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It's the Wright Stuff for Lady Jack

Published on Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's the Wright Stuff for Lady Jack

By David Spradling

Found in the clipping files in the Library’s California History Room is this intriguing 1960 interview with “Lady Jack” Lang, then an elderly widow living in the San Carlos Hotel, located where the Marriott is today.  The author is Dave Epperson, who interviewed his subject just a few months after the death of her second husband, Commander Charles Lang.

The story, published in the Monterey Peninsula Herald August 3, 1960, appears here in its entirety:

 “They dipped between trees and circled the Capital dome.  The chain and sprocket driven propellers beat the air, the engine chugged furiously.  The slipstream howled through spruce struts.

 Wilbur Wright called hoarsely, “Cut off the engine Jack!  And hang on!”

 “Jack” was a pretty green-eyed girl, fearless and one of the first women ever to be a passenger in an airplane.  It was mid-summer, 1909.

 “Jack” now is a widow, almost 80, partially blind and partially deaf, living alone in a two-room suite in Monterey’s San Carlos Hotel.

 But, within those eyes and ears remains the memory of sights and sounds of her flight over Washington, D.C. in a slat and muslin biplane piloted by Wilbur Wright.

 At the time of the flight, Jack was Mrs. Ralph (Jaqulin) Van Deman.  Today she is the widow of Commander Charles Jonas Lang, USN, and is known to many as “Lady Jack”.

 The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, tested the first engine-powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, N. C., Dec. 17, 1903.  In the next few years the Wrights built larger aircraft, biplanes of the pusher type first flown at Kitty Hawk, but capable of flights of greater duration.

 Back from a demonstration tour of Europe, Wilbur put his biplane through its aerial paces for the U.S. Army.

 It was just prior to July 30, 1909, when the aircraft was accepted for use by the U.S. government, that Wilbur took Lady Jack for her ride over Washington.

 Lady Jack, with experience in free ballooning, lashed her skirts, “to keep ‘em down,” around her legs with a length of rope, wrapped a veil around her crisp hair and boarded the plane, ready on the catapult.

 Wilbur sat in the single bucket seat on one side of the engine.  Lady Jack lay prone, gripping the leading edge of the flimsy wing on the side opposite the engine from Wright.

The crude catapult snapped the snarling biplane aloft.  “We flew from College Park, Md. to Washington.  We went over the library of Congress, but we didn’t have enough height to clear the Capitol building,” Mrs. Lang said.  “We couldn’t go where any houses were because of the chimneys.  The engine was spitten’ and makin’ the doggondest noise.

 “Wilbur said, ‘Cut off the engine!  And hang on!’ and we came down like a loose leaf.  It wasn’t much of a jolt,” she added.

 Mrs. Lang said she had known the Wright brothers for many years, first in Ohio, later in Washington.  She was a friend of Katherine Wright, sister of Orville and Wilbur, who supported the aviation pioneers while they worked in their bicycle shop laboratory.

 Lady Jack, who is inclined to term anything animate or inanimate a “critter” and smokes Camels in a holder, recalled.  “Their little bicycle shop didn’t make any money.”

 Of the brothers themselves, she said, “I wouldn’t think of flying with Orville.  He wasn’t the flying man.  He was the finance man.”

Washington newspapers of 1909 carried the headline after the flight, “Lady Jack Knows Now Why The Birdies Sing.”

 “That just wasn’t true,” Lady Jack stated flatly.  Because of her free ballooning trips, “being up in the air didn’t mean anything.”

 She said, “I was perfectly sure with Wilbur.  I knew Wilbur would take me and bring me back.  He was that sort of man.”

 A motion picture would have been made of Lady Jack’s flight with Wilbur—had there been film in the hand-crank camera.

Lady Jack recounted that she had a part in coining the work “hangar”—a place for storage of aircraft.

 The place where the Wrights kept their biplane, she said, was known simply as “the shed.”  The brothers thought they should come up with a more dignified appellation.

 Because the wheel less biplane was hung up in a small tent adjacent a large building which housed a dirigible, they thought first of “hanging garage.

 “That was too long; we wanted somethin’ shorter,” Lady Jack said.

 Next “hanging garage” was shortened to “hang-gar.”

 But, when Wilbur started to paint “hang-gar” on the end of an apple box to make a sign for the tent, he found he had room for only “g” in the word.  Hence the place to store aircraft became “hangar.”

 Lady Jack is somewhat smug about her “first” flight.  “Alice Roosevelt” was determined she was going up first.  She invited Wilbur and Orville to an exquisite luncheon, but to no avail.”

Reflecting on her almost 80 years of life, the small woman recalls, “I’ve been a very adventurous person.  I’ve been around the world seven times.”

