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She Loved a Fast Taxi Down a Dirt Strip

Aviation Pioneer Pancho Barnes Was Born with the Daredevil Gene. Her Introduction to the World of Flying Was Nothing Short of Mythological.

May 14, 2000|LAUREN KESSLER | Lauren Kessler is the author of nine books. She lives in Eugene, Ore., where she directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon

Pancho Barnes was a Southern California original. Born to privilege in Pasadena, she shed the conventions of early 20th century society to live life for one purpose: enjoyment. She hunted adventure in Mexico, learned to fly when few women dared, feuded with Howard Hughes, tried to seduce the actor who played the Cisco Kid, raced Amelia Earhart across the country, outdrank Hollywood legends and, you may remember from the book and movie "The Right Stuff," ran the raucous "Happy Bottom Riding Club," her guest ranch and bar near Edwards Air Force Base. Over the years, she played with and hosted giants of aviation and the big screen. Until her death in 1974, her racy stories, off-color jokes and enormous laugh captivated everyone around her.

The following is an excerpt from "The Happy Bottom Riding Club, The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes," to be published by Random House late this month. Barnes, not yet 27, has split with her husband, C. Rankin Barnes, an Episcopal minister, and left their San Marino estate for a seven-month journey to Mexico, fleeing bandits and revolutionaries, traveling by tramp steamer, burro and on foot before hitchhiking back to California. Now she wants to learn to fly.

In the late spring of 1927, while Pancho was riding a burro across the Sierra Madre, another audacious explorer, a traveler of a different sort, was piloting a monoplane across the Atlantic. When Charles Augustus Lindbergh completed the first nonstop transatlantic flight in history on May 21, he became not just a hero, not just an immediate celebrity, not just an instant legend, but the most famous human being on earth. Afterward, when he crisscrossed the United States on a Guggenheim-funded tour to promote aviation, stopping at countless cities and towns along the way, thousands and thousands of people came to pay homage to the future.

The next spring, a tall, slender, sandy-haired woman who looked enough like Lindbergh to be his sister flew from Newfoundland to Wales in 20 hours and 40 minutes. Although she was a licensed pilot, Amelia Earhart went as a passenger on that flight, a stunt orchestrated by her husband-to-be, the New York publisher G.P. Putnam. Shrewdly, he labeled her "Lady Lindy" and set in motion a public relations juggernaut that made her Lindbergh's equal on the pages of the daily newspapers, if not also in the skies.

She may have been aviation's first bona fide national heroine, but Earhart--who was known simply by her initials, A.E.--was hardly the first or the best of the female fliers. More than a decade before A.E. went along for the famous transatlantic ride, a young stunt pilot named Ruth Law flew nonstop solo from Chicago to New York. Before her, there was San Francisco journalist Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to receive a pilot's license (in 1911), who flew the English Channel, and her friend Mathilde Moisant, the second licensed woman, a fearless pilot who set altitude records, put on exhibitions throughout Mexico and narrowly escaped death on more than one occasion. There was "Queen Bess"--Bessie Coleman--the first African American woman aviator, licensed two years before A.E., who toured the South as a flying daredevil.

There were others, too, wing-walkers and parachutists, barnstormers and record-breakers both female and male, who flew their tiny open-cockpit planes in the years immediately before and after the First World War. But it was not until Lindbergh and Earhart in the late 1920s that America became plane crazy. Long Island, especially Roosevelt Field, was one center of activity. So was Dayton, Ohio, hometown of the Wright brothers. In the West, aviators were drawn to Southern California, with its open land and clear skies. There, by the middle 1920s, dozens and dozens of little airfields were being carved from farmlands and orchards with thousand-foot dirt runways and shacks for hangars: Arcadia, Alhambra, Baldwin Park, Culver City, Crawford out in Venice, Rogers at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax, Martin Brothers in Santa Ana. Metropolitan in Van Nuys was the biggest, 80 acres surrounded by chicken farms, where the owner raised banana squash between the runways. Kids rode their bikes out to the airstrips after school to gawk at the World War I Jennies and the pilots in their greasy overalls hunkered down in the shade under the wings. Crowds came out on the weekends to see the pilots loop and spin and dive. Daredevils and would-be record-breakers came from all over the country to fly the skies of Southern California. A.E. said the flying conditions in and around Los Angeles were the best she'd found anywhere. Ruth Elder, a fiercely competitive long-distance flier, thought Los Angeles was "the aviation center of America." Bobbi Trout, a local girl who set out to break every record she could, said of Southern California: "The flyer learns here as nowhere else the meaning of the joy of flying."


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