Florence "Pancho" Barnes - Aviation's Companion

The saga of the Air Force Flight Test Centre would not be complete without mention of one of its most enduring friends: Ms Florence Lowe Barnes, known to all the world by her favoured nickname "Pancho." Never officially a part of the Edwards Air Force Base community, nor ever directly connected with the Air Force, she nevertheless spent many years as one of its most enduring champions and unswerving friends. In recent years, she has become familiar to the general public as the colourful, swashbuckling friend of America’s best known test pilots. But the aviation community has always known her as a skilled professional and one of the respected figures in the Golden Age of flight. Long before Pancho Barnes ever set foot in the Mojave Desert, she had already made her own mark in the progress of American aviation and women’s role within it.

The Early Years

In retrospect, her life seems to have been star-crossed from its very beginning. Florence Lowe Barnes was born into a setting of family wealth and privilege on 14 July, 1901. She spent her childhood in a 32-room mansion in San Marino, California, then as now a genteel enclave of shaded estates and tasteful villas near Pasadena. The confidence and self-possession which tend to come with affluence and position would serve the young woman well in the years ahead. Two men dominated her early life. Her father, an avid outdoorsman, freely passed on his enthusiasms to his daughter, and the young Florence absorbed horsemanship and hunting skills along with the genteel accomplishments taught by a series of private schools and tutors. Her grandfather, Professor Thaddeus Lowe, gave her another lasting gift--a fervour for aviation. One of the founders of the California Institute of Technology, he is better known to history as the intrepid balloonist who spied on the Confederate lines during the Civil War and organized the nation’s first military air unit, the balloon corps for Lincoln’s Army of the Potomac. The veteran aeronaut took his young granddaughter to see her first air show at the age of nine. It is probably too glib to say that the excitement of that outing changed her life forever, but there is no doubt that airplanes soon ranked with horses in her passions.

First, however, would come a proper marriage, followed by the birth of a son. At the age of 18, Florence wed the Reverend C. Rankin Barnes, a prominent Episcopal priest, and settled down to the duties expected of a proper clergyman’s wife. In due course their son, William, was born. Not long afterwards, however, the young bride’s self-reliant personality asserted itself in dramatic fashion: abandoning church and child in 1928, she disguised herself as a man and signed on as a crewmember aboard a freighter headed for Mexico. Once the ship was safely docked at San Blas with a cargo of bananas and contraband guns, she jumped ship with a renegade sailor and spent four months roaming through the revolution-torn interior. Somewhere along this trek, while riding a donkey, her comrade dubbed her "Pancho" for her fancied resemblance to Don Quixote’s faithful companion. She was delighted with her new nickname, and kept it for the rest of her life.

Into the Air

Returning to San Marino later that year, she turned her eyes toward the skies. By then, Wall Street’s Bull Market was roaring along, the public was wildly air-minded in the aftermath of Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, and the nation’s adrenaline level perfectly matched her own. Pancho bought an OX-5 powered Travelair biplane, hired an irascible but expert instructor, and set out to learn how to fly. Defying her teacher’s best efforts to discourage his "dilettante" student, she soloed after only six hours of instruction. The young socialite promptly celebrated this feat by taking a friend aloft and buzzing the field while her passenger wing-walked among the flying wires. From that point onward, aviation became the dominant note in her life.

Scorning the genteel aspects of her upbringing, Pancho took to wearing men’s clothes, often oil-stained and dishevelled, and to smoke cigars. Kitchen matches scratched across the seat of her pants replaced silver cigarette lighters, and her speech, never too delicate at the best of times, became notoriously coarse and salty. Although Pancho was always ready for a laugh, however, she was never a buffoon in the air. Always, she took flying seriously and went to great lengths to become a skilled pilot as well as a practical mechanic. Her professional approach to flying never, of course, prevented her from enjoying enormous fun along the way. Soon tiring of buzzing her husband’s dignified church during Sunday morning services, she assembled something called "Pancho Barnes’ Mystery Circus of the Air," and went on barnstorming tours with herself as a star performer. She shared the spotlight with an improbably handsome parachute jumper named Slim, who specialized in enticing young females from the audience into their first airplane ride and shortly--to their great surprise--into their first parachute jump as well.

Satisfaction in the Sky

The young aviatrix burst onto the national aviation scene barely a year after her first solo flight. In August, 1929, she joined nineteen other women in the Women’s Air Derby, a transcontinental air race from Santa Monica to Cleveland. for women. This was the first Powder Puff Derby, still being flown today. She got as far as Pecos, Texas before she ran afoul of the casual airfield-management practices of the day, colliding with a truck driving down the runway. Pancho was unhurt, but her broken airplane put her out of the race for that year.

By then, her growing reputation enabled her to sign on with Union Oil Company for a three-year stint of demonstration flights and promotional work in return for sponsorship in many of the air races of the day. She returned to the Powder Puff Derby the following year in a powerful new

used with permission, Pancho Barnes Archive

Travelair Mystery Ship, a low-winged speedster with huge wheel spats which has been called the most beautiful of the great racing airplanes. Blasting across the route at an average speed of 196.19 mph, she took the world’s speed record for women away from Amelia Earhart.

