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Florence "Pancho" Barnes grew up in a mansion but did not live like a typical heiress. She wore muddy cowboy boots inside her family's upscale home, tracking manure across the expensive carpets. (1) When Florence became a teenager, she became even more rebellious. As an 8th grader, she received D's and F's in school and began smoking and drinking. In response to this behavior, her parents sent her to the Ramona Convent a Catholic boarding school in neighboring Alhambra (California).
Ramona Convent was a strict environment that taught young women how to become proper Victorian ladies. Florence refused to conform: "During her second year at Ramona Convent, she ran away on horseback to Tijuana [Mexico]." (2) Her parents responded by sending her immediately to another boarding school, Bishop School in La Jolla, Ca.
At Bishop School Florence kept up her rebellious streak. She played pranks on her teachers and fellow students. One day her room-mate came home to find that Florence's horse was standing in their dorm room. Another time, her room-mate found Florence "lying in a pool of blood, a suicide note pinned to her blouse with a dagger." (3) The blood was only ink, but the room-mate was scared and shocked nevertheless. It was typical Florence behavior.
Florence graduated from Bishop School in June 1919. Carolyn, her mother, insisted that she get married as soon as possible. Florence gave up her dreams of becoming a veterinarian and agreed to marry a minister named Calvin Rankin Barnes.
On January 5th, 1921 Florence married Calvin Barnes. Calvin was a minister, not a millionaire, and it was hard for Florence to adjust to living without servants in a modest home. She spent most of her time at her mother's mansion, riding horses instead of cooking and cleaning at her new home. When she became pregnant, she moved into her mother's summer home in Laguna Beach. After William Emmert Barnes (Billy) was born on October 9, 1921, Florence moved into her old room at her parent's house. Her baby was cared for by her mother's servants.
Soon, however, Calvin wanted Florence to come back home. So she moved back into her husband's home and took care of little Billy without the help of servants. Predictably, Florence soon found her life boring and looked for ways to make life more exciting. She found a job training horses in Hollywood and also joined the horse show circuit. She also performed as a stunt double in movies and in horse shows. Even though she only worked a few days a month, it was enough to bring excitment into young Florence's life. With the money she earned, she hired servants to cook, clean and take care of her son. Florence was not romantically in love with Calvin, but having servants and the freedom to work made life comfortable, if not ideal.
Just as Florence was finally adjusting to married life, the unthinkable happened. Her mother died of a stroke, which was probably caused by undiagnosed high blood pressure. Florence, in shock from her mother's death, suffered first from a nervous break down and then from a serious heart condition. She probably suffered from the same high blood pressure as her mother. Doctors told her that she probably would not live. As she lay bedridden she made a decision. She would run away from the illness and take a vacation touring the United States. At first she could not climb stairs without feeling faint, but gradually her strength returned. After several months, she came back completely healthy and as rebellious as ever.
Florence received an inheritance from her mother. She was now financially secure, and was no longer dependent on either her husband or her mother for income. Without her mother around to show her disproval, Florence began to spend less and less time at the house she shared with Calvin. She partied on the weekends with her friends at her mother's beach house and at the San Marino mansion. She soon became romantically involved with a young college student named Bill, and the two had a torrid sexual affair that lasted for months. Calvin was unable to control Florence, so he suggested that she take a cruise. She set sail in 1927 for a cruise of South America, but the cruise did little to curtail her rebellion. Instead, she met a man named Don Rockwell, who became her next lover. Their affair lasted only slightly longer than the trip, but that was typical Florence. She loved freedom and excitement and was not one to settle down. At this point in her life she barely kept up the pretense of being a minister's wife.
Even though Florence was far from the ideal wife and mother, she still spent part of her time at the house that she shared with her husband and son, and was a permanent fixture in their lives. That changed after she got drunk one night and pretended to be a man so that she could be a sailor on a ship bound for Panama. No one was the wiser. After the ship set sail, Florence realized that she was on a ship that was carrying guns and ammunition to Mexican revolutionaries. After the ship delivered its cargo it was held at gunpoint by bandits. Roger Chute, a fellow sailor, escaped with Florence in a small rowboat. "They escaped at dawn, leaving the rest of the crew on board" (3). They bought a horse and a small burro from the locals, and set off across the countryside.
