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Our Laguna: Pilots' history soars into presentation

April 26, 2012|By Barbara Diamond
  • Peter Blake, Dan Ollis, Brenda Harrop and Hal Swanson, left to right, at the Philharmonic House of Design's premiere night Saturday.
Peter Blake, Dan Ollis, Brenda Harrop and Hal Swanson,… (Robert Rooks, Coastline…)

Two of Laguna's most extraordinary residents were the subject of a trio of stories that captivated the audience at the Laguna Beach Historical Society presentation Tuesday at City Hall.

Aviation historian Barbara H. Schultz gave folks a peek into the lives of pilots Moyes Stephens and Florence "Pancho" Barnes and Richard Halliburton, who was only included because he was Stephens' passenger.

Barnes was one of the foremost pilots in the so-called Golden Age of Aviation.

Although never a licensed pilot, she was a pioneer aviatrix who flew in the first National Air Race for women in 1939, nine years after she had captured the women's speed record and founded the Women's Air Reserve the following year.

Barnes successfully fought an attempt to bar women pilots from the air during certain times of the month, Schultz said.

Although she married four times, femininity was not Barnes' strong point. She was photographed in a dress when she was six, but not often after that, Schultz said.

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"She could swear like a sailor for an hour and never repeat herself," said Schultz.

Barnes worked alongside her ranch hands, raised horses and rode them in rodeos. Barnes reportedly was dubbed "Pancho" after an escape from Mexican bandits with a man she called "Don Quixote," who called her Sancho. She preferred Pancho, Schultz said.

By any name, she was a party girl. She hosted parties at the Happy Bottom Riding Club in the mid-1930s, a way station for pilots stationed at Fort Edwards, and in her Laguna Beach home on her grandparents' North Laguna estate, now known as Smithcliffs.

Guests included Hollywood stunt pilots, actors and actresses and the socially elite, according to the Historical Society's newsletter, "Laguna Life."

There was a rather crude runway for landings that was short and headed straight for the ocean. It has been reported that a least one pilot failed to stop in time and landed on the beach.

Barnes' parties were as raucous as the hostess, hence Grandma's order to move the house that she had inherited from her mother, along with a tidy fortune, which the heiress ran through rather quickly.

Barnes' storied life ended in 1975. She was 73.

Barnes crossed paths with Halliburton through Stephens, a pilot most popularly known for piloting Halliburton around the world, which led to the adventurer's fourth and most famous book, "The Flying Carpet."

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