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
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.
"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
(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.
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,
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.