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Issue 06/16/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 23

They Called Her Pancho
by Mary Paire

One of the most colorful characters in the first women’s air race of 1929 was Pancho Barnes, noted for her salty language and her big, black cigars.  She was born into an illustrious and wealthy family, Florence and Thaddeus Lowe II of Pasadena, California, in 1901.

Her grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, was an inventor who built hot air balloons and, during the Civil War, pioneered American aviation by establishing the Union Army’s Balloon Corp.  He would fly over rebel lines, telegraphing their positions, by Morse code, to the Union forces, and often claimed to be the person most shot at during the war.  He made his fortune by developing a commercial ice-making machine in 1866 which revolutionized food storage and transportation.

An adventurous child, she learned to hunt, fish and camp with her father.    She adored her grandfather.  When she was nine he took her to an air show, the first International Air Meet in the United States.  He pointed out some of the airplanes and told her that someday she would be flying one.  

When she was 18 her mother arranged for her to be married to the most eligible bachelor in town, a minister, C. Rankin  Barnes.  They  had one child, a boy named William E. Barnes.  It was not a  happy marriage.  Rev. Barnes was greatly admired by women of the congregation and would have Pancho wait in the car while he counseled them.                                        

When her mother died in 1924,  Pancho inherited the family fortune and shortly after asked her husband for a divorce which he refused.

Unable to settle down to a boring life as a socialite and pastor’s wife, she dressed as a man and stowed away on a freighter headed for Mexico,  joining a banana boat crew once there.  When she discovered it was a gun running ship, aiding rebels in the Mexican revolution, she and a  fellow crewmate jumped ship in San Blas, Mexico.  They roamed  the Mexican countryside on the backs of donkeys until they found their way back to the United States.  Her companion, reminded of the character in Don Quixote, Sancho Panza,  erroneously called her Pancho. She was known by that for the rest of her life.                                                
During WWI women were needed to replace the men who had gone off to war so they began to emerge as individuals.  No longer would they submit to being confined to the kitchen. It was the age of the flapper with her bobbed hair, short skirts, cigarettes, jazz, booze  and dancing in speakeasies.    

In 1928, while driving her cousin, Dean,  to his flying lessons, she asked his instructor to teach her.  He  had some experience with women wanting to take flying lessons and then backing out, so he took her up for a trial ride.  He did all sorts of aerobatic maneuvers,  loops, dives, spins, even simulating a dead stick landing, hoping to discourage her, but when he landed she was grinning and even more eager to start lessons.  She soloed after only six hours instruction.    For her pilot’s license, she dressed in men’s clothing with a French beret and a cigarette dangling from her hand.  George Hurrell took the photo.  Orville Wright, who wasn’t in favor of women flying for fear they might damage the future of aviation, signed her license.  She was one of the first two dozen women to earn a pilot’s license in the United States.        
When her husband still refused a divorce, she would take friends for rides, and for fun, began buzzing her husband’s congregations, often taking along her pet dog, Chito, with his own little parachute.
She began performing in barnstorming  shows and competing in air races.  In February 1929, she won the 1st women’s air race, beating the other pilots by 24 minutes on the 80 mile route.      

When a transcontinental race for women was proposed to publicize the National  Air Races in Cleveland in 1929, she was one of the committee to set rules for the race.  The race would start from Santa Monica, California, and end in Cleveland, Ohio.

Two men’s races were scheduled, one from Canada and another from Florida, but the women’s race got all the attention from the press.

The second leg of the race from Yuma to Phoenix passed over barren territory with no towns or landmarks to orient the pilots so they relied on their friend, the iron compass-railroad tracks.  It was easy to follow the wrong set, which she did, crossing the border into Mexico.  When she spotted a homestead,  she dropped down into a pasture  to find out where she was.  When locals came to greet her shouting “Hola”  she immediately knew it was Mexico, goosed the engine and got out of there.

At Pecos, Texas, an onlooker drove his car too far onto the runway, and when Pancho descended, she landed on top of his car, demolishing both upper and lower right wings of her Travel Air.  
No one was injured, but an irate, swearing Pancho was out of the race.  Later that year she became one of the founding members of the Ninety-nines, an association of  women pilots.