Not content with this, she honed her aerobatic skills and set out to become one of Hollywood’s favourite stunt pilots. The film capital was no stranger to Pancho; even as a debutante she had slipped away from San Marino to dabble in movie work as a script girl and other jobs. The adventurous aristocrat had even doubled for Louise Fezenda in the horseback scenes in the early Rin Tin Tin movies. Now she became the technical director for Pathe’s The Flying Fool. Shortly she formed her own company and, with three pilots working for her, encouraged the studios to contract with her for guaranteed work, rather than the hit-or-miss method of hiring their own pilots each day. This marked the beginning of the Associated Motion Picture Pilots.

It was also the beginning of numerous "Pancho stories" which circulate freely today: her friendships with the film luminaries of the time--Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn--and rumours of romances with Ramon Navarro and/or Duncan Renaldo. There was a colourful feud with Roscoe Turner involving an impromptu air race, Gilmore the lion, and a pair of powder-blue kidskin boots.

Retreat to the Desert

All good times come to an end, however, and so it was for Pancho’s dizzying world of flying, glamour, and money. The new talking motion pictures displaced many film careers and brought a new era to the movies. The nation settled ever deeper into the Depression and the fortune which Pancho inherited from her mother began to melt away, hastened by an indecorous conflict within her own family. Still officially married to the hapless churchman, she traded most of her surviving assets in 1935 for a small, quarter-section ranch in the desolate reaches of the western Mojave Desert. There, on the far side of the mountains which had loomed over her San Marino estate, Pancho Barnes took her 12-year-old son and settled down to the unlikely life of a rancher in the High Desert.

It is romantic, but not totally realistic, to think of the redoubtable Mrs. Barnes as a simple small-time farmer in the wilderness. A working ranch it was, but from the first she had a foreman and crew to raise alfalfa and care for the livestock--hogs, a few head of cattle, and of course horses. She was never without an airplane, and one of the first things she did was to scratch out an airstrip on the desert hardpan. She might be far from the lights and glitter on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains, but she didn’t cut herself off from her old friends and connections. Still, she loved the outdoors; she had all of the High Desert to ride across and, meanwhile, there was a living to be earned. Pancho set out to make the most of her new environment.

A New Door Opens

Pancho’s new world was remote, lying alongside a dirt road connecting two hamlets--Muroc and Rosamond. Her spread occupied the lowlands between two large desert playas. Nothing much ever came of Rosamond Dry Lake to the west. But some interesting activity was already stirring on the far shore of the other huge lake bed to the east. Rogers Dry Lake was 44 square miles of rock-hard flatness, the largest such lake in the world. Pancho arrived on the scene not long after the Army Air Corps did; in 1933, working parties in khaki had arrived to set up a bombing and gunnery range to serve the fighters and bombers from March Field, California. An orderly array of army tents housed the range keepers--a detachment of young soldiers who must be fed. Army rations trucked up from Riverside were supplemented with whatever local-purchase foodstuffs might be available, and Pancho rose to the opportunity. Pork and milk from the ranch appeared in the Army mess hall, and Pancho shrewdly contracted to remove the encampment’s garbage--which was recycled directly into her hog population.

Soon, Pancho began to expand her operations, enlarging her herd of milk cows and selling dairy products throughout the valley. The remains of her family money went into ranch improvements and within a few years the ranch had expanded from 80 acres to 368. She enlarged the ranch house and built a swimming pool--an exotic touch for the late 1930s. As war clouds gathered abroad and the nation began to shake off its peacetime torpor, the Air Corps began a long-overdue expansion. Even the bombing range grew larger; the government bought up great amounts of land; permanent buildings went up, and officers and enlisted men began to appear in larger numbers.

When World War II arrived in the High Desert, Pancho was swept along with the current. The gunnery range became Muroc Army Air Field, a huge expansion began on the western shore of the lake, and permanent runways were built for year-round use. Suddenly a major military installation lay only three miles down the road. Pancho had always been partial to her "Foreign Legion of the American Army" and she was delighted at the new turn of events. Patriotically, she made her ranch available to off-duty fliers. Officers--and especially pilots--were welcome in her swimming pool; often they stayed to dinner and the flying talk went on far into the night. Pancho offered her horses for the recreation of those who could ride, and bought more. By degrees, the desert exile became a hostess.

The Good Years

In retrospect, it all had a kind of inevitability about it. The airmen loved Pancho’s party atmosphere and the opportunities for other recreation were severely limited. Wartime money was suddenly available, visitors were always needing a place to stay, and Pancho had plenty of room to expand. A bar and restaurant appeared, then a dance hall, another bar, and a coffee shop. Most of the booze came up from Mexico in Pancho’s plane and was dispensed freely; the more expensive stuff stayed under lock and key. The airstrip was enlarged and lighted for the increasing number of guests and friends who flew in, and a motel was built for their convenience. Soon Pancho found herself the proud mistress of the Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch.

used with permission, Pancho Barnes Archive

Ever more boisterous, profane and swashbuckling, Pancho proceeded to have the time of her life. Almost gleefully, she allowed time and the dry desert air to transform her youthful appearance into the storied homeliness by which most remember her. To compensate, Pancho imported an ever-changing bevy of attractive hostesses to serve the weary airmen. Even the name of the ranch reflected the wartime gaiety, soon being nicknamed the Happy Bottom Riding Club in salute to the growing number of skilled and satisfied riders. Pilots were always her special comrades, and in the natural course of events a stellar array of high-ranking officers appeared at the ranch and soon became her friends. Jimmy Doolittle, a pal from the air racing days, now sported three stars, and he was joined by many others, including the commander of the Army Air Forces, General H.H. "Hap" Arnold.

