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The Great Female Pilot – Pancho Barnes

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The Great Female Pilot – Pancho Barnes

Barnstormer, world speed record holder, crash survivor, stunt pilot, founder of a pilot union, and owner of a fly-in ranch depicted in The Right Stuff and frequented by friends like Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, and Jimmy Doolittle.

Pancho Barnes was an unconventional character that had a big effect on aviation and aviators during some of the most dynamic years in aviation history.

Though living through pain, prejudice, and the Great Depression, she maintained a love of life.

Born Florence Leontine Lowe, Panch was renowned as a unique, dynamic, humorous, talented, and generous individual.

Pancho was a very respected pilot in the Golden Age of Flight: an era that began with Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight across the Atlantic Ocean and ended twenty years later in Long Beach Harbor with Howard Hughes’ giant flying boat, the “Spruce Goose,” pulling itself out of the water.




Some Flying Accomplishments

Soloing after only six hours of instruction, she was among the first female pilots to be licensed in the United States, and became a renowned stunt pilot who performed in major silent- and sound films, including Howard Hughes’ ambitious Hell’s Angels in 1930.

Pancho later founded one of the first unions in Hollywood, The Associated Motion Picture Pilots’ (AMPP), and became Lockheed’s first female test pilot.

At the Women’s Air Derby on August 4, 1930, Barnes beat Amelia Earhart’s world speed record by flying just over 196 miles per hour in the Travel Air Type R Mystery Ship.

This came after she had crashed at a previous Women’s Air Derby.

pancho barnes

More than Flying

Pancho knew a lot of people in Hollywood, including George Hurrell who went on to become the legendary head of the portrait department of MGM Studios.

Hurrell started his career in Hollywood after taking the photo Barnes used for her pilots license.

The Great Depression hit, and Pancho lost most of her money. She sold her apartment and bought 180 acres of land in the Mojave Desert in 1935.

This would become a place of legend among aviators.

“When you have a choice, choose happy!”

Eventually, Pancho founded the “Happy Bottom Riding Club” at what is now better known as Edwards Air Force Base.

Members could land at her FAA approved airport, watch rodeos at her championship rodeo grounds, dance in her dance hall, have drinks at her bar, eat a great steak in her restaurant, ride horses, swim in her large circular pool, and stay at her hotel.

At its height, there were over 9,000 Happy Bottom Club members worldwide, including heads of state, actors, actresses, high-ranking military, famous writers and artists. All visited her bar and restaurant.

It seems to have been a place filled with great fun, and presided over by Pancho herself, who could dispense everything from discussions on airplane technology to good time philosophy like her famous statement, “When you have a choice, choose happy!”


© Mark Dorr

References & Image References:

(1) Wikipedia
(2) Gruner.com
(3) Panchobarnes.com
(4) Wikipedia
(5) PanchoBarnes.com
(6) Fiddler’s Green

Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com

  • Burkes30

    Buzz Aldrin never visited the Happy Bottom Riding Club, contrary to what this article indicates. At the time he was at Edwards AFB it no longer existed. Pancho never said that quote, either. Doesnt appear in any of the biographies about her.

  • What on earth are you talking about?

    Here are three quick places off the top of my head that also attribute that quote to her. http://www.sheldonconcerthall.org/whoispancho.asp, http://www.legendofpanchobarnes.com/film/images/stories/whoispanchobarnes.pdf, http://www.panchobarnes.com/biography.html.

    What makes you say that she never said that quote? Everyone *other* than you says that she was quite fond of saying it.

    Same sources, as well as numerous books, say Buzz Aldrin visited the club.

    Anyway – what’s the point of criticizing, rather than taking note of the fact that she was a renowned aviator, and well worth the mention?

  • The point of our website is to base our valuation of “truth” on the overwhelming evidence. From what I’ve seen, most of the evidence suggests you are wrong. Also, please click on the link in my last comment that proves you are further incorrect in stating the website “legendofpanchobarnes.com” doesn’t contain that quote. The link is an article hosted there, written by Nick Spark, that also attributes the quote to Pancho. As editor, I will be the first to correct an article to make it factually correct, but so far from what I’ve seen, Mark’s article is factually correct in attributing this quote to her.

  • Burkes30

    That quote isn’t on the website you indicate.  Also, I just want to reiterate, Buzz Aldrin never visited the Happy Bottom Riding Club.  I worked at Edwards AFB in the same era when he was out there, and Pancho’s was long gone.

