If you ever saw “The Right Stuff,” then you are familiar with this person, one of those obscure movie characters who turned out to be a real person – Pancho Barnes. She was the owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a remote bar and grill situated in the Southern California high desert along the edges of Edwards Air Force base.
She was quite the character.
In 1928 she took flying lessons on a whim and immediately displayed a natural skill for stick and rudder. After only six hours of instruction Barnes made her first solo.
Within the year she was competing in air races and running her own barnstorming show. She picked up Union Oil as a sponsor in 1929 and broke Amelia Earhart’s womens speed record of 196.19 mph.
After completing her contract with Union, it was off to Hollywood where Barnes went to work as a stunt pilot. She founded the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, a union of film industry stunt fliers who promoted flying safety and standardized pay for aerial stunt work. She flew in several air-adventure movies of the 1930s, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels.
Like many others Barnes lost her money during the Great Depression. The only thing remaining was her Hollywood apartment. She sold that and purchased 180 acres of land in the Mojave Desert.
Her Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch/restaurant, catered to airmen at the nearby airfield and her friends from Hollywood. Barnes became very close friends with many of the early test pilots, including Chuck Yeager, General Jimmy Doolittle, and Buzz Aldrin. Pancho’s ranch became famous for the parties and high-flying lifestyle of all the guests.
A misunderstanding with the Air Force in the early fifties ended with her place designated off-limits to military personnel. The whole affair played out in court during a high-profile lawsuit, Pancho Barnes vs. the U.S. Air Force. Sometime during the trial the Happy Bottom Riding Ranch burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. She won her suit and was awarded $375,000 for her business and property.
Pancho Barnes died in her Boron, Calif., home on March 30, 1975. Her son dropped her ashes from an airplane flying over the desert remains of the old Happy Bottom Riding Club. She was 73.
I tell you, we got two categories of pilots around here. We got your prime pilots that get all the hot planes, and we got your pud-knockers who dream about getting the hot planes. Now what are you two pud-knockers gonna have?
– Kim Stanley as Pancho Barnes – The Right Stuff[/box]