Californians in Aviation History
Florence L. "Pancho Barnes" Lowe
Aviation Pioneer
By Colonel Norman S. Marshal and Warrant Officer Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History, State Military Reserve
 
 
Florence Leontine Lowe, later to be called "Pancho" Barnes, was born on July 14, 1901 in Pasadena, California. Barbara H. Schultz in her book: "Pancho - The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes", describes Florence Lowe as a woman who not only set some records in aviation endurance, but was also an accomplished stunt flyer. Her stunt flying even helped her star in a movie or two. But by far, she is known for her ranch house for off-duty pilots which was located near Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert in California.

Florence was the granddaughter of Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who was placed in command of the U.S. Army's Aeronautic [balloon] Corps established during the Civil War.

At the age of 18, Florence married C. Rankin Barnes, an Episcopalian minister, from whom she gained the last name Barnes. She gave birth to a son a few years later, but she felt that she was better suited to be anything but a clergyman's wife.

Shortly after her mother's death in 1924 she received a half-million dollar inheritance. Thus began her life as a freewheeling globe-trotter and hostess –heading for South America on a luxury liner, returning to San Marino, the richest suburb of Los Angeles, and her 32-room mansion--moved by her grandfather, stone-by-stone, brick by brick, from Philadelphia. It was on this seven acre estate that Florence Barnes threw legendary parties that went on for days, even weeks. But the drinking, the smoking, and the parties, were beginning to take their toll.

Three years later, she left both husband and son Bill for a time. During this marital hiatus, she traveled by freighter to Mexico where she spent the next four months. While on this adventure she became accustomed to wearing men's pants and picked up the nickname "Pancho" which she kept for life. She returned home later that year.

As the granddaughter of a famous aeronaut, it's no wonder she had caught the aviation bug. Thaddeus Lowe had taken his young granddaughter to see her first air show at the age of nine. So it was of little surprise that upon returning home, she bought a biplane and hired a flight instructor to teach her to fly. After only 6 hours of instruction, she made her first solo flight. Yes, Pancho Barnes was a natural born pilot.

In August 1929, Pancho Barnes participated in the first Women's Transcontinental Air Derby which was a cross country race from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio (1). She was forced to withdraw after colliding with a truck on a runway. But that didn't stop her from trying again in the same race the following year. This time, she would set a new world record in average speed for a women at 196.19 miles per hour.

Barnes also became the first woman stunt pilot in the motion picture industry, performing air stunts for Howard Hughes' film, "Hell's Angels". This led to her starting a company that would provide stunt fliers to the film studios in Hollywood.

In 1930 Barnes became the first woman to fly from Los Angeles to Mexico City. During this flight she stole the women's speed record from Emilia Earhart. The next year she organized another cross country race for women pilots. California Governor James Rolph, Jr. presented her with two trophies the following year to honor her flying accomplishments.

She, along with other women pilots, helped to organize the Women's Air Reserve, better known as the W.A.R (2). It was hoped that the organization would lead to equal flying qualifications for women. Barnes led her girls in training exercises, parachute drops, and medical emergency skills. In 1934, she and five fellow members initiated the first women's cross-country flight across the United States to promote the W.A.R.

Barnes, along with her son Bill, purchased a small Ranch in the Mojave Desert in 1933. In the years that followed, Barnes expanded her ranch into a resort. During the 1940s, the outspoken, cigar-smoking Pancho opened a tavern-inn for the men stationed at Muroc Army Air Corps Station. When General Al Boyd relocated the Air Force's Test Pilot School from Wright-Patterson nearby, in 1949, Pancho's business boomed. Her entire operation became known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club, which included Sunday brunches for pilots, exciting rodeos, training programs for civilian pilots, and dances on Wednesday night. Test pilots, Presidents of private aircraft corporations, and even a general or two filled her place every night. Among her guests were none other than Jimmy Doolittle, a pal from the air racing days, now sporting three stars. Even the commander of the Army Air Forces, General H.H. "Hap" Arnold was a frequent guest. Pictures of aviation's top military fliers and the prototypes they tested lined her walls sporting the signatures of the pilots. But it was with Chuck Yeager that a bond was formed which lasted her lifetime.

Regrettably, this long relationship with the U.S. Air Force came to an abrupt stop in 1953 because Pancho's ranch was in the path of an expansion plan for Edwards. It was during her legal battle during the mid-1950s that the Barnes ranch was destroyed by fire. Pancho had lost not only her ranch and livelihood, but also a lifetime's accumulation of irreplaceable souvenirs and valuables. Perhaps worst of all, though, was the rift with her beloved Air Force. Then, a serious illness struck her. Although she vowed never to surrender and went on to survive two cancer operations, the old zest for life gradually faded along with her energy.

In those later years she worked on her autobiography, and once again became an integral part of the aviation community. Everyone wanted to meet the famous Pancho Barnes, a legend in her own time. Even the U.S. Air Force, who had forced her from her ranch years earlier, along with a dozen other flying organizations, honored her for her contributions to aviation.

Pancho Barnes passed away in Boron, California in 1975. Another of California's aviation pioneers, General James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle, eulogized his good friend at her memorial:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we have recently lost a true friend . . . In a few words, she put great store by courage, honor and integrity. She despised dishonesty and cowardice . . . She was outspoken, and she said exactly what she thought and believed. You know, I can just see her up there at this very minute. In her own inimitable way, with a wry smile, she is probably remarking to some old and dear friend who preceded her, ‘I wondered what the little old bald-headed bastard (referring to himself) is going to say.'"

Yes, Florence "Pancho Barnes" Lowe is undoubtedly one of California's most colorful women flyers. Her fascination in aviation began from the stories told to her by her grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, which led to her own daring feats during the barnstorming era of the 1920s and continued through the age of the jet. She raced, set records, and provided the impetus for the formation of two aviation organizations - the Women's Air Reserve and the Motion Picture Stunt Pilots. And, over the course of her eventful lifetime, Pancho was also a movie stunt pilot, movie double, songwriter, and animal trainer. But it was her dedicated support to those test pilots who took to the skies of California in prototypes to test the very limits of flight which she will be most remembered for.
 
Footnotes
 
(1) The Women's Transcontinental Air Derby, dubbed the "Powder Puff Derby" by Will Rogers, was open to any qualified female pilot who had a license and a plane. Several contestants had problems with their planes during the race - Claire Fahy, was forced down near Calexico with broken wire braces, Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega nosed over upon landing and damaged the prop, Thea Rasche was forced down at Holtville, Arizona and Marvel Crosson had a fatal crash in the Gila River Valley, east of Yuma.
 
(2) The Women's Air Reserve (W.A.R.), principle purpose was to aid in disasters, where it was impossible to reach people in need of medical attention, except by plane. They had uniforms and trained in first aid, navigation and military maneuvers. W.A.R. consisted mostly of doctors, nurses, pilots and parachutists who could go directly to the scene of a disaster by air and help.
 
Sources
Dwiggins, Don. Hollywood Pilot: The Biography of Paul Mantz. Doubleday, 1967.
Mitchell, Barbara. Pancho Barnes: A Legend in our Lifetime."Antelope Valley Spectator, January-April 1963; Hi-Desert Spectator, May-August, 1963.
Schultz, Barbara Hunter. Pancho: The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes. Lancaster, CA, 1996.
Tate, Grover Ted. The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus: The Story of Pancho Barnes. Maverick, 1986.
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
 
 
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Updated 8 February 2016