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Pancho Barnes

30 March 2012

Pancho Barnes

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.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 March 2012 11:32

    In the early seventies I got my ticket from the chief pilot at Barnes Aviation in Lancaster, CA., Billie Barnes. Actually I received two tickets that day. The first from a CHP officer for speeding and the second from Ponchos son. After flopping around the sky for a while Bill signed me off in my log book and muttered those remember-able words ” I know you can fly better than that!”
    During the time I was learning to fly I was able to get a few looks in a back hanger. Inside was Poncho’s Mystery Ship in partial restoration. After Poncho was able to buy her airplane back at auction Bill and his chief mechanic Cliff ( can’t remember his last name) partially dismantaled the ship for “restoration” mainly to keep his aged mother from climbing in and taking off!. He told her that she’d have to get a real pilots licence.Unfortualy all three passed before the plane was ever completed. Poncho of natural causes and Bill and Cliff testing a P-51.

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      31 March 2012 08:44

      Your brush with history is envious and thanks so much for sharing it with us. Of course we all hope to see the Mystery Ship restored and on exhibit, let’s hope it is sooner than later so that Pancho’s story doesn’t fade into the odds and ends closet of ancient history.

  2. 30 March 2012 17:52

    If you haven’t already seen it, check out the documentary film about Pancho, “The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.” It’s currently airing on PBS and you can stream it from Netflix and other vendors.

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      31 March 2012 08:41

      A very cool tip, Nick, and thanks very much for it. I’ll amend the post later today with those links. Thanks again, Joe

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