She returned to win the Powder Puff Derby of 1930 and the same year broke Earhart’s speed record with 196.19 mph in a Travel Air Type R Mystery ship which she had purchased at the Cleveland National Air Race Show in 1929.  It was one of only six manufactured and the fastest civilian airplane available.  Five days later she won the Tom Thumb race from Los Angeles to Santa Paula publicizing the opening of its airport.  

Pancho was the first woman to penetrate the interior of Mexico by air in 1930, flying round trip to inaugurate  a new airline route between Los Angeles and Mexico City.   She took along an interpreter and they were greeted by cheering crowds and festivities in Mexico City and again when they returned to Los Angeles.
Early in 1931 she set the speed record for flight between Los Angles and San Francisco and the Los Angles  to Sacramento round trip.  The governor of California presented her with a trophy engraved “America’s Fastest Woman Flyer.”

She moved to Hollywood in the 30’s and did stunt flying for movies, including Howard Hughes’ classic, Hell’s Angels.  She was the first woman stunt pilot and organized a union for  flyers in the movie industry, who were being paid $25 per stunt.  She demanded  and got that increased to $50 a day.  When the members didn’t want to accept the famous air racer and movie stunt pilot, Paul Mantz, in the union, because he was Jewish,  she said “No Mantz, no union.”
She had many influential friends in the movie industry and introduced Paul Hurrell, who had taken her license picture, to an executive at the studio.  He became the female movie stars’ favorite photographer.

She bought an apartment building in Hollywood and would use it  to house pilots down on their luck.  During prohibition her booze parties became legendary and she lived an extravagant life style but during the Great Depression she lost everything except the apartment building.  Her mystery ship had to be sold to pay repair bills.   She sold the apartment and bought a small ranch of 80 acres in the desert adjoining what is now Edwards Air Force Base.  Her young son, William, joined her there and they tried farming for two years.   Her first action was to carve out a rough landing field so friends could fly in.  They raised alfalfa, horses, pigs and dairy cows.  She obtained a contract to supply meat and milk to the adjoining Muroc Bombing and Gunnery base.  She also bought food scraps from the mess hall, cooked them and fed them to their hogs which she then sold back to the mess hall.

The pilots there were test flying up to 26 models of various aircraft a month, and it was 50 miles to the nearest civilization.  Death was common.  One day three pilots crashed.  So when Pancho built a fly-in dude ranch and restaurant, the pilots loved to frequent the place and trade stories about their exploits, and her experiences in flying.  Her friends from Hollywood also liked to stay at the ranch and the studios used it as a location for making movies.   Because she knew military pilots weren’t paid a lot,  she would sometimes charge the Hollywood group triple and the pilots nothing.  As business improved, more attractions were added, an enclosed patio for dancing, corrals for horses, and a swimming pool.

She knew what men liked, drinking, dancing, girls and food so she advertised for girls to live at the ranch.  Twelve applied, she chose six of the prettiest, and acted as housemother for them.  There were very strict rules.  They were to mingle, never spending too much time with any one person, to introduce guests to each other using first names and never accept money for sexual favors.  Any girl allowing a man into their room would be immediately discharged.

General Jimmy Doolittle,  Buzz Aldrin, astronaut, and test pilots Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover and Bob Cardenas all were frequent guests and good friends.  She used to say that they had more fun in one week than all the other weenies do in a lifetime, and that if you have a choice, choose happy.

Chuck Yeager was chosen to be the first person to break the sound barrier.  The day before the attempt, he and his wife were riding horses, and coming back to the ranch,  Chuck was thrown and broke two ribs.  He couldn’t go to the doctor because they wouldn’t allow him to fly, so a veterinarian  taped him up and he broke the sound barrier with two broken ribs.  The flight was supposed to be a secret, but everybody at Pancho’s knew about it and when he got back a free steak dinner was waiting for him.

