Ask anyone to name a famous aviatrix of history, and they’re sure to think of Amelia Earhart. Some might even remember Jacqueline Cochran. But ask the same question of old military flyers, and they’ll mention Cochran all right, but that’s after they’ve told stories about Pancho Barnes.
She was born Florence Leontine Lowe in San Marino, California on 29 July 1901. Her family was rather well-to-do; Florence’s grandfather was Professor Thaddeus Lowe of the California Institute of Technology, and the family’s fortune was made when the Professor branched out from engineering and developed an area of the San Gabriel Mountains into a popular resort area. As a child of money, Florence was schooled and prepared in the manner befitting. When she reached the age of eighteen, her mother decided it was time for her to settle down and arranged a neat little marriage for her to the Reverend C. Rankin Barnes.
The new Mrs. Reverend Barnes tried to fit in to life as a minister’s wife, teaching Sunday school and working in the Reverend’s church. After the birth of her son William, though, she grew restless and realized the role of wife and mother wasn’t quite all she wanted. Figuring Hollywood might add a bit of excitement and independence to her life, Florence started taking odd jobs around the movie studios. Nothing was too rough or tough for her; she tackled anything that came along – tending animals, working as a script girl, even doubling for stars in action scenes.
SHE LEARNS ABOUT LIFE
The sudden death of her mother sent the twenty-one year old Florence into a nervous breakdown. Doctors were consulted, but she knew what she needed: a change of scene. She cured herself with a solo trip around the country, and arrived back home in reasonably good shape physically and mentally. Fully recovered, Florence started hanging around with people her own age and, from a friend, learned a few things about sex her staid husband hadn’t been able to teach her. With their marriage by now virtually in name only, Florence and Rev. Barnes decided to separate, and she moved out, taking her young son Billy along.
Florence had traveled around and seen a bit of the world outside her small, carefully ordered life. Her restless spirit demanded more and she managed to wheedle her way aboard a banana boat, disguised as an able seaman. She latched on to Roger Chute, the ship’s radioman, and together they had a series of adventures throughout the United States and Mexico. One evening while they were south of the border, Florence told Roger how he reminded her of Don Quixote. He agreed, and remarked that she must then be Quixote’s companion, Pancho. Though she tried to correct him, saying the name was Sancho, for her Roger preferred Pancho and decided that’s what she’d be from then on. Florence liked the name as well; it seemed to fit the rough, tough woman she’d become. The two of them managed to make their way back to Florence’s house in Pasadena where they parted company. Wife and mother Florence Barnes had left the house, but in her place an adventuress named Pancho returned.
PANCHO TAKES TO THE AIR
Not long after Pancho came home to Pasadena, a cousin invited her along to a nearby airport to watch his flying lesson. On a whim, her cousin told his instructor that he thought Pancho might like to learn to fly. The instructor reluctantly took her up for a short flight and suggested she might like to return the next day for a real lesson. Return she did, and this time the instructor put her through every aerial trick he could think of. Pancho was undaunted and took the full series of lessons.
These were the days of barnstorming pilots, and Pancho took to flying as if she’d been born to it. She flew every old crate the airport had to offer and when those weren’t enough, bought her own airplane, a Travelaire Speedwing. She spent a few years perfecting her skills in a somewhat hit-or-miss fashion, and finally earned her pilot’s license at the old Los Angeles American Airport in 1927.
Now that she was officially able to handle airplanes, Pancho moved from flying for the hell of it to professional flying. She took up racing, and entered so many races that she became a minor celebrity, known as the “Flying Parson’s Wife”. When she wasn’t racing, Pancho often appeared at local airports performing in aerial aerobatic shows. She made enough of a name for herself that Howard Hughes invited her back to Hollywood to do the stunts in his movie Hell’s Angels. Pancho assembled a group of movie stunt pilots that were soon in demand for any movie that featured aviation scenes.
When the Great Depression settled over the country, Pancho found movie jobs harder and harder to come by. Around 1933, she landed a job with Lockheed as a test pilot and went out to the California desert. There, near what would become the US Army’s Muroc Flight Test Center, Pancho and Lockheed built their own test center. Pancho found that the hot desert area suited her, so she bought 80 acres and began a new life as a ranch owner. Soon after, she bought more land and expanded her ranch to 400 acres. Together with her son, they built the dry land into a successful farming operation, managing to turn a profit despite the hard economic times.
