- Business Advocacy
The Right Stuff won four Academy Awards in 1983. It told the epic story of America's post World War II test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base and our country's initial manned venture into space with the Mercury Project. The movie recounted in rich detail the unique personalities that were part of this era.
Alhambra had a significant Southern California airport from 1920 to the mid 1940s. During the 1920s and much of the ‘30s, it did more flights than the Burbank Airport or LAX. Along with having the largest aircraft maintenance hanger in the world, the Alhambra Airport was the headquarters for Western Airlines.
And one of the personalities who piloted flights in and out of the Alhambra Airport would play a significant role in The Right Stuff.
That personality belonged to Pancho Barnes.
And Pancho was not a man. Pancho was a woman.
The Right Stuff was always one of my favorite movies, and I had been aware of Pancho Barnes being one of the first female pilots in the 1920s who flew out of the Alhambra Airport. But I only recently found out that the proprietor of the "Happy Bottom Riding Club" restaurant and bar that Chuck Yeager and his fellow pilots frequented in The Right Stuff was actually the same Pancho Barnes.
Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes was a pioneer aviator, broke Amelia Earhart's air speed record, and founded the first movie stunt pilots union. Her grandfather was Thaddeus Lowe.
Thaddeus Lowe was a self-taught scientist and inventor who headed up the Union Army's Hot Air Balloon Corp during the Civil War for aerial reconnaissance. A local mountain in the San Gabriel's is named after him.
After the Civil War, Thaddeus Lowe patented his various theories on hydrogen gas production used in hot air balloons and applied these applications to refrigeration and ice making machines. From this, Thaddeus Lowe became a millionaire and moved from Philadelphia to Pasadena.
Florence was raised in a mansion in San Marino and introduced to the great outdoors and horses by her father and grandfather. Her grandfather, Thaddeus, took Florence at the age of 10 for her first hot air balloon flight. And with this, she was hooked on the new frontier of flight.
During her early 20s, Florence spent four months in Mexico and became associated with revolutionaries. To avoid detection by government authorities, Florence disguised herself as a man and assumed the name Pancho. The name stuck.
After returning from Mexico, Pancho began taking flying lessons during the 1920s. She was a quick study and soloed after six hours of formal instruction.
For good measure, Pancho hired George Hurrell to photograph her for her pilot's license casually holding a cigarette between her fingers. Mr. Hurrel later became internationally known for being MGM's chief portrait photographer.
One of Pancho's instructors formed a barnstorming show and competed in air races. It was not long until Pancho found herself competing in air races, performing in air shows, and doing movie stunt work.
Pancho flew in movies such as Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930). And during this time the Alhambra Airport was conveniently located for Pancho to use. There are even some reports that she occasionally transported bootlegged alcohol from Mexico into the U.S. via the Alhambra Airport.
The Great Depression took its toll on Pancho, like so many others, and her inheritance was dramatically reduced leading her to sell her local real estate and move to the high dessert near Mohave. There, Pancho started a restaurant and dude ranch on 180 acres, which ultimately positioned her next to Edwards Air Force Base.
And here in the high desert, Pancho would start another chapter in her life. The Happy Bottom Riding Club would cater to America's early test pilots, including Chuck Yeager, General Jimmy Doolittle, Gus Grissom, and Buzz Aldrin.
Being a pilot herself, Pancho could relate to the test pilots. The Right Stuff shows this close and congenial relationship between her and the test pilots. As proprietor, Pancho would offer a free steak dinner for any pilot breaking the sound barrier.
"If all the hours were ever totaled, I reckon I spent more time at her place than in the cockpit over those years," reminisced Mr. Yeager in later life.
Along the way, Pancho would have four husbands and a son. By the mid 1950s, she engaged in an intense court battle when the Air Force exercised eminent domain to acquire her land to lengthen Edward's airfield. Ultimately, Pancho settled with the government and naturally the Air Force did not lengthen the air field anyway. Pancho attempted, but was never able to start another restaurant that matched the Happy Bottom Riding Club.
Over time, the wounds healed with the Air Force, and the officers’ mess at Edwards was named Pancho Barnes Room. She became referred to as the "Mother of Edwards AFB."
Pancho Barnes’ journey parallels the growth of our city and state. Along the way she would cross paths with some of the best-known test pilots, movie directors, and aviators. And during her journey, Pancho would link our city with one of Hollywood's best known movies. Clearly, Pancho had the right stuff.
Special thanks to Glenn Barnett for his assistance in this article.
Gary Frueholz is a realtor with Dilbeck Real Estate, a past member of the Alhambra Planning Commission, a Certified Senior Real Estate Specialist, and a Certified International Property Specialist. He can be reached at 626-318-9436. See his stories at www.garysstories.com.