One day Florence looked at her companion and could not help but laugh. She said, "'If you don't look just like a modern-day Don Quixote riding such a skate,' she teased him. He looked down at her burro and laughed. 'In that case, you must be his companion, Pancho.'
'You mean Sancho,' she corrected him. 'Sancho Panza.'
'Ah, what the hell, Pancho or Sancho, you fit the bill,' Roger said. 'From now on I'm calling you Pancho.' (4).
Florence loved her new nickname. Pancho Barnes had a nice ring to it. Roger and her hiked across Mexico, hitched rides on several vessels, ended up in New Orleans, and walked and hitchhiked back to California. Florence "Pancho" Barnes did not send her husband a telegram or ask for help at all. She simply showed up on his doorstep after several months of a grand adventure.
Pancho Learns to Fly
In 1928 Pancho's cousin was taking flying lessons, and she wanted to learn as well. Flying would become her next adventure. She practiced constantly and soon was flying solo. "Just a month after soloing, she took her first long-distance flight, a 150-mile jaunt up to Santa Barbara and back" (5). She flew without any instruments or a radio and flew low so she could follow the roads. Pancho participated in air races and was a "test pilot for Bach, Lockheed, and Beechcraft, flyiing their ships eighty-seven times , by her count, in a single year" (6). Pancho loved flying and bought the newest and fastest planes as soon as they became available. She participated in races and stunt shows, and was often the only woman participating.
The Cross Country Trip
"Of the 4,690 licensed pilots in America in the summer of 1929, only 34 were women. When a woman showed up at an airfield, test-piloted a plane, or flew in a race, she-- along with the airfield, the plane, and the race--was assured publicity. Female fliers were so much of a novelty that they were almost a sideshow. They were also the most dramatic, visible symbol of women breaking with their Victorian pasts, defying convention as they defied gravity. It was a new age, when young women of a certain class used their privilege not to shield themselves from experience but rather to lunge at it, and no one lunged harder than Pancho and her cohorts" (7)
In 1929 plans were made to have an all-female cross-country air race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio. Pancho Barnes joined the race. It would take eight days for the women to cross the country. Nineteen women, including Pancho, took off from Santa Monica and landed without mishap. The next day one woman died, a casualty of the Arizona desert. Pancho then accidentally crashed her plane when she landed to refuel. She had landed on top of an automobile. Her plane was so damaged that she had to drop out of the race. Louise Thaden won the race, Gladys O'Donnell came in second, and Ameila Earhart, third. Pancho went to Cleveland to watch the National Air Races and celebrated with the remaining flyers.
Fastest Girl in the U.S.
In 1930 and 1931 Pancho took part in speed racing competitions. "Pancho became the "Fastest Woman on Earth" on August 4, 1930, when she beat the world's speed record set by flying ace Amelia Earhart" (8). In 1931 the governor of California gave her a trophy engraved with the words "America's Fastest Woman Flyer" (9). Pancho was a celebrity, a famous flyer as well as a stunt pilot. But what about Calvin and Billy Barnes? When Florence trekked through Mexico on a burro and changed her name to Pancho, she had made the decision to leave her family and pursue adventure instead. Since 1928, Pancho had not lived with her husband, and in 1931 he moved to New York City with her son, Billy. Calvin Barnes had been promoted to executive secretary for the National Council of the Episcopal Church. Pancho was not expected to accompany him. Calvin was not romantically in love with his wife, but while he was oftentimes embarassed with her, he still did not divorce her. Instead the two kept up the pretense of marriage and stayed friends via correspondence.
This arrangement suited Pancho.
Aerial Performer and W.A.R. Founder
Pancho had no time to be a mother. She was too busy starring in movies as an aerial performer. She also helped to form the Association of Motion Picture Pilots in 1932 and made an unsuccessful run for public office the same year. Pancho also joined Bobbi Trout "to form the Women's Air Reserve, W.A.R., whose principle purpose was to aid in disasters, where it was impossible to reach people in need of medical attention, except by plane. They had uniforms and trained in first aid, navigation and military maneuvers. W.A.R. consisted mostly of doctors, nurses, pilots and parachutists who could go directly to the scene of a disaster by air and help" (10). Like Thaddeus Lowe, who helped the Union without the benefit of rank or official status, these women played a role in serving their country without official recognition from the U.S. government.