Pancho’s divorce, asked for in the 20’s, was finally obtained in 1941, after she rode a horse, nude, up the church steps and up the aisle to the pulpit during  her husband’s sermon one Sunday morning.

Within a few years the ranch expanded to 368 acres, the airstrip was enlarged.  A motel style building with guest rooms, restaurant, bar, swimming pool, corrals, and rodeo area were added.  It became known as Rancho Oro Verde Fly-In Dude Ranch.  Up to two hundred people attended the weekly dances and the rodeos, local at first, but later national,  drew a couple thousand spectators.

In the 50’s the base changed commanders.  Her friend, Col. Albert Boyd was replaced by a rigid General Holtner.  When she went to his office to introduce herself, he said, “Oh yes, the garbage lady.” Needless to say that didn’t go over well with Pancho.

In 1952, the Air Force planned to build a super 15 mile long runway for the new larger atomic powered aircraft  they expected.  The runway would run across Pancho’s land.  They offered to buy her land, but at bare land value.   If she lost the ranch, she would lose the connection with her beloved test pilots.

When she requested a reappraisal, the base leadership claimed she was running a brothel on the property which resulted in her ranch being declared off-limits for military personnel. That caused a major loss for her business.

She became her own lawyer to fight the government for a fair price for her property and to clear her name.   A Lieutenant Radcliffe claimed to have had sex with one of her girls, but couldn’t remember her name because he was so drunk.  She countered by putting one of her girls on the stand who came over as being demure and very unlikely to be a prostitute.  Even the FBI could find nothing against Pancho.

On November 15, 1953, the ranch was destroyed by a mysterious blast and fire which destroyed the property and all her souvenirs, business papers, etc.  She claimed the government had something to do with it, but the property was condemned and she was evicted.

Finally the court awarded her $375,000 for her property and business and cleared her name.

She founded Barnes Aviation in Lancaster, California in 1955, which her son, William, managed until his death in an airplane crash in October 1980.  The firm is still in business today.

She and her fourth husband, “Mac” Mc Kendry, moved to Canil, California,  with hopes of building a similar dude ranch, but it never happened.  Paul Manz, the famous stunt flyer, had purchased her   mystery ship and promised to return it to her, but was killed before he could.  It was scheduled to be auctioned off, but when the bidders learned that Pancho was in the audience, they refused to bid and she bought it, intending to restore it.

In the 1960’s Pancho became a commonplace figure at Edwards Air Force Base and reconnected with many old timers there.  She was often referred to as Mother of Edwards Air Force Base, in fact, the officer’s mess was renamed the Pancho Barnes room.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer.  With almost no money and separated from her husband, she moved to a dilapidated house in Boron, California.

In 1975, she was due to be the keynote speaker at Antelope Valley Aero Museum’s annual  Barnstormer’s Reunion on April 5.  When a friend couldn’t reach her on March 30, her son, Bill, went to check on her and found her dead.  The coroner determined that she had died of a heart attack several days earlier.  

Her son requested and received permission to spread her ashes over the site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club which is now the location for an annual Edward’s Air Force Base “Pancho Barnes Day” which  started in 1980.  There is a BBQ with drinking, dancing and live music, lasting late into the night, to honor her as an aviation pioneer and friend.

Movies,  fictionalized accounts of her life, were:
The Right Stuff” starring Kim Stanley, 1983
“Pancho Barnes” where she was portrayed by Valerie Bertinelli, 1988 and a documentary for TV, “The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club” was completed in 2009.

Her Mystery Ship was hanagered at Mojave Airport for several years before being sold to a private collector and is currently in the United Kingdom being restored.

Reference Materials:

Women Aloft by Valarie Moolman and editors of Time Life Books
Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register
www. Pancho Barnes.com
www. choose happy
www. chuckyeager.com
www. breakingthru the clouds.com
www. Biographicon.com
Video of 1929 Air Race “Breaking thru the Clouds”
Video of Pancho Barnes Biography
Powder Puff Derby of 1929 by Gene Nora Jessen
Amelia Earhart Biography by Tanya Lee Stone