Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes: America’s First Female Stunt Pilot

Pancho Barnes was born Florence Leontine Lowe on July 22, 1901. She went on to become Hollywood’s first female stunt pilot, working in many films with Howard Hughes, and was Lockheed’s first female test pilot conducting maximum load tests on the new Vega in 1929... a single-engine high-wing monoplane designed to carry a pilot and up to seven passengers.

The most important person during her childhood was her grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, who was in charge of the Union Army's Aeronautic Corps during the Civil War. He took her to her first air show when she was 10. History credits him with helping to turn the tides of the Civil War with his air balloons which were requested by president Abraham Lincoln and positioned over Confederate lines, telegraphing their position back to union troops.

As a teenager, she admired the World War I pilots that flew in defense of freedom. At 19, her parents arranged a marriage to an Episcopal minister, Reverend Rankin Barnes, producing a son nine months later, William E. “Billy” Barnes.

Escaping an unhappy marriage disguised as a man, she would leave for Mexico on a boat filled with guns and Mexican revolutionaries instead of bananas. It was on this trip that she earned the nickname Pancho by the ship’s captain, Roger Chute. Upon reaching their destination, the boat was boarded by armed guards and the crew was held hostage for six weeks.

On her return to the U.S. in 1928, she decided that she wanted to learn to fly and went to see Ben Caitlin, a World War I veteran. At the time, planes were controlled by a stick and rudder system. The instructor had no way to talk to the student pilot, so hand signals were used. A hand up indicated the student should move the nose of the plane up. A hand on the right cheek meant the plane was slipping or skidding right and needed a correction.

The dashboard had an oil gauge and gas levels needed to be checked in advance of each flight. To do so, the pilot dipped a string in the gas tank to gauge fuel. Once in the open cockpit, a pilot judged altitude by peering over the side of the plane and looking down.

Her pilot's license, number 3522 issued by the National Aeronautic Association, was signed by Orville Wright.

In 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart's air speed record of 181.8 mph and assumed the title of World’s Fastest Woman, pushing the speed to 196 mph in sustained flight and beat Roscoe B. Turner by 20 minutes in an air race from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Pancho founded the Women’s Air Reserve October 1, 1931 to ensure female pilots had a place in military aviation. She was a pioneer and a trail blazer for women in aviation and was a member of the Barnstormers, Associated Motion Picture Stunt Pilots, OX-5 Fraternity, the 99's, and the Silver Wings Fraternity.

In 1946, she announced she would give a free steak dinner to the first man to break the sound barrier. Chuck Yeager collected that free steak on October 14, 1947 in a rocket-powered Bell X-1 rocket clocking 700 miles per hour.

Pancho died March 29, 1975, in Boron, California. She was found on the floor home, her breast cancer was likely the ultimate cause of her death.

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Works cited:

  • Pancho Barnes (1901-75)SP's Aviation - Civil Aviation
  • Pancho Barnes - the Official Website.” Pancho Barnes - The Official Website
  • Schultz, Barbara Hunter. Pancho: The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes. Little Buttes Pub., 1998.
  • Gibson, Karen Bush. Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys. Chicago Review Press, 2020.

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