June 18, 2013
Look Homeward, Angels: California and the Rise and Fall of America’s Space Program
Posted on Jul 30, 2011
Blind in his right eye, Milton piloted a rocket-like capsule on four wheels powered by his signature Miller hyper-engine across the Muroc flats at 141 and then 151 miles per hour, winning the tough international Class C and D championships in 1924 and bringing more attention to the wonders of the Mojave. By 1933, the military had moved into the desert, and the Air Force set up its first permanent base at Muroc. In 1942, America’s first jet, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, made its first flight there while World War II raged on two fronts. The news was kept under wraps for years. In October 1947, Capt. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier when he flew the Bell X-1 rocket research airplane at a speed of Mach 1.06, after it was dropped from a B-29 mother ship. Again, the news was withheld, until December of that year, when Aviation Week announced the stunning accomplishment. Over the years there would come many more aerospace feats and breakthroughs above the desert sands where they had been dreamed up.
But it would take a woman named Pancho Barnes to take the party to the next level. Born in 1901 to prominent Pasadena parents, Barnes got married at 18, hated her high-society life, dropped out and embarked on a lifelong career of adventures, becoming “Pancho” instead of her given “Florence” after wandering the wilds of Mexico in 1928. Back in the States, she took to the skies and soon was one of the first women in the country to earn a pilot’s license. She raced in air derbies with Amelia Earhart and in 1930 topped Earhart’s speed record, clocking in at 196.19 miles per hour. Barnes also was a test pilot for military aircraft. Soon Hollywood came calling, offering her work as a stunt pilot. She quickly developed friendships with Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn. One day, while flying over the Antelope Valley in her capacity as test pilot for Lockheed, she spotted an alfalfa farm between Rosamond and Rogers dry lakes. In 1935, she bought it and moved there; it soon became the Happy Bottom Riding Club, at one time as legendary for its desert soirees as Burning Man.
The first thing Barnes did was carve out a landing strip so her friends could fly in for parties. Within months the property turned into a full-fledged spread, with Barnes acquiring cattle, pigs and horses, setting up a saloon, a restaurant, a dance hall and motel. And thus her relationship with the military flourished. She supplied meat and milk to the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range and entertainment in the form of glamorous hostesses who worked at her bar. Chuck Yeager and other noted pilots of the era were regulars at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Later, Barnes would look back and say, “We had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime.”
But parties must inevitably be shut down; Muroc had become Edwards Air Force Base and the burgeoning flight program needed more land—or so went the claim. The military made a move to condemn the Barnes property and acquire it. Barnes fought the acquisition in court in a trial that gained international notoriety, with the Air Force accusing her of running a brothel and Barnes fighting for property rights—the kind of desert battle that continues to this day. “They picked the wrong gal to push around,” Barnes said, and as the trial exploded, the Happy Bottom Riding Club went up in flames. As the ranch smoldered, Barnes won her case—but the party was over and the legendary pilot and friend of the military retreated to another small town in the desert. She fell out of touch with her Air Force pals and they did not seek her company. Finally, in 1961, she was acknowledged as “The Mother of Edwards Air Force Base.” On April 5, 1975, she was scheduled to speak at the Antelope Valley Aero Museum’s annual Barnstormer’s Reunion. But a few days before the event, she died. Her funeral was attended by such luminaries as Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin and Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who eulogized this great figure thusly:
By the time Barnes had died, the Antelope Valley was in a boom period, filling up with those who had come to work in the expanding aerospace industry. No one typifies this boom more than longtime Lancaster resident Bob Gonzalez. Born in Santa Ana in 1936, Gonzalez’s parents were self-educated, naturalized citizens from Mexico who had come to California around 1916 to seek the golden dream—their own version of the story told in “October Sky.” During World War II, Gonzalez’s father was employed as a welder in the Long Beach shipyards. When the war ended, Gonzalez, in high school, would travel with his father to the San Joaquin Valley during the summertime to work the orange groves along with some of his siblings. “I used to put cardboard inside my shoes for soles,” he told me as he recalled the old days. “We slept on a bed under a fig tree. There were so many mosquitoes, we lit fires to keep them away. It got so bad I couldn’t take it.”
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