Thus, it was natural that when peacetime came and Muroc (soon to become Edwards Air Force Base) became the centre for the nation’s leading experimental flight testing center, that test pilots would replace the wartime fliers, and the party went on. Pancho’s place remained popular for the same reasons it always had--in an area of limited resources, men with heavy responsibilities needed a congenial place to relax. Although many stories about Pancho and her hostesses are told with a knowing wink, it is also true that off-duty pilots love to do one thing above all--talk about flying. And there was plenty of that at Oro Verde.

Pancho was a staunch friend and confidante to many of the young professional fliers of the day--Al Boyd, Pete Everest, Jack Ridley and many others. Those that she liked, that is. Those whom she did not, or who carelessly patronized her, were swiftly and profanely shown the door. With Chuck Yeager, a bond was formed which lasted her lifetime. Recent books and movies have glamorized the friendship between the sonic-busting test pilot and the high-flying hostess, but in truth it began much earlier when Pancho found out that the young captain was also an avid outdoorsman. Several hunting and fishing expeditions, some of which ended raucously down in Mexico, sealed the friendship long before Captain Yeager had been chosen to bring the X-1 supersonic program to its ultimate success. When he did so, on 14 October 1947, Pancho was one of the few who knew about the official secret. Yeager won a free steak dinner for that feat, thereby starting a tradition for all pilots celebrating their first supersonic flight.

Yeager’s boss in the flight test world, Col Albert Boyd, was another legendary old-time pilot who had warm regard for Pancho and her accomplishments. After he was promoted and had assumed command of the flight test establishment, General Boyd appeared less frequently at the ranch. Although he never hesitated to chew her out when her guests flew too close to his base, he remained a respected member of her circle of friends. But after his departure from Edwards in 1952, the good times rapidly drew to a close.

An Era Closes

used with permission, Pancho Barnes Archive

Soon after the next commander arrived on the scene, the entire atmosphere began to change. The reasons were many: conflicting requirements, personality clashes, and some genuine misunderstandings. The immediate catalyst was airspace which was becoming increasingly crowded with large numbers of new aircraft being tested, and the private airplanes of Pancho’s guests. The borders of the base were already pressing hard upon Oro Verde, and a master plan had already been written calling for it to expand to its present western boundary. Sooner or later, something would have to give. But the times were changing as well. The brash camaraderie of the wartime years was giving way to the straight-laced Fifties, and the casual flying world of the 1940s was evolving into today’s relentlessly sober approach. Even the bachelor test pilots in their twenties were becoming married professionals in their early middle age. The Happy Bottom Riding Club was doomed in any event.

It was not long before condemnation proceedings were filed against Pancho’s property, on the grounds that the ranch lay on a direct line with a proposed extension of the test centre’s main runway. There were genuine air safety considerations as well, and a master plan had already called for the base to expand to the west. But the situation was greatly worsened by a complete lack of rapport between the principals, and conflicts soon escalated into name calling, unjust accusations, and ultimately into a flurry of acrimonious lawsuits. In the middle of the fray, coming at the worst possible time, a night-time fire of unknown origin completely destroyed the ranch complex.

Pancho eventually won a considerable sum in the courts. She established herself on a new spread in another remote area, vowing to rebuild and continue as before. But much of the settlement went into attorney’s fees and, at any rate, the psychological blows had been considerable. 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, like a relentless Greek tragedy, serious illness struck her. Although the redoubtable woman vowed never to surrender and went on to survive two cancer operations, the old zest for life gradually faded along with her energy. Pancho died, alone and undiscovered, in 1975.

Her son, Bill, became a pilot and owned a flying business in nearby Lancaster. He died in October, 1980, while flying a P-51 Mustang not far from the site of the old ranch.


Of her personality and that clamorous era, little now remains: some concrete foundations and the remains of a fanciful stone fountain near the Edwards AFB firing range; a few photographs. The dim, rectangular outline of a dirt airstrip can still be made out from the air. There is a battered door from the ranch pickup, still faintly lettered, resting against a wall in the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum. But the Pancho stories still circulate freely in the flight community, some titillating, most nostalgic, all now recounted with tolerant smiles. For many years now, the people at Edwards have gathered together on the site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club for an annual barbecue which goes far into the night. And in a hangar in nearby Mojave, Pancho’s black-and-red Travelaire Mystery Ship is gradually returning to its original splendour.

As always, Pancho had the last word: "Well ------- it, we had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime."