Pancho and Amelia: A clash of personalities at the birth of the aviation age

In today’s world, we see women involved in every aspect of society. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see that ladies are just as competitive with each other as they are with men when it comes to succeeding in their life’s ambitions. Being the father of three daughters (with a couple of granddaughters for good measure), I have seen firsthand how that competitive DNA pushes them every day to be the best they can be and not play second fiddle to anybody.

Looking back at our history, many will speak of the struggles of women to gain a foothold in a man’s world. Over time, women won more of those small battles that would eventually benefit all the women of the world today. Many of those struggles revolved around women competing for men’s jobs, equal pay and recognition. But while all that was going on, we need to look back and realize that competitive women of yesteryear were pulling for each other to succeed — but only to a point. Two 20th century women who were about as competitive as you can get had no problem letting it be known that the men were one thing, but when it came to those of their same gender, it was all-out war.

Amelia Earhart is a woman who needs no introduction. Her exploits have been written about and fill thousands of pages of historical reflection, and are the subject of more films and documentaries than you could read and watch in a lifetime. The darling of a nation and a role model for so many women, she was considered a pioneer for women’s rights and one of the best female pilots of all time. That was, of course, if you didn’t ask the opinion of Pancho Barnes.

Pancho Barnes (Courtesy photograph)

Pancho Barnes was the South Pole to Amelia’s North Pole: two women who took on life in two very different and distinctive ways. One was the debutante of the aviation world; the other, the outlaw of the skies. They were both very competitive and were always driven to be the first at something in their field or to win at all costs, much like male pilots of their era who were always pushing to prove that they were made of “the right stuff.” I think if you asked these two women of the skies how they felt about each other, you may have found that not much love or admiration was passing between the two, and you may have heard a few choice words about where the other was lacking some of that “right stuff.”

We’ve heard all of the stock stories about Pancho Barnes and Amelia, so I wanted to tell a tale that was just a bit different from the norm and show the reader that all was not hugs and kisses between woman aviators in those early days of flight. Of all the stories that might bring this to light, there is one historic event that pretty much sums it up: the first all-woman transcontinental air race, the 1929 Women’s Air Derby.

At the time, Pancho Barnes was doing test work for Travelair and Amelia was busy working her way up the social ladder of the aviation community, while setting records in the skies. The two had many interactions in those early years. One thing for certain was that they were sure on a collision course of egos that would have them trading barbs in life and yes, even after death.

Let me give you a little background about the rivalry between these two women, before and after the first big race, to give it some additional context. In 1929, Amelia was the holder of the coveted women’s speed record. In 1930, Pancho went out and broke Amelia’s record in her Travelair Mystery Ship. In 1933, Amelia came out with a book called “The Fun of It,” in which she described Pancho as a “marginal” pilot. They say that Pancho was furious upon reading that line, and her anger would last for 40 years. It certainly influenced her opinion of Miss Earhart when it came to her aviation ability and how she lived her life! Pancho Barnes was a firm believer that Amelia was nothing more than a puppet, saying the things she was coached to say by the influential people who surrounded her when her fame grew, in Pancho’s opinion, beyond her aviation skills.

When the day of the 1929 race came, there were 19 pilots who took off from Santa Monica, bound for Cleveland, Ohio. Little did that first class of “Powder Puff Derby” entrants know that before it was over, there would be death, sabotage and accidents, with some politics thrown in to feed the headlines of the day. When Amelia damaged her propeller on the first leg of the journey, the race was held up until she could get it repaired — much to the displeasure of Pancho, who got no such treatment when her plane was damaged in Texas by a vehicle that drove into her path when she landed.

Two women living life by their own rules: Amelia Earhart in the center in her conservative attire, and Pancho Barnes on the right sporting men’s clothes, cowboy boots and smoking a cigarette. (Courtesy photograph) 

When it was all over, Amelia ended up in third place and Pancho, thanks to her sponsor, ended up in Cleveland for the festivities as a spectator only, while her damaged plane sat back in Texas. From this point on the two very competitive women would very rarely interact, as they were happy to just go their separate ways and run with the crowds they felt more at home with. Amelia loved the limelight, Pancho loved the adventure — but they sure didn’t love each other!

Even in death, Amelia still captured the public’s imagination with an almost mythic thrall that still lives on today. During Pancho Barnes’ life, she said many times that she knew what really happened to Amelia, as she had conversations with those who would have known — but again, the press wanted to build on to the legend of Amelia, “America’s Darling” who, Pancho said, was pushed by friends and handlers into an ill-advised attempt that had a very slim margin for success.

So, what can we draw on for inspiration from the story of these two pioneering aviators? It’s pretty simple, for when we see two women who are so completely different in how they lived their lives and approached their passion for flight, we can understand how they would have one thing in common: determination not to let anything stand in their way. Not only were they focused on overcoming the challenges of flying in a “man’s world,” but they weren’t going to let that “other” woman upstage their skills in the air. That passion is what we can draw from in our own lives! Let’s just hope we can keep it cordial!

Funny, I was thinking about all those buddy movies that used to be so popular on the big screen and the idea for a movie called “Pancho and Amelia” comes to mind — the story of two unlikely characters of the skies. But really, how could that have ever worked, when they would never have made it past deciding whose name should appear first! In many ways competition is good; it keeps us always trying to do better.
If you add a little ego like these two had, you could very well end up a legend!

Remember these two women, who made history in their own way, and celebrate their contributions to the lore of American aviation in the 20th century.

Until next time, Bob out…

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