IN THE LATE FORTIES AND early fifties over the then isolated Muroc Dry Lake Bed - the largest natural flat space on earth - night-flying military and civilian pilots had a remarkable navigational beacon: the shimmering, iridescent blue-green glow of the swimming pool at Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Flying Club. An unmistakable and exquisite landmark on a lakebed with a curvature of less than 18 inches over a six mile distance, it was then the only pool in the Antelope Valley. Pilots landed on Pancho’s adjacent private airstrip to partake of her generous hospitality at what was the watering hole of the most world-renowned flyers of the post war era. For regular patrons including aviation icons Chuck Yeager, A. Scott Crossfield, Jimmy Doolittle and H.H. "Hap" Arnold well as the engineers, designers, mechanics and military personnel who built and flew a remarkable array of airplanes (including the XP-80, ZX-1, F-104, X-15 and SR-71), Pancho’s barroom was at the literal center of the supersonic age and served as the unofficial - and always congenial - debriefing room for the most elite test pilots in the world.
Pancho’s remote 368 acre Rancho Oro Verde property was, at the height of its fame, reachable only by air or a brutal 20-mile dirt road from Lancaster. In spite of its isolation, the compound offered a swanky 20 room motel surrounding a remarkable 80’ fountain in the shape of the Army Air Corps insignia, a well-stocked horse corral, a restaurant, airplane hangars, three landing strips, a dance hall (partially open-aired), gambling den and the world-famous bar where she hosted what she called "the fastest and bravest men on earth." Bordered by lush planting of cottonwoods, Chinese elms, poplars and bamboo, the Happy Bottom Flying Club was a verdant oasis in the desert and the site of a lifestyle as exuberant as its host.
Pancho Barnes is a legend in the aviation community, a daring pilot who stole the world’s speed record for women from Amelia Earhart, in 1930. She continued her aviation career by barnstorming around the country as the star of Pancho Barnes’ Mystery Circus of the Air and performed aerial stunts for Howard Hughes’ epic motion picture, Hell’s Angels. After depleting her fortune through a lavish lifestyle, she ended up settling at this remote ranch in the Mojave Desert.
Arriving on the scene soon after the Army Air Corps established its operations on the desert playa in 1933 (first as Muroc Army Air Field then later as Edwards Air Force Base), Pancho’s Rancho Oro Verde was seamlessly transformed into the only recreational spot for the officers and young soldiers to drink, debrief and blow off steam. Leading into the war years and the huge military expansion at the base, she enlarged her spread and Oro Verde became the Fly-Inn Dude Ranch and then finally the Happy Bottom Flying Club - named by Jimmy Doolittle who, after a long ride on a new horse was asked by Pancho if he liked the animal. Doolittle responded, "oh yes, it gave me a happy bottom."
Today, little remains of what was once the raucous desert playground but the surviving ruins hint at the high style and grand opulence that was Pancho’s trademark. In addition to the remarkable four-tiered cascading fountain (originally topped by a statue of a nude goddess) that graced the motel esplanade, the double-sided fireplace and door frames from the dining room and bar still stand as well as some outbuildings including the shell of the dairy barn which was used for illicit gambling. On the eastside of the ranch is the infamous wooden gate which Yeager struck on horseback - breaking two ribs - the night before he became the first man to break the sound barrier. North of what were the main buildings are the remains of a Ryan PT-19 aircraft which was ‘borrowed’ from Pancho’s personal fleet of airplanes by two young locals and crashed short of the main runway. Most remarkably intact is the shell of the 30-foot wide, round swimming pool. After the first pool was destroyed in the 1952 Tehachapi earthquake, two grain silo construction contractors from the Midwest approached Pancho. They proposed using their silo molds to erect a new pool, and Pancho readily agreed.The silo casts, which consisted of massive, inter-connected quarter sections, were customized with special options demanded by Pancho including recessed underwater lighting and, most astonishingly, a gently sloping ramp that allowed Pancho and her horse, after particularly arduous rides, to cool off by walking directly into the pool.
Each September the site is open to the public for "Pancho Barnes Day." Sponsored by the Flight Test Historical Foundation at Edwards Air Force Base, this year’s event featured among its special guests Eugene "Mac" McKendry, 81, a WWII pilot and Pancho’s fourth and last husband. Although frail, his spirits were enlivened by once again visiting the ranch where he and Pancho hosted many notorious revelries, and he reminisced fondly about the infamous rodeo that opened with the entrance of one of the ranch hostesses as Lady Godiva clad only in a long blond wig and the airborne treasure hunts where pilots, given written clues, flew all over the lake bed searching for a buried jackpot of 200 silver dollars.
Mac remains resentful over the government’s seizure of the Happy Bottom Flying Club in 1954 for the construction of a 27 mile long runway to accommodate a then-planned atomic-powered aircraft, but was quick to invoke Pancho’s philosophical attitude about the loss of the legendary club: "Like she always said, ‘Well, f*** it, we had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime."
Field Report by Charles Barile
Information about visiting the remains of the Happy Bottom Flying Club for the annual "Pancho Barnes Day" can be obtained by writing the Flight Test Historical Foundation at P.O.Box 57, Edwards, California 93523 or by calling (661) 277-8051.