Commentary: Pancho Barnes: A Trailblazer in Aviation

  • Published
  • By Michael Doidge, PhD
  • AFTC Chief Historian

Florence Leontine Lowe, better known as Pancho Barnes, is best known for her pioneering spirit and larger-than-life persona. Born in 1901, she quickly overcame any challenges to become a legendary figure in American aviation.

Married at a young age, Barnes soon discovered her passion for flight. After her husband's death and her inheritance of a fortune, she embraced aviation, acquiring the Type R "Mystery Ship" and setting numerous speed records. Renowned for her daring feats, she even embarked on a wild adventure in Mexico, adopting the name Pancho Barnes.

By the late 1920s, Barnes dominated air races and air shows, outperforming notable aviators like Amelia Earhart. However, the Great Depression took its toll on her finances, leading her to purchase a ranch near what would later become Edwards Air Force Base.

At her ranch, dubbed the "Happy Bottom Riding Club," Barnes provided amenities for test pilots and facilitated an environment of camaraderie and adventure. However, as Edwards became a vital testing ground for the U.S. Air Force, Barnes was at odds with the military's plans.

A legal battle ensued over the ownership of her ranch, culminating in its destruction by fire. Despite winning the dispute, Barnes' victory was bittersweet. Nevertheless, she remained a beloved figure at Edwards, earning titles like "the Mother of Edwards" and "the First Citizen of Edwards."

To understand Pancho’s life at Edwards AFB, one must envision the transformation of a frontier Air Force Base. During Pancho’s time, Edwards was wild, in as much as any military base can be considered remote, detached, or uncoupled. By the 1950s, at the end of her time there, the base became truly part of the U.S. Air Force establishment.

In 1964, Chuck Yeager dedicated a room and bar at the Edwards AFB Officers Club to her memory. Barnes continued to inspire as a guest speaker at aviation conventions until her passing in 1975.

Today, Pancho Barnes remains a legend. Her life is a testament to the pioneering spirit of women in aviation. Her legacy reminds us that boundaries are meant to be challenged and that the sky is never the limit.