Soaring Spirit

Bucking convention, Pancho Barnes made history on her own terms.
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Bucking convention, Pancho Barnes made history on her own terms.
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Pancho Barnes wasn’t the type to give out compliments. She sure as heck didn’t receive many, either.

“The only argument about her was whether she was the ugliest woman we had ever seen, or one of the ugliest,” writes legendary Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, in his autobiography Yeager.

“She had the filthiest mouth that any of us fighter jocks had ever heard,” he continues. If Barnes—a legendary aviator in her own right, who bested Amelia Earhart’s speed record to become “the fastest woman on earth” —were alive today (she passed away in 1975), she would have taken that as the ultimate compliment. That’s just the way she was.

Born Florence Lowe in 1901 into a family of wealth and prestige, Barnes could have lived the life of a debutante. Instead she chose to be a free-spirited adventurer. “When you have a choice, choose happy!” was her personal mantra. She earned the nickname “Pancho” after she left her minister husband (and young son) to explore Mexico during the revolution of the late 1920s.

In 1929 she became one of the first female pilots in the U.S., and later showed her entrepreneurial streak by buying a working cattle ranch in southern California. The Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch, also known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club, became a hangout for pilots and officers, including Yeager, from nearby Muroc, which today is part of Edwards Air Force Base. As its reputation grew, so did its grounds, expanding to 368-acres that featured a swimming pool, enlarged airstrip, restaurant, dance hall, rodeo grounds, and guest rooms.

The ranch eventually boasted 9,000 members in its heyday in the early 1950s, with famous actors, celebrities, heads-of-state, and writers and artists joining the fun. The legend grew immensely when the Happy Bottom Riding Club was prominently featured in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel The Right Stuff and the book’s 1983 cinematic adaptation.

A fire destroyed the ranch in 1953, and the Air Force later took over the land as an extension of Edwards Air Force Base. Today, servicemen there hold an annual commemorative barbecue on the club’s former site.