  • Yes it is – this is the link to the exact page: 
    http://www.legendofpanchobarnes.com/film/images/stories/whoispanchobarnes.pdf  

    Search for the phrase and you’ll find it.

    By the way – I think it’s great that you want to maintain the accuracy of the article…I’m all for that and appreciate you taking the time to point out what could potentially be an inaccuracy. So far I don’t see any evidence that suggests the quote isn’t attributable to her or that Buzz never visited the club in his entire life. In fact, from what I hear he’s even been interviewed about it.

  • Mark Dorr

    I appreciate both Ryan’s professionalism and Burkes30’s comments.

    Mostly, I’m glad that people are paying attention to the intriguing life of this woman and keeping her accomplishments and unique take on life in the public eye.

    As Ryan wrote, there’s a significant amount of information out there that points to the article being correct.  

    However, we all know that a well-crafted, referenced piece of writing that demonstrates how the norm is incorrect can possibly drive change in the information provided on panchobarnes.com and many other refs. It would be interesting to see some more details on Burkes30’s argument.

    Most important, it’s great to know about people keeping history alive and, in a civil manner, discussing it to discover the truth.

    Happy searching to all TSW readers who uncover and rediscover history.

  • Nicktspark

    Hi this is Nick Spark and thanks to Google I have come across your page — what an amusing discussion. Mr. Burke is correct, when we interviewed Dr. Aldrin he explained that he only met Pancho after he had already returned from the Moon, over a decade after Panchos resort had burned down. (incidentally I think they got along like mayo on white bread, but not as well as Gordo Cooper who knew Pancho when he was a child…but who unfortunately was deceased by the time we made our movie.) As for that quote, “If you have a choice chose happy”, we decided not to use it in our film because we could not find a single printed source to corroborate it, and in fact one of Panchos biographers was pretty adamant that she never said it. In the end we came to believe it was not important for our film, as it says very little about her character (and other things she said, such as “if I’d did not fly I would explode” do). Pancho was not a conventional person and I think the saccharin character of that statement, even if it was something she said, doesn’t really deserve to be what she’s remembered for. Myself I will take, “flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of hundred dollar bills” any day of the week! Thanks for the discussion and article and please check out the film, the website as you say is http://www.LegendofPanchoBarnes.com.

  • Nicktspark

    Hi this is Nick Spark and thanks to Google I have come across your page — what an amusing discussion. Mr. Burke is correct, when we interviewed Dr. Aldrin he explained that he only met Pancho after he had already returned from the Moon, over a decade after Panchos resort had burned down. (incidentally I think they got along like mayo on white bread, but not as well as Gordo Cooper who knew Pancho when he was a child…but who unfortunately was deceased by the time we made our movie.) As for that quote, “If you have a choice chose happy”, we decided not to use it in our film because we could not find a single printed source to corroborate it, and in fact one of Panchos biographers was pretty adamant that she never said it. In the end we came to believe it was not important for our film, as it says very little about her character (and other things she said, such as “if I’d did not fly I would explode” do). Pancho was not a conventional person and I think the saccharin character of that statement, even if it was something she said, doesn’t really deserve to be what she’s remembered for. Myself I will take, “flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of hundred dollar bills” any day of the week! Thanks for the discussion and article and please check out the film, the website as you say is http://www.LegendofPanchoBarnes.com.

  • Aspentown

    Thanks Nicktspark! That’s exactly what I was talking about: detailed info that helps us sift through the majority of info that indicates otherwise. Much appreciated.

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Top Secret Editors

Ryan is the founder of Top Secret Writers. He is an IT analyst, blogger, journalist, and a researcher for the truth behind strange stories.
 
Lori is TSW's editor. Freelance writer and editor for over 17 years, she loves to read and loves fringe science and conspiracy theory.

Top Secret Writers

Gabrielle is a journalist who finds strange stories the media misses, and enlightens readers about news they never knew existed.
 
Sally is TSW’s health/environmental expert. As a blogger/organic gardener, she’s investigates critical environmental issues.
 
Mark Dorr grew up the son of a treasure hunter. His experiences led to working internationally in some surprising situations!
 
Mark R. Whittington, from Houston, Texas, frequently writes on space, science, political commentary and political culture.

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