Pancho Barnes and The Right Stuff (1983) are linked forever. Pancho Barnes was an early aviation pioneer. Learn how she was portrayed in The Right Stuff (1983).
If you are a fan on The Right Stuff (1983), and quite frankly, who isn’t, you are familiar with the scenes set at The Happy Bottom Riding Club. In the movie the Riding Club is a rat hole bar and the owner Pancho only has a few lines.
The movie shows the Edwards Air Force base pilots celebrating their exploits at the club. This was indeed what they did but the reason they did so is extremely interesting. The reason they enjoyed their time at the club was because they could talk Pancho about aviation because she was in fact one of the pioneers.
Pancho as we now know her was born Florence Lowe to a wealthy San Marino, California. Her grandfather was one of the Civil War observation balloon operators for the Union Army and was in the first military air unit, balloons not planes.
At age 19 she was pushed into a marriage to a local preacher by the name of Reverend Barnes. In short order the couple had a son. While very wealthy Pancho wasn’t happy with her life. She disguised herself as a man and took off for Mexico on a banana boat. In reality the boat was running guns and she ended up staying with the revolutionaries for several months. It was during this trip that she began going by the name Pancho.
When Pancho got back to the states she started taking flying lessons and was a natural. She started barnstorming and racing. At this time Orville Wright was the only one that could grant a pilots license and he didn’t like to give them to women. Pancho sent a picture of herself dressed as a man and got the license.
In 1929, she was in an all female cross-country race and this was the first time the term powder puff was used for something all female. She crashed in 1929 but returned in 1930 to win the race. She also broke Amelia Earhart’s women’s speed record.
She spent sometime in Hollywood doing stunt work for movies including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). During this time she started a union for stunt pilots and broke new ground by insisting that Jewish fliers be allowed to join.
Pancho lost most of her money during the great depression trying to help other fliers. Finally she sold her favorite plane and bought 180 acres in the Mojave Desert next to what would be Edwards Air Force base.
After years of struggle she finally opened the dude ranch that would become The Happy Bottom Riding Club. It had an airstrip, a bar, rooms, and beautiful hostesses. Big star would often fly in to the very popular destination. The pilots from Edwards showed up as well. Pancho would give a steak dinner to anyone that broke the sound barrier. There may have also been pictures of pilots that had died on the walls.
In the 1950’s the base tried to condemn her property. This lead to a long court battle and left Pancho with very few resources. During the trial her placed burned and for a long time she blamed the Air Force. Shortly after this her 4th husband left her. In time her relationship with the Air Force improved and she began to return to the base. She became a fixture of the base and was in demand as a speaker. In 1975, she died of breast cancer. The base still holds a Pancho Barnes day at the site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club.
If you want to learn more about this amazing women and aviation pioneer look for the PBS documentary The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club (2009) or the 2000 biography The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes by Lauren Kessler.