The First Woman to Fly in an Aeroplane in the United States, October 27, 1909

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

The periodical Aeronautics in its issue of December 1909 reproduced the official log of all the aeroplane flights undertaken at the United States Army Signal Corps aviation field at College Park, Maryland between October 8 and November 5, 1909. The first entry for the date October 27 was the record of a four-minute flight taken alone by Wilbur Wright. [1] However, Wilbur was not alone on this flight. He took up a passenger, a woman passenger. She was Sarah Van Deman, wife of a U.S. Army officer. That day she became the first woman to fly in an aeroplane in the United States. [2]

Sarah Van Deman was born Sarah McCune Rice, August 17, 1880 in California. She married Capt. Ralph Henry Van Deman on December 21, 1903, when she was 23 and he was 38. During the first three years of their marriage, Capt. Van Deman attended the Army War College in Washington, D.C., served with the 21st Infantry Regiment in the Philippines, and then went on a secret mission to China. He then returned to Washington, D.C. in 1907, to become the Chief of the Mapping Section in the Second Division of the new General Staff.

It is not certain when Sarah Van Deman first met Wilbur and/or Orville Wright and their sister Katharine. It is quite possible she met Orville when he flew at Fort Myer, Virginia during August and September 1908. It is also possible Sarah Van Deman met Katharine Wright and Orville at the Fort Myer Hospital when Ms. Wright spent seven weeks helping to nurse Orville back to health after the tragic crash of September 17, which resulted in the death of 1st Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge.

Image of Plane in the sky
The Wright Brothers test fly their aircraft on Fort Myer’s parade field. This series of test flights resulted in the Army purchasing its first aircraft. In the first flight, Sept. 9, 1908, Orville Wright kept the plane aloft 71 seconds. The second flight resulted in a crash that left Wright severely cut and bruised and his passenger, Army LT. Thomas Selfridge dead — the first powered-aviation fatality. (Exact date shot UNKNOWN). (NAID 6641435).

When the Wright Brothers returned to Fort Myer in mid-June 1909 to resume their flights for the Army Signal Corps, they were besieged with dinner requests. They accepted very few. The Washington Post reported on July 4, that “Occasionally they will accept a dinner invitation if it does not necessitate the meeting of a large party of persons.” [3] Among the first invitations they accepted were from the Van Demans. On June 27, they passed the evening in the country as guests of the Van Demans, enjoying a motor drive to Great Falls, followed by an out-of-door country dinner. [4]  

This would seem to suggest the Van Demans had met Orville and Katharine Wright in 1908, as it seems unlikely the Wrights would have accepted the invitation in 1909 from complete strangers, even if Capt. Van Deman was a fellow Ohioan. What is for certain, however, is that Sarah Van Deman was a frequent visitor to Fort Myer during July 1909 to watch Orville fly. She accompanied Katharine Wright to watch the flights once the latter arrived in Washington on July 21. From her conversations with Ms. Wright, Sarah learned of the sensation of traveling through the air at a high elevation and speed, as Katharine had with Wilbur in France earlier in 1909, and consequently was anxious to make a flight.[5]

Painting of the events of July 30, 1909.
Artwork: “The Wright Brothers at Ft. Myer – July 30, 1909”. Artist: John McCoy, US Air Force Art Collection. (NAID 6375490).

With their speed test completed on July 30, the Wright Brothers had met all their contract requirements with the Signal Corps to purchase one of their aeroplanes, except one (see The United States Army Buys Its First Aeroplane, 1909). That requirement mandated that they train two Army officers how to fly. Selected were First Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Frederic E. Humphries. Before the training began Wilbur, who was going to do the training, had obligations to meet in New York in connection with the Hudson-Fulton Celebration. Additionally, land had to be acquired (at College Park, Maryland) and cleared for a landing field. It was not until the end of the first week of October that Wilbur returned from New York City to begin flying instructions. By October 26, the two officers had soloed and Wilbur was getting closer to considering his contract obligations with the Army Signal Corps completed. Sarah Van Deman, who was an almost daily visitor to watch Wilbur and the two officers fly, was eager to go up with Wilbur before he left College Park. [6]

Up to this point Wilbur had turned down all requests from women who wanted to go up with him in America. However, for some reason, including perhaps Katharine’s request on behalf of Mrs. Van Deman, he consented to take Mrs. Deman up with him on a flight.[7] He probably asked 1st Lt. Frank P. Lahm, who was in charge of the College Park Aviation Station for his approval of doing so. Lahm, a West Point graduate, had enough time in the Army to know better than to let a civilian go up in an army aeroplane, without proper authorization, and there was no possibility of such a flight being kept secret. Numerous newspapers daily covered the College Park flights and it would not be more than 24 hours before the story of a woman going up in an aeroplane made the newspapers. Nonetheless, Lahm agreed to Sarah Van Deman going up with Wilbur on the morning of October 27, 1909.

Mrs. Van Deman with her husband reached the field about 7:30 am on October 27. There were present besides her small party, the few Signal Corps officers undergoing instructions, and the Signal corps enlisted men detailed as assistants. She went to the aeroplane shed with her husband and Lahm explained to her the various parts of the machine. At 7:50 am she walked up to the aeroplane in which Wilbur was seated. The propellers were already whirring around.

