September 27, 2023 | Samantha Henman

The Legendary Pancho Barnes

When it comes to legendary aviators, few can match the career and lasting impact of Pancho Barnes—stunt pilot, founder of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, and rival to none other than Amelia Earhart

Barnes, born Florence Leontine Lowe, was destined to fly. Her grandfather was known as “the father of military aerial reconnaissance in the United States,” and was a chief aeronaut in the Civil War. In 1928, she took up flying on a whim—and within six hours, she was flying solo.

Flying instantly became her passion, and just two short years later, she beat Amelia Earhart's world women's speed record. Barnes’ next stop after that was Hollywood. Not only did she become a stunt pilot, but she also founded the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, a union that pushed for safety and regulated salaries for other film pilots. Pancho InternalSan Diego Air and Space Museum Archives, Wikimedia CommonsPancho Barnes had been born wealthy, but lost most of what she had in the Great Depression—but, like everything else in life, she handled this misfortune with aplomb. She left her apartment in LA and bought a plot of land right near an airfield in the Mojave Desert to open the Happy Bottom Riding Club. 

After pilots like Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin spent a day breaking flight records, they could head over to the Happy Bottom Riding Club to hang and unwind. If they broke the sound barrier, Barnes would give them a free steak. However, her choice of neighbor would come back to haunt her. 

When the US Air Force wanted to extend their runway, they needed the land occupied by the Happy Bottom Riding Club, but Barnes refused their paltry first offer. In turn, they accused her of running a brothel—but she didn’t take their insult sitting down. Barnes sued the Air Force, knowing that they had no evidence to prove their claims. In the middle of it all, disaster struck. 

In 1953, the ranch mysteriously caught fire. Without it, her property was less valuable, but Barnes refused to back down. Eventually, the Air Force paid her $375,000—but that’s where things stalled. The Air Force never extended the runway, and Barnes never built a replacement for the club. In 1975, when she died, her son had her ashes scattered over the former site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club—and despite the bad blood, the mess at Edwards Air Base bears her name to this day. 

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