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Florence Barnes was born Florence Lowe on July 22, 1901 to Florence Mae Dobbins Lowe and Thaddeus Lowe Jr. She was a strong, athletic girl who grew up beside a sickly older brother. The men in her family encouraged her to engage in so called manly pursuits such as horseback riding and fishing. Her brother did not live past the age of 12. Robbed of a grandson to pass his legacy onto, Thaddeus Lowe Sr. took his granddaughter Florence to aerial shows instead and instilled a love of flying in her that would stay with her all of her life.
"Florence "Pancho" Barnes was a California heiress who inherited a love of flying from her grandfather, a pioneer balloonist in the Civil War. Faced with a future of domesticity and upper crust pretensions, she ran away from her responsibilities as wife and mother to create her own life. She cruised South America. She trekked through Mexico astride a burro. She hitchhiked halfway across the United States. Then, in the late 1920s, she took to the skies, one of a handful of female pilots. She was a barnstormer, a racer, a cross-country flyer, and a Hollywood stunt pilot. She was, for a time, 'the fastest woman on earth,' flying the fastest civilian airplane in the world. She was an intimate of movie stars, a script doctor for the great director Erich von Stroheim, and, later in life, a drinking buddy of the supersonic jet jockey Chuck Yeager. She ran a wild and wildly successful desert watering hole known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club." (1)
Pancho Barnes, like her grandfather, was not happy with living a normal, conventional life. Her grandfather took to the skies when only a few men did so, and Pancho learned to fly when women were routinely denied flying lessons and the vast majority of pilots were men. The apple didn't fall far from the tree: Pancho devoted her life to flying and the flyer's lifestyle.
(1) Kessler, Lauren. The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes. Random House: New York, 2000, cover.
The International Women's Air & Space Museum is located in Cleveland, Ohio in the Terminal of Burke Lakefront Airport. Visit us today!