Barbara Hunter Schultz
time to time, the human race produces unique, one-of-a-kind characters
who become our heroes, mentors, celebrities, and geniuses. Pancho
Barnes played all the roles with her own brand of conformity. She
possessed an extraordinary zest for life, an unquenchable thirst for
adventure, and a profound curiosity of the unknown. Although she involved
herself in a diverse mixture of careers and interests, she gained
the most notoriety for her accomplishments and exploits in aviation
- the avocation to which she dedicated her life. It was there among
the flyers, that she found a family.
Pancho and her little chihuahua ready
for the Transcontinental Derby - William E. Barnes Collection
Born in 1901 in Pasadena, California, Pancho inherited wealth, status,
and privilege. Her paternal grandfather was Professor Thaddeus Lowe
who volunteered the use of his air balloons to President Lincoln
during the Civil War.
of Pancho's youth was spent on horseback in the company of her father
or grandfather. The professor took his favorite granddaughter to
every aviation event in Southern California and inspired her with
dreams of flight. Mr. Lowe taught Pancho all there was to know about
years after graduating from Bishop's School in La Jolla, California,
Pancho entered into an arranged marriage with Reverend Rankin Barnes.
The handsome clergyman reminded her of the romantic movie idols
she often watched during Saturday afternoon matinees. It was not
a match made in heaven, however. Rankin's salary was meager and
his nature sterile and antiseptic. Pancho made an honest attempt
at being a good wife for three years. In 1924 she gave up her arduous
Pancho did stunt flying in Dawn Patrol
found numerous jobs in the film industry, from electrician to stunt
rider. Her salary enabled her to hire a nurse for her son, Bill.
This, in turn, freed her to travel. On one Mexican adventure, she
acquired her nickname. In 1927, Pancho remodeled her San Marino
home and began a tradition of lavish parties for her society, movie,
and aviation friends. One year later, Pancho took up flying. She
formed the Pancho Barnes' Circus of the Air, giving Sunday afternoon
performances at the many fields that dotted the Los Angeles Basin.
She entered the first Powder Puff Derby August 1929. Soon after
she became the first woman to fly into the interior of Mexico and
set several woman's speed records.
1934, Pancho traded an apartment building in Hollywood for a ranch
near what is now Edwards Air Force Base. She grew alfalfa, raised
goats, cows, and hogs, and provided rest and recreation for the
Army Air Corps. She supplied instructors and planes for the Civilian
Pilot Training Program in 1940.
World War II, Pancho's ranch and restaurant saw a steady clientele.
Its location, glamorous hostesses, and outrageous owner were responsible.
To make her business more exclusive, she called it the Happy Bottom
riding Club and passed out membership cards. Scandalous rumors of
a brothel began to spread as a result of the scintillating name.
Pancho denied innuendoes that she was a madam, stating that whatever
the girls did on their on time was their own business.
Air Force Base initiated an expansion program in 1951. Their plans
included a 10 mile runway to accommodate supersonic aircraft and
Pancho's club lay right in it's path. She knew her business was
doomed but gave the government a fight they would never forget.
She sued them and won almost $400,000 in an inverse condemnation
proceeding. The government took possession of her property.
Pancho Barnes poses with her Travel
Air Mystery ship
relocated some 30 miles to the north in Cantil. She intended to
open another club but the location, timing, and money were not adequate.
For nearly a decade, the former aviatrix lived in a state of near
poverty, survived life-threatening illnesses, and went through a
nasty divorce from her last husband. In 1968, her son Bill purchased
her Mystery Ship at an aircraft auction. This one single event inspired
Pancho to take flying lessons and renew her friendships with her
aviation friends. Further, everyone wanted to meet the aging speed
queen. There were rounds of parties, recognition, and awards. When
Pancho died of heart failure in 1975, her life had come full circle.
The author of this article, Barbara unter Schultz, is also
the author of the book titled PANCHO,
THE BIOGRAPHY OF FLORENCE LOWE BARNES. It was published
by Little Buttes Publishing Company in 1996. It originally
appeared in the Echo Mountain Echoes newsletter Summer 1998.
offer this book, as well as other books and Video's on Pancho
Barnes, for sale in the Marketplace.