By, JR Hafer, aviation writer
Florence Leontine Lowe was born on July 22, 1901 in Pasadena, California. Her Father was Thaddeus Lowe II and her Mother was his first wife Florence May Dobbins. Her grandfather was Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who had pioneered American aviation with the establishment of the Union Army Balloon Corps during the American Civil War.
The young Florence Lowe was a high spirited fiercely independent socialite who thwarted every effort of her staunchly religious parents to direct her in a conventional upbringing. They arranged their debutante daughter’s marriage to Rankin Barnes a minister in the Episcopal Church. They had a son, William E. Barnes. Her mother died in 1924 leaving Florence a half million dollars inheritance.
Thus began her life as a freewheeling globe-trotter and hostess: she headed for South America on a luxury liner, returned to the United States to entertain movie stars and pilots such as Bette Davis and Amelia Earhart, crewed on a south-bound banana boat, and trekked across Mexico, where she indulged her rebellious streak by adopting the nickname, forever to be known and remembered as “Pancho.”
Having spent four months abroad, “Pancho” returned to San Marino, California. In 1928, while driving her cousin Dean Banks to flying lessons, she decided to learn to fly. Convincing her cousin’s flight instructor of her desire that same day, she soloed after six hours of formal instruction.
She ran an ad-hoc barnstorming show and competed in air races, the next, year she raced in the Women’s Air Derby which was dubbed laughingly by the masculine aviation enthusiasts as the “Powder Puff Derby”. But she crashed in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, but returned in 1930 under the sponsorship of the Union Oil Company to win the race.
In 1930 Pancho Barnes broke Amelia Earhart’s world women’s speed record with a speed of over 196. mph. Barnes broke this record in a Travel Air Type R Mystery Ship.
After her contract with Union Oil expired, Pancho moved to Hollywood to work as a stunt pilot for movies. In 1931, she started the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, a union of film industry stunt fliers who promoted flying safety and standardized pay for aerial stunt work. She flew in several air-adventure movies of the 1930s, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels.
Pancho was a pioneer aviatrix, who broke Amelia Earhart’s air speed record in 1930 and was a member of the Ninety-Nines.
She was also the founder of the first test pilots union.
Pancho Barnes had many close friends and connections in the Hollywood circles. Her early close friend George Hurrell later would become the legendary head of the portrait department of MGM Studios. Pancho Barnes is credited with helping Hurrell start his career in Hollywood after he took the photo she was to use on her pilot’s license.
Like so many Barnes lost most of her money in the Great Depression and by 1935, Pancho had only her apartment in Hollywood left as a result.
Barnes decided to sell her Hollywood apartment, and in March 1935 bought 180 acres in the Mojave Desert, near March Army Air Base at the Rogers dry lake bed and the nascent Muroc Field, or March Field as it was called because it was an adjacent to the Air Base.
On her land, Pancho Barnes built the Happy Bottom Riding Club, also known as the Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch, a dude ranch and restaurant which catered to airmen at the nearby airfield and her friends from Hollywood. Pancho became very close friends with many of the early test pilots, including Chuck Yeager, General Jimmy Doolittle, and Buzz Aldrin. Pancho’s ranch became famous for the parties and high-flying lifestyle of all the guests.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club was Pancho Barnes most famous and successful creation.
Club members could fly in to Pancho’s FAA approved airport, attend rodeos at her championship rodeo stadium, ride horses from her well-stocked horse corral, dance in her dance hall, have drinks at her bar, eat the best steak of their life in her restaurant, swim in her large circular pool, and then decide to do it all again the next day by checking into her hotel.
Additionally, on her 380 acre ranch, she had a thriving dairy, cattle and hog business. During the height of the Happy Bottom Riding Club’s success, there were over 9,000 members worldwide. You never knew who would show up at the Club for a steak dinner, sit in with the Jazz combo, or sing with the other customers at the piano bar. It was not unusual to find heads of state, high ranking military, actors, actresses, famous writers and artists, and perhaps even your next door neighbor at Pancho’s bar and restaurant. At Pancho’s, everyone who liked to enjoy life, laugh and have a good time was welcomed. Pancho was fond of saying, “When you have a choice choose happy!” Well, when you went through the door of her club, it was quite clear that you had chosen the happy path for the evening!
