Pancho Barnes, whose original name was Florence Lowe, was born on 14 July 1901 in Pasadena, California. She died in March 1975 in Boron, California. Barnes was an aviator and movie stunt pilot. She was also one of the first American women to create a reputation and a business in the field of aviation.
Florence Lowe was brought up in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege on an estate located in San Marino, California. As the granddaughter of Thaddeus Lowe, who had created the balloon corps for the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War, Barnes inherited a zeal for aviation.
When she was 18 years old, Pancho married C Rankin Barnes, who was an Episcopal priest, and she gave birth to a son number of years later. Pancho’s personality was not well suited to life as a clergyman’s wife. In 1928 she left her husband and son for a period of time. Putting on men’s clothing, she travelled to Mexico onboard a freighter and then wandered through the Mexican countryside for four months. Throughout this adventure she got the nickname “Pancho,” a moniker that she kept for the rest of her life.
Pancho Takes Up Flying
Some adventurous pilots were teaching others how to fly. Very soon Pancho was paying $5 to go up for around fifteen minutes of instruction. There was not a lot that could be taught. Planes were guided by a stick and rudder system.
The dashboard had an oil gauge but gas levels had to be checked before each flight. To do so, the pilot would dip a string in the gas tank in order to gauge quantity. When in the open cockpit, a pilot would judge altitude by looking over the side of the plane and looking down. Another flight “gauge” necessitated hanging a key chain from a knob from the control board. If the chain was hanging straight down, it meant that the plane was flying straight.
The instructor had no way to speak to the student pilot, so hand signals were utilised. A hand up showed that the student should move the nose of the plane up. Down, of course, meant down. A hand on the right cheek meant that the plane was sliding or skidding right and required a correction.
Simply put, planes were manoeuvred via quick thinking and guts. After six hours of flight instruction, Pancho was ready to fly solo. She had plenty of guts.
She returned to San Marino later in 1928.
Well known for her roguish aerial antics, she nonetheless put great effort into becoming an expert pilot. At a time when flying was mostly a male domain, much like the gambling rooms in private clubs that offered the real money roulette Australia loved, Pancho pushed her way in and made a name for herself. This isn’t something that gambling clubs would have allowed, but she proved that the skies had no gender.
In August 1929 she took part in the first Women’s Air Derby, which is a cross-country race that goes from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio.
She was at the front of the pack in the second stage of the race, however, she was forced to abandon after colliding with a truck on a runway. Barnes took part in the race again the next year, when her usual speed of 196.19 miles per hour. She set a brand-new world speed record for women, beating Amelia Earhart’s record from the previous year.