Happy Bottom Riding Club
Pancho was a busy girl, but she did what she wanted to do without thinking of money. She participated in W.A.R. without compensation, and spent her income from aerial performing as soon as she made it on wild parties. She was a heiress, she had always had money, so it came to a surprise to her in mid-1930s that she had run through almost all of her inheritance. She had no money to keep up her mother's mansion and eventually had to rent it out. She lost the Laguna Beach house. There was no more money for the wild parties she was used to throwing for her pilot friends.
In 1935 she traded an apartment house she owned for eighty acres in Muroc, California, a dusty settlement in the middle of nowhere. She had big plans, first to become an alfalfa farmer, then a dairy farmer. She was a garbage collector, owned a hog farm, built an airstrip and founded a flight school. One of the members of her flight school was named Irma "Babe" Story, and "went on to serve as a WASP (Women's Airforce Service Pilot) during the war, one of two thousand specially trained female pilots to fly everything from colossal B-29 Superfortresses to lightning fast P-51 Mustang fighters, ferrying planes for the military and flying noncombat missions" (11). The flight school was open until the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack forced the closing of all private airports near the Pacific Coast.
Pancho found a new source of revenue with the war. The Muroc Air Base was near her ranch, therefore, her ranch became the hangout spot for the military men and pilots. She called her place the "The Happy Bottom Riding Club," which was a private, member only club. She had guest houses, airstrips, a bar and grill, a pool and lush grounds, an oasis in the desert. Typically, her private club was not so private: "at its peak, her club had nine thousand card-carrying members" (12).
Her club was wildly successful, but her personal life was still complicated. Her first husband, Calvin, divorced her, and she married and quickly divorced two more men before the war was over. In 1952 she married long time boyfriend Mac McKendry, and was married to him until she divorced him in 1962. Before the divorce, Mac and Pancho had a great relationship: Mac supported Pancho through serious health issues, and they were a solid couple for over a decade. The couple had fallen on hard times during their marriage: Pancho lost her fortune and her ranch during the 50's.
The End of the Happy Bottom Riding Club
By the 1950s the Muroc Army Base transformed into the Edwards Air Force Base, a mammoth enterprise many times larger than the small military fields that were there when Pancho bought her land and turned it into a refuge for pilots. Aviation was no longer the same. With the advent of the cold war, and advantages in technology and industry, flying was no longer a sport for daredevils like Pancho. It was a multi-billion dollar enterprise run by conversative individuals who were concerned with defeating the Soviets in an Arms Race. Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club, which encouraged lewd and drunken behavior on the part of the pilots, had no place in the straight laced Edwards Base of the 1950s. The military made the decision to expand onto Pancho's land, and forced her to buy out. Several costly legal battles later, after her club had burned to the ground, Pancho was forced to move off her land. She was the daughter of the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Air Force had abandoned her. The stress of this battle and her mounting debts were too much for her fragile marriage to handle and it collasped. Pancho ended up divorced, alone, broke and forgotten. Almost.
Grand-Daughter of the United States Air Force
In 1963 her old friend Ted Tate convinced her to begin to speak for audiences who wanted to hear her stories. Unti her death in 1975, she spoke before audiences who wanted to hear her exploits in Mexico and her stories of entertaining pilots during World War II at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her audiences were astonished to know that Pancho knew Ameila Earhart, Howard Hughes and dozens of other famous Americans. Pancho looked forward to these meetings where she could once more become the center of attention and tell her famous stories.
After her death, a day in her honor was officially established in 1980. Edwards Base still celebrates this holiday in honor of the woman who devoted her life to aviation.
For more information on Pancho Barnes and other female aviators visit www.iwasm.org
Read More About Pancho:
The Legend of Pancho Barnes
Pancho Barnes Day
Pancho Barnes Official Site
Official Site of the Ninety-Nines
(1) Kessler, Lauren. The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes. Random House: New York, 2000, p. 17.
(2) Ibid., 19.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 43-4.
(5) Ibid., 56.
(6) Ibid., 65.
(7) Ibid., 69.
(8) The Official Pancho Barnes Site, by Pancho Barnes Enterprises, http://www.panchobarnes.com/biography.html
(9) Ibid., 85.
(10) "Bobbi Evelyn Trout", The Ninety-Nines, Inc. Site, http://www.ninety-nines.org/index.cfm/bobbi_trout.htm
(11) Kessler, 131.(12) Ibid., 165.