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Pancho Barnes: An Affair With the Air Force : Ex-Socialite, Stunt Pilot, Club Owner Had the Right Stuff

November 17, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

ROSAMOND — Edwards Air Force Base historian Jim Young had better things to do than to discuss the grande dame--and some say madam--of the glory days at Edwards, a profane former San Marino socialite named Pancho Barnes.

Young was busy unveiling a new trainer aircraft for the press on this particular day. He didn't relish the task of dragging out seven file folders stuffed with photos of Pancho flashing her cackling grin at aviation heroes such as Chuck Yeager, Jack Ridley, Pete Everest and Jimmy Doolittle.

Pancho Barnes--who died ingloriously in Boron 10 years ago--always had a place in her heart for the Air Force, but, to this day, the Air Force has never quite known what to think about Pancho.

Beating Earhart

It would be one thing if she were remembered for her flying exploits--one of which was beating Amelia Earhart's air-speed record in 1930. Then the Edwards folks could provide the customary bio and statistics.

But Pancho's celebrity came as proprietor of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch equipped with a landing strip out in the empty desert east of Rosamond. The club, which some Edwards' brass suspected of being a brothel, was resurrected recently in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Chuck Yeager's best-selling autobiography devotes an entire chapter to Pancho's place, which he calls the "clubhouse and playroom" of the test pilots.

Pancho's personal style must have annoyed the more conservative members of the military in the late '40s and '50s. She had a foul mouth, and a face "like a mud fence," according to Chuck Yeager's wife, Glennis. She refused to wear dresses, and was most often clad in jodhpurs and Western shirts, hair sticking out "like last year's straw stack," in the words of the former piano player at the club.

Born to wealth as Florence Leontine Lowe, she acquired the name "Pancho" when, disguised as a man, she crewed on a banana boat that was actually running guns to Mexican revolutionaries.

Pancho took up stunt flying in the '20s, and toured the country with a spectacle called "Pancho Barnes' Mystery Circus of the Air." As part of the entertainment, Pancho and partner would take a young woman from the audience for her first airplane ride, strapping her into a parachute for safety. High above the crowd, they'd toss the unwitting volunteer out, yanking her rip cord from the plane.

"There was much in her life that shows irresponsibility," said historian Young. "She had absolute disregard for any kind of convention. She had to be the most litigious person that ever lived. She was always suing somebody and making money off it."

Pancho's most famous lawsuits pitted her against the Air Force, which first accused her of running a bordello, and later claimed her land for base expansion.

For nearly 30 years after the clubhouse was destroyed in a fire of unknown origin, the remains of the former flyboys' hangout deteriorated, unvisited. The ruins were posted off-limits because they are adjacent to a small gun range, and test pilots perform a hazardous maneuver known as spin testing in the sky nearby.

But once a year for the last five summers, base personnel have unlocked the gate and patched the dirt road leading out to Pancho's place. A band sets up on the foundation of what was once the clubhouse, and former staff and patrons of the Happy Bottom Riding Club sit around the shell of the swimming pool in the glare of light bulbs strung for the occasion. They swap Pancho yarns, munch barbecue and dance in the dust till past midnight.

The proceeds from the Pancho Barnes Memorial Barbecues (this year, about 800 attended) will help fund a Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards. Due to open in two years, the museum will undoubtedly display relics of Pancho's life. But there may be some episodes left out.

Twenty miles north of Mojave there are two stone pillars just off Highway 14. Drive between these sentinels and you come to a typical desert rat encampment--a few low buildings the color of the surrounding earth, vehicles scattered around, and a handful of cottonwood trees.

A shining Amtrak railroad car contrasts with the rest of the setting. Inside is all that remains of those Pancho Barnes possessions that survived the clubhouse fire. There are dusty cardboard boxes filled with legal papers and receipts from the various businesses Pancho operated with her fourth husband, Eugene (Mac) McKendry.

McKendry lives in a house beside the Amtrak car with his wife, Lenora. McKendry's plan is to sort through the memorabilia in the train car and establish a Pancho archives. This has been his plan for the past eight years, but Lenora's poor health has interfered with the museum's progress.

"I'm thinking of making a little bar like the bar Pancho and I used to have for our friends who come to visit," said McKendry. "You can always talk better in a bar."

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