PANCHO’S RANCH BECOMES PANCHO’S PLACE
Pancho kept her hand in the world of aviation, though. She designed and built a flying strip at the ranch, and stayed in contact with her friends from the racing and Hollywood days. Many of those friends started coming down to her ranch for visits, and Pancho’s place became a sort of “hideaway” for them. Flying soon became a bigger part of her ranch operation when, based on her expertise and setup, she was selected to create a Civilian Pilot Training program for the Army Air Corps. War clouds were gathering, and Pancho’s trainees would later serve in ferrying operations, cargo flights, and training other pilots.
After the United States entered World War II, operations at what was now Muroc Army Air Force Base were stepped up and more personnel brought in. Being as close as she was, Pancho naturally spent more and more time at Muroc and got acquainted with many of the test pilots there. There was little for the men stationed at the base to do in their off-hours, and she figured this was a situation she could fix. Pancho built a small goods exchange at her ranch to supplement what the Army had to offer.
As Pancho got to know more and more of the men from Muroc, they in turn started spending more of their free time at her ranch. Being an old hellraiser pilot herself, she could match them story for story, and her ranch became the unofficial place to go. As word spread around the base that Pancho’s place was a hell of a lot more fun than the official club, she decided to turn part of the ranch into a real club and resort. Of course, Pancho did that with the same hell-bent-for-leather attitude she did everything else.
Right away Pancho decided that her place was going to be the best damned resort for miles around. She laid in facilities for sports, kept a well-stocked bar, built a lavish swimming pool and a modern dance floor. Wanting to add a bit of “class” to the place, she hired some starlets from Hollywood to serve as hostesses and occasional entertainers. Her club, now known as the “Happy Bottom Riding Club”, was a big success with officers and enlisted men alike. Part of its appeal, though, was Pancho herself. She was practically “one of them” – she had a good idea of what the pilots were facing, and knew what it took to take their minds off the war and off being so far from home, at least for a little while. Soon, word of Pancho’s spread outside their small world and she began to number politicians, businessmen, and movie personnel among her members.
THINGS CHANGE, AND NOT FOR THE BETTER
The end of the war didn’t make a lot of difference at Pancho’s. It was still the place to go and business was as good as ever. There were changes at Muroc, however. It was renamed Edwards Air Force Base and acquired a new by-the-book commander to go with its new name. There’d been, also, whispers and allegations there was more going on at Pancho’s than just recreation and light entertainment. Though she maintained that everything that went on at her club was on the up and up, the Edwards brass began to take a closer look at the Happy Bottom Riding Club’s “operations”. The FBI launched an investigation against Pancho when a young officer wrote a letter telling how he’d “hired” a girl at Pancho’s place. Then, the Air Force decided that they needed part of her land for runway extensions and filed a condemnation suit.
Pancho responded by filing a couple of lawsuits of her own against the new Edwards commander, General J. Stanley Holtoner. She acted as her own attorney and, by all accounts, argued her case well. Indeed, it seemed that Pancho would blast through this as she’d blasted through so many other obstacles. Just as victory seemed certain, a fire broke out at the ranch and the Happy Bottom Riding Club burned to the ground, along with all Pancho’s awards and memorabilia.
The cause of the fire was never determined, although Pancho had received veiled threats and arson was suspected. She was left with her small house and, after a few years, finally won a settlement of $414,000 from the government. Pancho attempted to rebuild and start a new place, the Gypsy Springs Ranch, but times had changed and the need for such a club had passed. She was reduced to taking odd jobs again, just to survive. She continued on this way, for some years, still remembered by her old pals and making an occasional appearance at aviation and military reunions.
It was because she was very late for one of those reunions that Pancho was found, alone, in her old ranch house. The official date of death was fixed at sometime around 30 March 1975. Pancho’s land is still a mostly unused area of Edwards Air Force Base.
Tate, Grover Ted. The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus
. Maverick Publications, ISBN 0-89288-092-9, 1986.
Flight Test Center. "Biography of Pancho Barnes". <http://www.edwards.af.mil/history/docs_html/people/pancho_barnes_biography.html>. (August 2003).