Pancho Barnes (1901 – 1975) is considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest American characters. During her lifetime, Pancho (born Florence Leontine Lowe) was reknowned for her individuality, outsized personality, creativity, entrepreneurship, humor, generosity and integrity.
A legend in the aviation community, she was one of the first female pilots to be licensed in the United States, and one of the most respected pilots of the Golden Age of Flight. She was a renowned stunt pilot, performing in several major films of both the silent and sound eras, including Howard Hughes’ influential 1930 epic Hell’s Angels. Pancho later founded one of the first unions in Hollywood, The Associated Motion Picture Pilots’ (AMPP), and she holds the distinction of being Lockheed’s first female test pilot.
Pancho became the "Fastest Woman on Earth" on August 4, 1930, when she beat the world’s speed record set by flying aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
Later on, Barnes gained international fame when she founded the Happy Bottom Riding Club" at what is now Edwards Air Force Base in California. Club members could fly into her FAA approved airport, attend rodeos at her championship rodeo stadium, ride horses from her well-stocked horse corral, dance in her dance hall, have drinks at her bar, eat the best steak of their life in her restaurant, swim in her large circular pool, and then decide to do it all again the next day by checking into her hotel. Additionally, on her 380 acre ranch, The Rancho Oro Verde, she had a thriving dairy, cattle and hog business. During the height of the Happy Bottom Riding Club’s success, there were over 9,000 members worldwide. It was not unusual to find heads of state, high ranking military, actors, actresses, famous writers and artists at her bar and restaurant. At Pancho’s, everyone who liked to enjoy life, laugh and have a good time was welcomed. Pancho was fond of saying, "When you have a choice, choose happy!"
Pancho Barnes’ extraordinary life and outsized personality have been dramatized as part of the sprawling 1983 classic epic "The Right Stuff" from Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, in which stage and film great Kim Stanley portrayed her. In 2010 the PBS documentary "The Legend of Pancho Barnes and The Happy Bottom Riding Club" aired on PBS and starred Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes. The documentary won an Emmy Award for best arts and history documentary. The documentary continues to air on PBS nationally. Check your local listings.