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The Most Unladylike Aviatrix in History

Florence Leontine Lowe, “Pancho Barnes” was born in San Marino, California, July 22,1901. Her grandfather was the famous Civil War Balloonist, Thaddeus Lowe. He was a visionary, free wheeling self promoter and amazing inventor. It was Thaddeus Lowe that persuaded President Lincoln to launch a fleet of surveillance balloons during the Civil War. Florence followed in his footsteps with an inextinguishable passion for flying.

Florence was born into a life of great privilege. Her father was a millionaire sportsman and her mother a true blue blood Philadelphian. Her greatest inspiration, however, was her grandfather Thaddeus. Florence lived a childhood full of mischief and rebellion, an uncontrollable tomboy, and enjoyed her wild streak. After her graduation, she announced she wanted to become a veterinarian. Florence had a lifelong love of animals. Her mother’s quick response was enrolling in art school, stating that it was “much more ladylike.” Her grandmother responded by seeking a very suitable and much respected husband. Her family did not enjoy her wild streak.

With Grandmother’s find, they made a match for her, and married her off in January 1921, to the Reverend C. Rankin Barnes. She was only nineteen, and they hoped he could tame her wild streak. But as one might imagine, she had little interest in playing the reserved and mild-mannered minister’s wife! There was not a single spark between them. Based on diary entries and friends' stories, it appears they kissed for the first time at the wedding altar and had their only intimate moment during their honeymoon. Nine months later, the unhappy couple had a son, William E. “Billy” Barns.

Barely twenty years old, and in no way ready to be a parent, Florence left most of Billy’s upbringing to a nurse. Friends say she loved Billy, but they had a rather unusual relationship. (Billy was a well-known figure in the Antelope Valley during the 70s, working as both pilot and flight instructor. He helped build the Antelope Valley Air Museum, owned a P-51 Mustang, which he flew in occasional air shows. He died in an aviation accident in 1980).

Florence left the Reverend early in the marriage. She followed her passion for flight, searching out a WWI veteran, Ben Caitlin, asking him to teach her to fly. He dismissed her request. She remained adamant, and he acquiesced, but had a plan to scare her. Few women flew in those days and he was not about to add another. Ben took her up for a heart stopping flight. That should have scared anyone away. He noticed it had no effect on Florence, and she said she was ready to go up again. He realized she was going to get her license one way or another, and he took her on. Florence obtained her pilot’s license, #3522. Orville Wright signed Florence's membership card when she became a member of the National Aeronautic Association. Florence was quoted as saying, “Amelia Earhart got all the publicity, but I was the best pilot.”

Next, Florence boarded a banana boat bound for Mexico. Little did she know that the ship’s cargo was a shipment of guns and ammunition intended for Mexican revolutionaries. The situation was dangerous, but she bonded with the ship’s helmsman, Roger Chute. She later said she and Chute were soulmates. Roger was a Stanford educated fisheries researcher who signed up for this trip knowing what the mission was, just for “the thrill of it.” The ship was raided upon arrival and Chute and Florence were the only two to escape after stealing a horse and a burro and riding for their lives. He and Florence became lovers and for seven months, they traveled through Mexico together.

Eventually, the two made it back to California, after stowing away on a boat, and through connections at the Amercian Embassy, finding a spot on another boat and landing in New Orleans, then walking, hitchhiking, and train-hopping the 1,700 miles home.

This trip changed Florence’s life forever. She disguised herself as a man and lived like one. Chute called her “Pancho, his pants wearing, cigarette smoking hard riding female companion,” mistakenly referencing Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza, but Pancho was the name that stuck. Florence Lowe was now Pancho Barnes. She saw herself as a woman of the world, fully liberated and a real original. She was quoted as saying, “The most important thing is to be yourself. So don’t even try to be like anyone else, because we’ve seen it already!” This quote seems to sum up the life of Pancho Barnes in just a few words.

Pancho dabbled in real estate, ranching, and entrepreneurship, but her friends' movie stunts kept her passion for aviation alive.. She herself flew in many films, including Howard Hawks’ Dawn Patrol, Howard Hughes’ Hells Angels and more. During the Great Depression, Pancho's wealth decreased, and she pursued a career in stunt piloting. She organized the Association of Motion Picture Pilots, a first of its kind. The goal was to assure pilots received union wages. Pancho was the only female member.

There are some more interesting pieces of her life in this short YouTube.


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