One cannot talk about the history of Muroc or Edwards Air Force Base without mentioning Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes & the Happy Bottom Riding Club.
Borne Florence Lowe on July 29, 1901, she was the daughter of wealthy parents who stood high in the social scale of the Pasadena, CA community. Her childhood was spent growing up in the Lowe’s 32-room mansion that was the family home in San Marino, CA. As a child, she proved difficult to control, always trying to gain attention by embarrassing her parents.
At the age of 19, Florence wed the Reverend C. Rankin Barnes who was a prominent Episcopal priest and actually settled down to become a duteous clergyman’s wife. On October 9, 1921, she gave birth to a son, William. Motherhood did not suit the young Mrs. Barnes, by 1923, Florence had grown tired of keeping house, taking care of an infant child and living on the Reverend’s meager salary of $1800 per year.
Pancho’s first adventure
On May 31, 1924, Florence’s mother died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack. Florence’s inheritance netted her a total of $500,000; which would equate to around $5,000,000 in today’s money, as formulated by the Consumer Price Index. The newfound wealth (after struggling on the Reverend’s salary) gave her a degree of newfound independence. Florence began to indulge in travel and almost abandoned her husband and child.
In May 1927, Florence began a trip to Mexico on a ship called the El Camino and became aquatinted with the helmsman, Roger Chute. During the trip, Florence had to be disguised as a man to prevent her from being attacked by Mexican bandits. She cut her hair short, taped up her breasts and chewed & spat tobacco like a salty sailor. Wearing loose fitting men’s clothes and a Tam hat to hide her hair, she managed to be quite convincing, particularly with the course language she was using!
It was during this trip that se gained the name for which she will always be remembered. Whilst riding a donkey on a long trek, her companion, Roger Chute dubbed her “Pancho” because of her resemblance to Don Quixote’s faithful companion. She was delighted with the nickname Roger had given her and she used it as her name for the rest of her life.
Upon returning to San Marino, Pancho decided it would be fun to learn to fly and bought a Travelair 9000 Bi-plane for $5,500. She hired an expert instructor in Ben Catlin and soloed after only 6 hours instruction. Pancho celebrated by taking her friend Nelse Griffith up after only 5 minutes solo flying time. Nelse suggested to Pancho that he wing-walk while flying low level over the airfield! This was typical of the adventures Pancho found herself caught up in. Shortly after learning to fly, Pancho graded in an airstrip at her Laguna Beach property, which became the scene of many a raucous party. Guests included Ernest Udet (WWI German ace) and George Patton (who went on to become a famous WWII General).
The Travelair Mystery Ship & the Hollywood connection
In 1930, Pancho purchased a Travelair Model R (better known as the Mystery Ship). The Mystery Ship was a sleek low-0winged monoplane built for racing. In this airplane, Pancho won the famous Powder-Puff Derby and blazed the route at an average speed of 196.19mph. In doing so, she took the worlds speed record for women from Amelia Earhart.
Pancho became one of Hollywood’s premier stunt pilots, working for Howard Hughes on the movie “Hells Angels”. Pancho formed a company called the Associated Motion Pictures Pilots Association in January 1932 with 3 other movie stunt pilots; Frank Clarke, W.H. “Robbie” Robinson & Roy Wilson. The AMPP contracted with various movie studios for guaranteed work & the pilots of the AMPP (who had to be paid up members) were the only movie stunt pilots who were able to get regular work for acceptable wages.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club
In January 1935, Pancho moved into an 80-acre ranch in Muroc, just 75 miles north of Los Angeles. Pancho acquired the property by trading her apartment building in Hollywood (which was valued at $25,000) for Ben Hannam’s ranch. Pancho named the ranch “Rancho Oro Verde” which when translated into English means, Green Gold Ranch. There was a nice story about the ranch which was said to have gold in the bedrock underneath the ranch itself, Pancho often found gold nugget’s coming out of her water well!
Pancho managed to Eke out a living from the ranch by raising cattle for milking and butchering for the meat. Pancho later would become famous for her steaks, which were from her own cattle. She also raised hogs and Alfa Alfa crops. Pancho had a contract with the Army Air Corps at Muroc to remove the encampment’s garbage, which she then had recycled to feed her hog population.
