A brief history of Pancho Barnes

By Willie Bodenstein


Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes was born on 22 July 1901 to a wealthy family was a pioneer aviator and a founder of the first movie stunt pilots' union. She grew up in a large mansion in San Marino, California. During her formative years, she attended the area's finest private schools.

Her grandfather was Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who had pioneered American aviation with the establishment of the nation's first military air unit, the Army of the Potomac's balloon corps during the American Civil War. He took his granddaughter to an air show when she was 10 years old.

In 1928, while driving a cousin to flying lessons, she decided to learn to fly, and convinced her cousin's flight instructor, Ben Catlin, a World War I veteran, of her desire that same day.
With an inheritance bequeathed to her on her parents' death enrolled and soloed after six hours of formal instruction.

Barnes started to compete in air races and ran an ad-hoc barnstorming show. In 1929 took part in the Women's Air Derby but crashed. In 1930, in a Travel Air Type R Mystery Ship she again competed and this time won the race breaking Amelia Earhart's world women's speed record with a speed of 196.19 miles per hour (315.74 km/h).

She lost most of her money in the Great Depression and in 1935, she had only her apartment in Hollywood left. She sold it, and in March 1935 bought 180 acres (73 ha) of land in the Mojave Desert, near the Rogers dry lake bed and the nascent Muroc Field, then called March Field because it was an adjunct property of March Army Air Base at that time.

It was here that she built the Happy Bottom Riding Club, also known as the Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch, a dude ranch and restaurant which catered to airmen at the nearby airfield and her friends from Hollywood. Barnes became very close friends with many of the early test pilots, including Chuck Yeager, Robert Anderson "Bob" Hoover, Walt Williams, Jack Ridley, General Jimmy Doolittle, Buzz Aldrin and many others.

After a long-protracted court battle against the USAF who needed her land to extend the base the court eventually found in her favour and she was awarded $375,000 remuneration for her property and business. As it turned out, the proposed runway was never built.

Barnes suffered from breast cancer, likely the ultimate cause of her death. She was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Antelope Valley Aero Museum's annual "Barnstormers Reunion" on April 5, 1975. However, when a friend called on 30March 1975, she could not reach her. Her son Bill found her dead in her home. The coroner determined that she had died nearly a week earlier.

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