While the name Amelia Earhart is instantly recognizable to most Americans, another aviatrix from the 1920s – Pancho Barnes – is a legend in her own right.
Barnes was one of the first female pilots to be licensed in the United States and would go on to chalk up a number of other aviation “firsts,” as well as have a successful career as a stunt pilot, a test pilot and as the owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club.
She won her first air race, an 80-mile event, by completing the race 24 minutes ahead of the other well-known contestants. She was the first woman to fly into the interior of Mexico in 1930 and later that year beat Amelia Earhart’s world speed flying record.
Barnes also set a speed record in 1931 flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then established another record on a Los-Angeles to Sacramento round trip. In addition, she was Lockheed’s first female test pilot and became famous as a stunt pilot for films in both the Silent and Sound eras in Hollywood.
“Pancho Barnes is one of the first women pilots of tremendous accomplishment,” said Lou D’Elia, president of Pancho Barnes Enterprises and the Pancho Barnes Estate Trust Archive. “She believed in herself, that everyone’s life was important and that you are here to be who you are. She lived that philosophy.”
D’Elia noted that Barnes got her pilot’s license in 1928 at a time when women had just won the right to vote.
“Orville Wright, who was responsible for approving pilot’s licenses, didn’t want women to apply because he believed if they passed they would give negative publicity to aviation while it was in its infancy,” D’Elia said. “Florence Lowe Barnes was an indeterminate gender name and back then the application didn’t ask for gender. After looking at her photograph, where she was dressed like a man, complete with dirty fingernails and smoking a cigarette, Orville Wright approved the license and signed it.”
Barnes’ grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, is considered by some to be the founder of the air force in the United States because he convinced President Abraham Lincoln to start reconnaissance flights using hot air balloons. Lowe, who flew in balloon baskets lined with steel, was one of the most shot-at men during the U.S. Civil War.
Lowe also was a prolific inventor – devising a refrigeration system for trains and an early lighting system – who made huge amounts of money that left his family very wealthy. Barnes’ father, Thaddeus Lowe Jr., married into a wealthy Philadelphia family, bringing two great fortunes together that ultimately came to Barnes, making her one of the wealthiest women in the country.
Married at age 20 to C. Rankin Barnes, an Episcopalian pastor, Barnes’ marriage became strained and separated after a few years and the couple eventually divorced in the 1940s.
Her family’s wealth gave Barnes a freedom that few people enjoyed, allowing her to travel widely and have estates in both Pasadena and Laguna Beach, Calif. The Laguna Beach property even had its own airstrip that allowed her friends to fly in and out easily.
Barnes got her nickname, Pancho, on a trip to Mexico where she was riding a donkey next to a friend on horseback who she thought looked like Don Quixote. He responded she looked like Pancho, and after Barnes pointed out the correct name was Sancho, she decided she would thenceforth use the name Pancho.
When the Great Depression hit the country, Barnes began taking care of her stunt pilot friends who were thrown out of work, especially a group called the 13 Black Cats, a stunt group from the mid-1920s who promoted early aviation as safe and painted the numeral 13 and black cats on all their planes to show their disdain for bad luck. But by the time of the Depression, Hollywood had so much stock film footage that it didn’t need stunt pilots any more.
In 1934 Barnes moved with her son Billy to California’s Mohave Desert and purchased 80 acres of land on the Muroc Dry Lake Bed. Barnes founded Rancho Oro Verde, where she grew alfalfa, started a dairy, and raised cattle and hogs. The ranch eventually grew into a 9,000 member dude ranch with its own airport, hotel, restaurant, dance hall, gambling casino and rodeo stadium, serving area military personnel and test pilots from nearby Muroc Army Air Field, later renamed Edwards Air Force Base. The ranch would become known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club after a visit by Air Force General Jimmy Doolittle.
Ultimately, Barnes sold her ranch and land to the government and retired to Cantil, Calif. She died on April 5, 1975.