Over the next few years, Pancho purchased more land and expanded the ranch to 368 acres. The ranch house was enlarged and a swimming pool was built with eventually a bar, restaurant, dance hall and motel built on the property. Another bar and coffee shop were added and Pancho had an airstrip graded at her ranch, which allowed her friends to fly-in for the weekend. By now the name had changed to Rancho Oro Verde Fly-inn Dude Ranch. Pancho kept horses at the ranch of her guests to ride, one of which was General Jimmy Doolittle. When Pancho asked him what he thought of the horse, Doolittle replied “he gave ma a very happy bottom”.
Not long after Doolittle’s famous comment, Pancho changed the name of her ranch again. The new name was “The Happy Bottom riding Club” and the first two members of the club were Jimmy Doolittle and Chuck Yeager. Pancho adored flying and pilots, particularly military combat & test pilots. Amongst her closest friends were; H.H. “Hap” Arnold, Al Boyd, Bob Cardenas, Jimmy Doolittle, Pete Everest, Bob Hoover, Jackie Ridley and Chuck Yeager. Around the time the X-1 was being flown, Pancho asked Bob Hoover why he was still only a Lieutenant. Hoover replied that it was something to do with a freeze in promotions. Pancho was outraged, picked up the phone at her bar and called General Tooey Spatz on his unlisted number in Washington D.C. Chuck Yeager later recalled the phone call – Pancho said “Tooey, I’ve got a young Lieutenant here named Bob Hoover, who’s being fucked over royally….” That was typical of Pancho!
At war with the Air Force
The Happy Bottom Riding Club was the unofficial officers club for those stationed at Muroc. Pancho was terribly generous to the lower ranked test pilots, often putting them and their wives up at her Motel, giving them free accommodation, food, drinks and horseback riding. It is written in folklore (and in the book “The Right Stuff”) that Capt. Chuck Yeager won a free steak with all the trimmings for the first supersonic flight. This started a tradition for all pilots celebrating their first supersonic flight. After a few years, Pancho had to stop giving out the free steaks as almost every airplane could achieve supersonic speeds.
In 1952, Al boyd departed Edwards AFB and the next commander; Brigadier General Stanley Holtoner was not so acomodating to Pancho and her Ranch. The Airforce wanted to expand Edwards and Pancho & her ranch stood in the way of the proposed expansion. A nighttime fire, mysteriously destroyed the ranch and along with her lifetimes accumulation of irreplaceable souvenirs and valuables. Pancho took the Air Force to court in an attempt to gain what she thought was a fair price for the ranch. Their original offer of $194,000 fell far short of her estimate of $1,493,000. It took until the summer of 1956 for the suit to be settled, Pancho was awarded $414,000 compensation for the damage caused to her character by the Air Force (primarily by Holtoner).
Pancho vacated Rancho Oro Verde & moved to nearby Gypsy Springs in 1954, but the good times of the past never returned. During her life, she had been married three times; her third husband was Eugene “Mac” McKendry. In her wedding to McKendry, Al Boyd gave away the bride and Chuck Yeager acted as best man. Mac was by her side in 1958 & 1961 when Pancho was diagnosed with breast cancer. Pancho underwent two radical mastectomies and lost both her breasts.
Pancho filed for divorce from Mac in 1962, after realizing he was living with another woman at the Jawbone Café (which she owned). The divorce was particularly messy & Mac tried all he could to get Pancho to leave her little shack, including cutting off her water supply.
Pancho recovered from her cancer scares & became a popular speaker at various events around Edwards. She was due to talk at the Edwards AFB Wives Club on March 30, 1975. Pancho didn’t turn up. The wife of the AFFTC commander called Pancho’s son Bill. Bill drove to his mother’s home in Boron, CA, to check on his mother. He found her body amongst several of her Chihuahua’s. The coroner found that Pancho died several days earlier from massive heart failure.
Party at Pancho’s
As a mark of respect, for many years, the people of Edwards AFB gather at the remains of the Happy Bottom Riding Club each year for a barbecue. The ensuing party and dancing goes on late into the night, sometimes getting quite raucous. Pancho would have liked that. There may be plans to rebuild Pancho’s as part of the AFFTC Museum. I for one cannot think of a better project to honor her with.
I would like to thank Dr. Raymond L. Puffer of the AFFTC History Office and author Barbara Hunter Schultz for donation of photographs & material which has allowed me to write this piece on Pancho. Barbara has penned the excellent book “Pancho – The biography of Florence Lowe Barnes”. You can purchase a copy of the book directly from Barbara’s website at Plane Mercantile
© Please note that the photographs on this page are copyrighted and used with permission of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive
Further weblinks to Pancho Barnes can be found below