It was 30 March 1975.
I missed it — I cannot recall what I was doing that day — but I missed it.
That day Pancho Barnes was declared dead, and with her passing so did an era of aviation history that was so rich, so full of trouble and adventure — much more than most of us will get to experience.
Model of the Travel Air Type R "Mystery Ship" as flown by Pancho Barnes — photo by Joseph May
Pancho’s history reads like an adventure novel, as much as Louis L’Mour’s life. She promoted aviation more than most of her time. She organized stunt pilots to get fair wages in Hollywood. Her nickname came from a stint where she worked aboard a cargo ship that was, unknowingly to her, running guns to Mexico. She jumped ship when it made port and she had a lifelong nickname. Pancho was born to a wealthy family but she carved out her individual niche and one that has not been equaled. She was an extraordinary socialite, ultimately forming the Happy Bottom Riding Club where so many test pilots unwound in the heady and dangerous flying days post WW II at Edwards Air Force Base.
Pancho is best known for flying her red and black Travel Air Type R “Mystery Ship” but she was forced to sell it as a result of the Great Depression. Many years later the aircraft was up for auction and she was in the bidding with several others — something exceptional and extraordinary occurred, though — not as much as a single person competed for the aircraft, ensuring she would have the winning bid. Greater honors than this are rare, are they not?
This wooden model pictured is owned by the Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale Museum and will soon be available to the general public for viewing when the museum opens its doors.