Flying her own path
Pasadena Museum of History presents a special evening on aviatrix Pancho Barnes
By Carl Kozlowski 03/20/2014
Born in 1901 and raised in Pasadena and San Marino, Florence Leontine Lowe never seemed to fit in with the rest of the girls in her family’s high-society circles. While she was raised as a proper young woman, the charismatic Lowe exhibited a passion for flying from a young age. This was due to the fact that her grandfather, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, was an aviation pioneer.
In 1919, Florence married the Rev. C. Rankin Barnes of South Pasadena. But life as a minister’s wife did not suit her, and she fled her marriage and went to Mexico in 1927.
While there, she engaged in an affair with fellow American traveler Roger Chute, who nicknamed her “Pancho” because she enjoyed wearing pants and smoking cigarettes like the men around her. Upon her return in 1928, she asked a World War I veteran pilot named Ben Caitlin to teach her to fly, and soon she blazed her own path as one of the first women in aviation.
Pancho went on to break fellow aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s air speed record and became Hollywood’s first stunt pilot. She eventually opened a private club in the California desert called the Happy Bottom Riding Club that hosted aviation elites and Hollywood celebrities alike.
Now, in conjunction with its current exhibition “Kites, Wings & Other Flying Things: A History of Aviation in Pasadena,” the Pasadena Museum of History is presenting a special event Tuesday called “Pancho Barnes: Pasadena’s Indomitable Aviatrix.”
Mike Salazar and Lou D’Elia of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archives will display rare photos and ephemera from Barnes’ estate. Meanwhile, a wine and cheese reception will be offered, and doors will be open to event attendees at 5:30 p.m. to provide time to explore the exhibit.
“There are multiple reasons for the event, starting with the fact that March is Women’s History Month and Pancho is one of the most famous Pasadena women in history,” says Jeanette Bovard, the museum’s media consultant. “She’s basically a woman who flaunted society’s rules to do her own thing but achieved a lot and became a celebrity of her own. She’s interesting on a lot of levels: character, personality, aviation exploits and achievements.”
“Pancho Barnes: Pasadena’s Indomitable Aviatrix” will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. Admission is $10 for museum members and $15 for non-members. Visit panchbarnes.brownpapertickets.com or call (800) 838-3006 ext. 1. “Kites, Wings & Other Flying Things: A History of Aviation in Pasadena” runs through April 19. Visit Pasadenahistory.org or call (626) 577-1660.