The girl was born Florence, but everyone called her Pancho.
The nickname was earned, as one story goes, after she left her first husband, disguised herself as a man and boarded a ship that turned out to be running guns to Mexican revolutionaries.
It’s likely the least interesting story from the life of Pancho Barnes, an individualist who, among other endeavors, established the sweeping Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch about seven miles southwest of Edwards Air Force Base back when it was known as Muroc.
The year was 1938. By then, Barnes had become an expert aviator; inherited a fortune when her wealthy parents died; lost most of it during the Great Depression; worked as a stunt double, pilot and writer in Hollywood; and broke Amelia Earhart’s air speed record by 12 miles per hour.
Flying came naturally to Barnes, arguably due to her passion for the excitement it fostered. She reportedly flew solo after just six hours of instruction. Later, she founded the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots Association and co-founded the Women’s Air Reserve.
She was also the first woman to fly from the U.S. to Mexico City, according to an article in Aviation for Women magazine by Nick T. Spark, who wrote and produced “The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club” documentary.
It’s easy to draw parallels, and many who knew her have, between Barnes’ conduct and appearance because both challenged the traditional expectations of her time.
She smoked, drank and had what “The Right Stuff” author Tom Wolfe described as a “vulcanized tongue.”
“Everybody she didn’t like was an old bastard or a sonofabitch,” Wolfe wrote in the book. “People she liked were old bastards and sonsabitches, too.”
Barnes was a stout woman, with a round face and short hair that was often lost under a leather bomber hat. She wore tight sweaters and horseback riding pants. Her closest friends called her a homely tomboy, but they remembered her bright eyes and overwhelming smile most of all.
And so the actresses who portrayed her in movies never really got Barnes right. Valerie Bertinelli was too thin and gorgeous in 1988′s “Pancho Barnes” to be convincing. Kim Stanley, in the 1983 adaptation of Wolfe’s book, was a closer double physically, but the script relegated her mostly to somber moments of reflection, never allowing the woman’s extremes to flourish on screen.
But, of course, Barnes was extreme. In the 1920s, when she toured the country as a stunt show pilot, she and a partner would equip female volunteers with parachutes and fly high into the sky before shoving the poor women out of the plane, pulling their ripcords as they did.
Such behavior suited Barnes well on her Mojave Desert ranch, which was known as the “Happy Bottom Riding Club” by 1944. It included a bar, restaurant and hotel, and was a frequent haunt of Barnes’ Hollywood friends.
It was also the favorite, if not only, watering hole of the Muroc test pilots whose exploits pushed America toward space travel. She counted among her closest comrades “Bob” Hoover, Walt Williams, Jack Ridley, Jimmy Doolittle and Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound on Oct. 14, 1947.
Barnes treated sound-barrier destroyers like Yeager to free steak dinners. Men who lost their lives trying, she enshrined in framed photographs on the rickety wall behind her bartop.
Flying was holy for Barnes, aviation’s living goddess. Likewise, those who flew were her disciples and martyrs — depending on how things shook out.
Revelry on the ranch didn’t last long. By 1952, Barnes was at loggerheads with Edwards brass. Among other complaints, they accused her of running a brothel. The allegation was never substantiated, but servicemen were barred from patronizing her ranch.
At the time, the Air Force was looking to expand Edwards and needed Barnes’ land to do so. Purchase negotiations failed, and a condemnation lawsuit was filed on Feb. 27, 1953. Barnes reportedly represented herself.
Near the late-1953 trial conclusion, which brought an eminent-domain taking, the ranch was destroyed in a fire. Today, the site is off limits due to its proximity to a gun range. Slabs of reddish concrete, a once-elegant fountain, a rock chimney and a derelict pool are among the remaining ruins.
Barnes, who moved with her fourth husband to Cantil near Boron, was found dead in her home in late March 1975. There is a debate over her birth year, but most news reports listed her age as 69. A coroner determined she had died days before her body was discovered.
Her son, William, apparently gained permission from the Air Force to spread his mother’s ashes over her former ranch. When he did, though, a crosswind blew the ashes back into the plane.
It seems Barnes, even in death, lived on her terms alone.