However, a change of command in 1952 contributed to her getting into a conflict with the United States Air Force. The Air Force was planning for the future of aviation, and decided they needed to build a new, super-long runway to accommodate new aircraft that were being planned to run on atomic power. That new runway would run directly across Pancho’s ranch. The Air Force originally offered her a price for her ranch, land, and facilities that was very close to the cost of undeveloped desert land. She requested a fair appraisal to better reflect the actual cost of replacement of her land and business, but in the midst of getting a re-appraisal, the base leadership accused her of running a house of ill-repute on her ranch. The effect of even the hint of impropriety resulted in her ranch and business being put off-limits to military personnel, and the value of her business plummeted.
Pancho then filed a lawsuit against the Air Force to, as she put it, “Roust out the scoundrels in the government who would perpetrate such an injustice.” She knew that if she filed a lawsuit, she would have the opportunity to depose under oath the various leaders and personnel on base, and the truth would come out and clear her name. During the height of the intense court battle, in 1953, her ranch burned in a fire of mysterious origin. After the fire, the value of her ranch and business further plummeted to a level more closely reflecting the original buy-out offer from the Air Force. Nonetheless, the court battle continued. Pancho was determined to receive fair value for her land and business, and to clear her name. A main contention of her defense was: “My grandfather founded the United States Air Force.” On that argument, the court found in her favor and she was awarded $375,000 remuneration for her property and business. Also, her name was cleared. As it turned out, the proposed runway was never built.
After the government bought her out, she moved to Cantil, California, in hopes of restarting a similar dude ranch business there. It never happened. It was not until the late 1960s that Pancho once again became a commonplace figure at the base and began to be referred to as the “Mother of Edwards AFB.” The wounds began to heal as Pancho reconnected with many old-timers. The officer’s mess at Edwards was renamed the Pancho Barnes Room.
Pancho Barnes suffered from breast cancer, and one might assume this was the ultimate cause of her demise. Pancho was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Antelope Valley Aero Museum’s annual “Barnstormers Reunion” on April 5, 1975. However, when a friend called on March 30, she could not reach Pancho. Her son Bill found her dead in her home and the coroner determined that she had died several days earlier. Bill obtained special permission which was granted from the United States Air Force to spread her ashes over the site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club; he then flew an airplane over the site and her ashes came to rest.
Her fourth husband, “Mac” McKendry, continued to live in Cantil and survived her for many years.
Bill Barnes, Pancho Barnes’ son died piloting a P-51 Mustang flying near Fox Field in Lancaster in October 1980. In 1940, His Mother founded Barnes Aviation of Lancaster a local FBO which Bill operated, and it remains in operation today.
Her life and personality were portrayed in the 1983 epic film The Right Stuff adapted from Tom Wolfe’s bestselling book of the same name. Kim Stanley played her. She was also the subject of a heavily fictionalized 1988 TV movie written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Richard Heffron entitled Pancho Barnes, in which she was portrayed by Valerie Bertinelli. The first biography about Pancho was published in 1986, The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus: The Story of Pancho Barnes, written by Grover Ted Tate, who relied heavily upon the copyrighted autobiography materials of Pancho Barnes.
In 1996, a second biography appeared, Pancho: The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes, written by Barbara Schultz. A third biography appeared in 2000, written by Lauren Kessler, The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) sponsored a documentary film, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, completed in 2009. In it, Kathy Bates provides the voice of Pancho Barnes. The documentary was made independent of the estate of Pancho Barnes. However, the estate gave the film makers full access to her personal papers and photographs as well as her copyrighted autobiography that are owned by the estate.
The film, that chronicles Pancho Barnes’ life story, was produced and written by Nick T. Spark and directed by Amanda Pope in affiliation with KOCE-TV, a PBS station in Orange County, California. The documentary won an Emmy for best arts and history documentary.
Pancho’s famous Mystery Ship for a long was located in a hangar at Mojave Airport. It was sold to a private collector years ago and is now in a U.K. museum where it has been restored and on display.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club site is the location for the annual Edwards Air Force Base Pancho Barnes Day celebration, which was established in 1980 and continues today. An annual barbecue is held with drinks and dancing and music to honor the memory of the aviation pioneers who once walked the very grounds.