None of the spectators except Capt. Van Deman and the Signal Corps officers seemed to know that anything was going to happen. With a quick motion, however, she was in place beside Wilbur. Quickly, Lahm and Wright tied a string around the bottom of her skirt. Then Wilbur released the weight and the airship shot to the end of the monorail. Something was wrong, however, for without rising from the ground, the aeroplane came to a stop a short distance from the end of the rail. Wilbur jumped to the ground at once. Sarah made a move to get out of her seat just as Wright had alighted, but he told her to remain seated. The Signal Corps enlisted personnel dragged the aeroplane back to the starting point. This time, at 8:13 am, the start was perfect, and Wilbur went through his aerial paces in fine style. He turned sharp corners to show her what it was like and skimmed around gracefully at a height of 60 feet above the ground. Capt. Van Deman looked on calmly as they circled the field for four minutes and back to earth easily. For the first time in this country, a woman went up as passenger in an aeroplane. When they landed she leaped to her feet and called to her friends that it was “delicious.” “Oh, dear me, it was simply grand” she said to Wright. Capt. Van Deman came up to thank Wilbur. “I want to thank you, Wright. Now it will be possible to have peace in our home.” “Oh, that’s all right,” he replied, and then turning to the soldiers, said “Put the ship on the rail, boys.” Sarah said, “Now, I know why birds sing when they can fly through the air,” she said. “It was wonderful. There is no earthly sensation I can compare with it. Afraid? Why should I be? I never thought of that, and didn’t have any idea how long I was up, except that we came down too soon.” Capt. Van Deman was of the opinion that no particular risk had been run. “Why should I be afraid? I don’t think there is any more danger in taking an aeroplane ride than in motoring or horseback riding, and my wife does both of those things.” He added, “she has been awaiting this trip for some time,”[8]

With the flight of Mrs. Van Deman completed, Wilbur turned his attention to the officers he was training to fly. At the end of the flying that day, Wright was so well satisfied with the proficiency of Lahm and Humphries that he announced his intention of abandoning them for several days while he attended to business, allowing them to use the aeroplane at their discretion. [9] 

The next day newspapers splashed headlines regarding Sarah Van Deman flying as a passenger with Wilbur Wright. Brig. Gen. James Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, immediately issued orders prohibiting anyone making flights other than army officers. [10]

In early November the College Park flights ended, after Lahm and Humphries had an accident and both had been reassigned to their respective regiments. In 1910, Capt. Van Deman, who would become the “father of American military intelligence,” was reassigned to the Philippines. On July 28, 1910, Sarah Van Deman filed papers in a California court to have her marriage annulled.[11] In San Francisco in January 1911, she married Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Jonas Lang. Van Deman would subsequently marry Irene Kingcombe. Some websites inaccurately identify Irene Van Deman as being the first women passenger in an aeroplane in the United States, confusing her with Van Deman’s first wife Sarah. But it was indeed Sarah Van Deman that was the woman who flew with Wilbur Wright on October 27, 1909.

[1] Aeronautics, Vol. 4, December 1909, p. 210.

[2] At the Wright State University website ( there is a photograph of Mrs. Van Deman, with the notation “Description: Portrait of Mrs. (Capt.) Van Deman. Note on verso, ‘According to Gen. Lahm, Mrs. Ralph Van Deman, a friend of Katharine Wright, was the first woman to ride in an airplane in America.’”

[3] “The Personal Side of the Wright Boys,” The Washington Post, July 4, 1909, p. T2.

[4] “Wrights Ready to Fly,” The Washington Post, June 28, 1909, p. 3.

[5] “Officer’s Wife Flies with Wilbur Wright,” The New York Times, October 28, 1909, p. 4; “Woman Sails in Air,” The Washington Post, October 28, 1909, p. 2; “Friction Over Lahm,” The Washington Post, November 6, 1909, p. 4  Photograph of Sarah Van Denman and Katharine Wright: The caption to the photograph indicates that it was probably taken at College Park. Once the Wright brothers completed their Fort Myer trials, Orville and Katharine Wright sailed for Europe in mid-August. They did not return to the United States until November 4, 1909. Therefore, it is doubtful that the photograph was taken at College Park. Most likely, the photograph was taken at Fort Myer between July 21 and July 30, 1909.

[6] “Officer’s Wife Flies with Wilbur Wright,” The New York Times, October 28, 1909, p. 4; “Woman Sails in Air,” The Washington Post, October 28, 1909, p. 2;  “Friction Over Lahm,” The Washington Post, November 6, 1909, p. 4.

[7] “Friction Over Lahm,” The Washington Post, November 6, 1909, p. 4.

[8] “Officer’s Wife Flies with Wilbur Wright,” The New York Times, October 28, 1909, p. 4; “Woman Sails in Air,” The Washington Post, October 28, 1909, p. 2; San Francisco Call, Vol. 106, No. 150, October 28, 1909, p. 3.

[9] “Officer’s Wife Flies with Wilbur Wright,” The New York Times, October 28, 1909, p. 4; “Woman Sails in Air,” The Washington Post, October 28, 1909, p. 2; Aeronautics, Vol. 4, December 1909, p. 210.

[10] “Friction Over Lahm,” The Washington Post, November 6, 1909, p. 4.

[11] San Francisco Call, Vol. 108, No. 59, July 29, 1910, p. 10.

Leave a Reply