Have you ever noticed how many of my stories start with someone born into poverty that grew up practically eating dirt and wearing cardboard? Well, that is not the case with today’s story. Today, I’m going to tell you about a woman named Pancho Barnes, whose fame as an aviator may have been second only to Amelia Earhart’s and whose life story is second to none. The story of Pancho Barnes is a far cry from a rags to riches tale.
Wild Blue Yonder
Before she was known as Pancho Barnes, she was Florence Leontine Lowe, a girl born into wealth and privilege in 1901. She grew up in a California mansion, rather than a log cabin in Dirtville, USA. But don’t be thrown off by the proverbial silver spoon that was dangling from her mouth. Pancho wasn’t content to sit around eating watercress sandwiches with the crusts cut off. She was born with the wild blue yonder in her blue blood. Her grandfather, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe was responsible for establishing first American military aeronautics unit during the Civil War. Oh, sure, the air unit was made of hot air balloons, but it was still very cutting edge at the time. Besides, it’s not his fault that the Wright brothers hadn’t been born yet! It was Grandpa Lowe who gave Pancho her first taste for flight, by taking her to an air show when she was ten years old.
You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
I’m going to skip right over some of the things about the spirited young Pancho that caused her watercress sandwich-eating mother some grief. This woman was a hoot! Okay, wait. I have to give you a teaser! She got her nickname after boarding a banana boat and ending up in Mexico with a group of revolutionaries for seven months. For much of that time, she lived as a man and “Pancho” was born.
Now, I’ll pick up with the part where Pancho started taking flying lessons in 1928 and soloed after six hours of instruction. Yes, that is not a typo . . . six hours of instruction! She was one of the first women in America to earn her pilot’s license and in 1930, she even beat Amelia Earhart’s speed record. Her accomplishments as an aviator were very much overlooked however, in the shadow of Earhart’s front-page news. When asked about Amelia, Pancho replied “Hell, [I] had more fun in a week than that weenie had in a lifetime!” So now we have a better idea of why Pancho did not make it to the front page of the newspapers! It may also have had something to do with her penchant for off-color comments like, “Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of $20 bills!”
Pancho became one of Hollywood’s premiere stunt pilots, and in fact flew one of the planes in that death-defying aerobatic scene in Howard Hughes’ film Hell’s Angels. Apparently off-color comments were OK with Howard and the fly-boys! And in 1932 Pancho formed an organization called the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, which worked with film studios to guarantee regular employment and good wages for its members.
Pancho married often and divorced just as often. She flew through money about as quickly as she flew a plane. Pancho was a fun loving, free spirit, who wasn’t known for being fiscally responsible.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
The good thing about being fiscally irresponsible in a privileged family is that, as people die off, you stand to inherit some cash. Pancho used the cash from her dearly departed uncle to fulfill her vision of a creating a “modern flying dude ranch,” known as “Rancho Oro Verde.” Why did she do that? Because it made her happy. Pancho had quite a way with words, but I try to run a clean blog here and most of her quotes do not meet my self-imposed PG rating. There is one quote, however, that would be perfectly at home in a Doris Day song. That is: “When you have a choice, choose happy.”
Smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert, Pancho built runways, a guesthouse, a repair shop, a flight school and a rodeo stadium. She allowed pilots to park their planes on her property in exchange for purchasing gas and oil from her. For $49, you could spend a week at her high-flying “dude ranch.”
We’ve all heard that the most important rule of purchasing real estate is location, location, location! If you’re thinking that a chunk of land in an undeveloped section of the Mojave Desert doesn’t seem like prime real estate, think again. The land wasn’t near much, but it was near the Muroc Army Base, which has since been renamed Edwards Air Force Base. Rancho Oro Verde began supplying food to the base and sometimes held barbecues for the officers.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club
Undoubtedly, the biggest draw to the property was a private club called, “The Happy Bottom Riding Club,” where Pancho’s new military friends and her old Hollywood stunt pilot friends came to hang out with her. Pancho wasn’t like any woman they had ever known. She knew all about planes and flying. She also knew all about drinking and swearing. She was just about perfect!
The Happy Bottom Riding Club had it all. And, by having it all, I mean that it had a lot of liquor smuggled in from Mexico and a lot of beautiful hostesses. While Pancho always swore that the hostesses were only there for dancing and waiting tables, some of the wives of the pilots believed there was more to their job descriptions.
One of the regulars at the club included Chuck Yeager. Pancho promised Yeager a free steak dinner if he could break the sound barrier. When Yeager did it, he brought the tale of his achievement, along with his appetite, to the Happy Bottom Riding Club. At that point, a tradition was born. Pancho provided a free steak dinner to any pilot the first time he reached Mach 1.0.
There was a lot to keep customers returning to Rancho Oro Verde and the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Pancho brought in bands to perform at the ranch’s dance hall on weekends. And the ranch’s rodeos were legendary!
Up in Smoke
Life was good for Pancho until the government started buying up land surrounding Edwards Air Force Base. In 1952, the plan was to build a long runway and in order to do that, the Happy Bottom Riding Club would have to go. When Pancho refused to sell, allegations that she was operating a brothel surfaced. The Air Force began prohibiting servicemen to patronize her establishment. It was a big ol’ stinky mess that turned into long drawn out court battles. The FBI investigated the Happy Bottom Riding Club. There was a series of lawsuits, including one in which Pancho claimed a government conspiracy. Pancho was eventually awarded over $400,000, but the Air Force won the title to Rancho Oro Verde. But, in November of 1953, the Happy Bottom Riding Club mysteriously went up in flames.
Although the land was appropriated by the Air Force, the extended runway was never constructed. Pancho moved to Cantil, California, with the idea of rebuilding the Happy Bottom Riding Club. That was never constructed either.
The Right Stuff
Pancho faced a long battle with breast cancer. She never did learn to manage money and hers ended up being more of a “riches to rags” story. Pancho died in 1975, and her ashes were scattered over the land where her beloved Happy Bottom Riding Club once stood.
You can read about the Happy Bottom Riding Club in The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, or you can watch the 1983 film by the same name. Pancho’s life was also the topic of an Emmy Award winning documentary, in 2009, entitled The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.
Hey, I found another family friendly quote from the colorful Pancho. She said, “The most important thing is to be yourself. So don’t even try to be like anyone else, because we’ve seen it already!” Yes, indeed Pancho. . .well said.
Here’s a great little video about Pancho that I think you will enjoy!