoons we would swim in her pool and then have drinks and steaks for dinner. Pancho gave me a Charter Membership Card to the Happy Bottom Riding Club in 1942. It was a damn good name for the club for many reasons. It was a fun and exciting place to be.
I’ll never forget the time I met movie star Ramon Navarro over at Pancho’s. She introduced me to him and after he left, she said, “That son-of-a-bitch owes me a lot of money.” Over the years she had loaned people a lot of money and I heard she went through three fortunes. I also met the famous movie director Eric Von Stroheim out at the ranch. He was a frequent visitor in the early days. Bob Cummings, who was a pilot and also a well-known actor, was also a frequent visitor to Pancho’s. I enjoyed sitting at the bar with him swapping flying stories. I also met Rudd Weatherwax, owner and trainer of several animals that were used in motion picture films. He brought his most-famous animal, the dog named Lassie, to the ranch on several occasions. Lassie enjoyed playing with Pancho’s Dalmation, Barney. They were good friends.
Colonel Al Boyd, who was head of the Flight Test Division at Wright Field, sent Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover, Bob Cardenas and Jackie Ridley out to Muroc in early 1947 to test the Bell X-1 rocket plane and make the attempts to break the sound barrier. Boyd had told them to look up Pancho when they arrived. She quickly took them under her wing and made them some of the first military members of the Happy Bottom Riding Club. General Jimmy Doolittle was the first military member. Pancho had two types of members, civilian and military. I don’t think she ever charged the military for membership. Eventually, there were over 9,000 members of the Happy Bottom Riding Club.
Pancho always had her favorite pilots around her like Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover, and Pete Everest. And she adored Gust Askounis, even if he wasn’t a pilot. Tex Johnson was also a real favorite of Pancho’s. Tex always wore his trademark cowboy hat, western shirt and cowboy boots. Tex to me, was one of the greatest test pilots there has ever been. He was a real maverick and Pancho loved him. She used to say “Now Tex is a real man!” Tex was the test pilot who did a barrel roll in a 707 over Lake Washington. Everybody felt that Tex should have been given the Chief Test Pilot slot on the X-1 program because he had done all the early glide tests and a lot of the early rocket motor tests. But for some reason, I don’t know what happened, I think there was a little bit of arguing between Tex and either Bob Stanley or Larry Bell, but somehow or other, Slick Goodlin got into the act.But Slick held back unless he was going to get paid a lot of money to test the X-1. Well, that didn’t happen, as everyone knows.
We knew that it was possible to break the sound barrier, however it was kept a big secret because this was during the Cold War and we didn’t want the Russians to find out.I remember one particular meeting in Jackie Ridley’s office. The meeting was already underway when in walks Chuck Yeager. Chuck had a Life Magazine in his hand which showed pictures about an aircraft hitting the brick wall of the sound barrier and the aircraft disintegrating. Jackie Ridley was a fellow who had a very squeaky, high pitched voice, and he said “Chuck, I don’t know what the hell you’re worried about.If you fire a 22 rifle the bullet doesn’t fly apart.”
I was there the day Chuck broke the sound barrier. Although we had to keep a closed lid on the fact that Chuck had broken the sound barrier, we all headed over to Pancho’s to celebrate after he landed.It was quite the celebration! We always celebrated milestone flights and promotions at Pancho’s.
When Al Boyd was promoted to General, Pancho threw a big stag party for him. All the regulars were there: Yeager, Hoover, Askounis, Ascani, and Ridley. Pancho hired some girls from Hollywood to dance the hoochie koochie and they didn’t wear very much, but it was all entertaining, innocent, and fun and they all went back to Hollywood the next day. There were times when we left our wives at home, which did not go over too well with some of the wives. But Glennis was always OK with Chuck going over to Pancho’s whenever he wanted.
The Golden Age of Flight Testing and the jet age all started at Edwards. Prior to that period of time hardly any research had been done in this country. The work that went on at Edwards Air Force Base birthed the era of jet and space flight. Many lives were risked and lost to advance aviation, eventually leading to space flight. Robert Browning had a good statement for that, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp else what’s a heaven for?” Edwards has contributed tremendously to the development and history of the jet and space age. And Pancho and her Happy Bottom Riding Club is an important part of that history.