Waldo Waterman and Pancho Barnes

Waldo Waterman (1894 – 1976), was an aviation pioneer, inventor, and son of a California governor.  In 1929, at age 35, Waldo became general manager of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport (now known as Van Nuys Airport) where Pancho Barnes (aka: Florence Lowe Barnes) and her cousin, Dean Banks, kept their airplanes. Pancho Barnes and Waldo Watermen had been friends since she met him a couple of years earlier at Clover Field in Santa Monica where the Waterman Aircraft Manufacturing Company was then located. She enjoyed flying into Clover Field, where many of her Hollywood friends also kept their planes, to visit Waldo and talk about ‘all things aviation’ and the future of aviation.

On December 31, 1929, at Pancho’s New Year’s Eve party at her San Marino estate, Waterman, who had a brilliant mind regarding the design of airplanes, told her that he had a dream to build an aircraft unlike any other, one that could change the dihedral (angle) of its wings mid-flight, promising shorter takeoffs, increased flight speed, and slower landing speeds. Another innovation regarding this plane was that the landing gears would be set outwards under the wings, rather than under the fuselage.  However, with the very recent 1929 Wall Street crash, the usual financing options through banks, became impossible. Waterman had no money to build a flyable prototype.

Pancho, known for her daredevil stunts and unquenchable thirst for adventure, was as fearless as she was passionate about aviation. Pancho was intrigued and very excited upon hearing Waterman’s ideas for this aircraft and wanted to help.  She introduced her wealthy cousin Dean Banks to Waldo’s innovative ideas and his eyes lit up with excitement.  As luck would have it, Pancho’s cousin, also a licensed pilot, was a savvy businessman, and offered a solution: form a syndicate of investors to help fund the design and building of this promising experimental aircraft.  

Pancho and Dean became instrumental in helping Waterman find investors, with many of their own friends becoming investors.  For instance, Pancho was friends with film star Norma Shearer’s brother, Douglas Shearer, an inventor and innovator in sound technology, who was then head of the sound department at MGM studios. Douglas Shearer had a very strong interest in aviation and the financial means to support such an endeavor, and quickly agreed to join and invest in Waterman’s dream. By the end of March 1930 twenty-five investors had been found and each committed $1,000 to this project (the equivalent of $17,000 each in 2023 money) pooling their resources to fund Waterman’s ambitious project. The Waterman Aircraft Syndicate was formed with board meetings (thanks to Douglas Shearer) held at the illustrious MGM studios in Culver City, adding a touch of Hollywood glamour to the venture. With the investment from the syndicate members, Waterman was finally able to bring his dream to life.

On August 21, 1930, Waterman, accompanied by his wife, Carol, set out on a cross-country flight in the newly built plane to the National Air Races in Chicago.  When it came time to debut the plane at the National Air Races, there was much anticipation and excitement. As the plane took off with its wings changing their dihedral, the crowd gasped in awe. It was indeed faster and took less time for takeoff and landing.

Pancho, being a skilled pilot herself, was the first one to try it after Waldo. After landing, she turned to Waldo, her eyes sparkling with adrenaline and excitement, “Waterman,” she exclaimed, “you’ve really got something here!”  The plane was featured in daily demonstrations during the rest of the multiple day event.  Later Waterman flew the plane to the East Coast and down to the N.A.C.A. (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) at Langley Field in Virginia for extensive evaluation tests there before returning to the West Coast.

Thanks to the backing of Pancho Barnes, Dean Banks, Douglas Shearer and 22 other investors, Waldo Waterman’s innovative aircraft became a reality helping to advance the frontier of aviation technology.  As Pancho Barnes once said, “The sky is not the limit, it is just the beginning.”

A few years later, Waldo Waterman would go on to build the first successful flying automobile, the Waterman Aerobile, that is currently on display at the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.  

(note: The materials shown here are from the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive.  You will notice that the edges of the various materials posted here show evidence of exposure to a fire.  The Waldo Waterman file that was kept by Pancho Barnes was partially lost in the November 13, 1953 fire that destroyed the Happy Bottom Riding Club. This file (contents partially shown here) likely contains the only surviving documentation regarding the funding and building of this experimental airplane.)  

All materials copyright, Estate of Pancho Barnes

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Dr. Louis F. D'Elia is the custodian of the Estate of Pancho Barnes and a Trustee of the Flight Test Museum Foundation at Edwards Air Force Base.