Florence Lowe made a name for herself in the aviation world. But that name wasn’t Florence. And it certainly wasn’t Flo or any other derivation…
No, the world would come to know her as Pancho, a moniker far removed in every way from her background; and the world would come to celebrate her life and legacy as an aviatrix, entrepreneur, and innovator.
Born into a life of wealth and luxury in Pasadena in 1901, the woman who would become Pancho Barnes came from a family that prized the great outdoors. Her grandfather, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, pioneered the field of American aviation when he established the nation’s first military air unit—the Army of the Potomac’s balloon corps—during the Civil War, and it’s also well-known that Lowe took his granddaughter to an early air show when she was just 10 years old.
Flying was in her blood, but it would be some years later before she’d actually take to the skies.
First, she would marry Reverend C. Rankin Barnes in 1919 and soon after have a son, William.
Second, she would spend months abroad in Mexico immersing herself in the revolutionary culture while escaping the attention of authorities by disguising herself as a man. It was at this point in her life that she began calling herself Pancho.
Finally, further eschewing all social expectations for women at the time, Barnes, who had driven her cousin to his flying lesson, convinced his flight instructor (a World War I veteran) that she too would like to learn to pilot a plane. So that day in 1928, she climbed into the cockpit. After just six hours of formal instruction, Barnes soloed for the first time, and would soon become one of the first licensed female pilots in the U.S.
Flying became her life; she ran an ad-hoc barnstorming show and began competing in all the air races she could. On February 22, 1929, she entered the first women’s air race (known as the Powder Puff Derby) and subsequently won the 80-mile contest by finishing nearly 25 minutes ahead of the other more well-known entrants.
While inaugurating a new route for an airline in 1930, she became the first woman to fly into the interior of Mexico. On August 4, 1930, Barnes won the Women’s Air Derby while sponsored by Union Oil Company (after crashing during the previous year’s race) and soared past Amelia Earhart’s women’s speed record by blazing through the sky at 196.19 miles per hour to become the “Fastest Woman on Earth.” Just a few days later, she won the Tom Thumb race, which took pilots from L.A. to Santa Paula. Barnes set more speed records in 1931. That year, the Governor of California awarded her a trophy that proclaimed her “America’s fastest woman flyer.”
Then, while working for Lockheed (the first female test pilot to do so), Barnes set even more aviation records and put their Vega through the paces. She was unstoppable in the skies.
When her contract with Union expired, Barnes moved to Hollywood and began working as a stunt pilot for films, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, and by 1931 had founded the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, a union for stunt flyers that advocated safe flying and standardized pay. Though Hughes was rumored to be quite upset at this, it didn’t stop him from hiring Barnes to fly her Mystery Ship (the Type R “Mystery Ships” were wide-braced, low-wing racing airplanes built in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s and so called because the first aircraft in the series were built in secrecy) around microphones that had been set up outdoors so that he could capture the sound and dub the airplanes in the film, nor remain a friend to Barnes.