She added, “I’ve flown all over the country.   Whenever I go any place in a hurry, I take a plane.”

 #    #    #

 Lady Jack was born Sadie McCune Rice in 1880, and spent many of her early years in Santa Cruz before her 1903 marriage to Capt. Ralph Van Deman.  Proudly reporting the story of her flight in 1909, the Santa Cruz Sentinel noted:

 

“The dashing aviator of the gentler sex is none other than a Santa Cruz girl well known here as the popular Miss Sadie Rice …..She was always a venturesome young lady, fond of outdoor life, and one of her great pastimes was horseback riding.  Her striking personality made her a winner wherever she went, and her popularity has caused her to go soaring upward, both in social circles and in an airship.”

 From the Washington Post of October 28, 1909, under the headline “Woman Sails In Air”, comes this eye witness account of the flight, and a journalistic error:

 “Mrs. Van Deman, wife of Capt. Ralph H. Van Deman, of the Twenty-first infantry, yesterday achieved the distinction of being literally “taken up” by the king of the air, Wilbur Wright.  Mrs. Van Deman is the first of her sex in this country thus far allowed the privilege of being a passenger on an aeroplane on a tour personally conducted by Wilbur Wright.  She is also the second woman to have made a flight in this country in a heavier-than-air machine.  Miss Katherine Wright was the other privileged member of the fair sex, having accompanied her brother Orville in a flight at Fort Myer. [See below]

 It was 7:50 o’clock in the morning [October 27, 1909] when Mrs. Van Deman stepped into the left-hand seat of the lower plane of the machine.  She climbed with the skill of a practiced aviator.  Wilbur started the engine and took his place in the operator’s seat, to the right of Mrs. Deman.  The biplane moved down the monorail, but at the end of the rail failed to rise.

 Mr. Wright permitted Mrs. Van Deman to keep her place while nine enlisted men from the signal corps squad moved the machine on wheels over the field and replaced it on the rail for a second start.

 At 8:13 the second start was made by Mrs. Van Deman and her escort.  This time the mechanical bird bearing the fair passenger soared high, reach probably one of the highest altitudes yet recorded at College Park.  For four minutes the field was circled.  When the machine alighted Mrs. Van Deman jumped out from the passenger seat and remarked with enthusiasm that the trip was splendid.  “Oh dear me, it was simply grand,” she said to Mr. Wright.”

The next day the Post carried another story correcting the error of the previous day, in which it mentioned Mrs. Van Deman had indeed been the first female passenger.  Another story, this from the Washington Herald of October 28 makes this point quite clear.

 “Mr. Wright….tried to scoop the public prints by turning out early and making a flight with a woman in the machine, the first time such a thing has been done in this country.

 The lucky lady who got what the King of Spain, Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and a barrel of European bluebloods couldn’t get was Mrs. Van Deman, the wife of Capt. Ralph H. Van Deman, of the Twenty-first Infantry.  She is a particular friend of Katherine Wright, and both at Fort Myer and College Park has been one of the foremost aeronautical fans.

 Mr. Wright said neither he nor Orville had ever before taken up a woman in this country.  In his European exhibitions he ascended several times with female passengers.  Miss Katherine Wright was taken up at Pau, France.”

 Today, Lady Jack’s celebrity is well documented.  On the 65th anniversary of “the first time in American that a woman flew as a passenger”, the Smithsonian issued a special cachet stamp cover with a sketch of Lady Jack flying with Orville.  There is no question that Mrs. Van Deman was the first woman to fly in this country, but there is some confusion about her first name.

 An account of her family history notes that “Sadie” was not a name that Lady Jack embraced, hence the adopted name Jaqulin.   She was using “Lady Jack” as early as the time of her flight, as noted in the Tacoma Times of November 3, 1909, with the headline “’Lady Jack’, She Flew and How Jealous the Army Wives Are”.  Her husband was stationed in the Tacoma area at the time.

 Contemporaneous reports refer to her only as the wife of Captain Ralph Van Deman, as was the journalistic style of the time.  However, stories written later about her exploits refer to her as Lady Jack,  Sadie, and also Sarah, a name she was using by at least 1930 when living in Monterey with her second husband, Commander Charles Lang.  Many more modern accounts of her flight refer to her as Sarah.

 Her appetite for adventure and travel continued, and Captain Van Deman’s military postings allowed her that opportunity.  Captain Van Deman had an illustrious military career and advanced to General Van Deman, becoming Chief of Army Intelligence prior to his 1929 retirement.

 In 1933 Lady Jack published a book titled Critters in Africa, by Lady Jack, describing her travels in Africa and Egypt in 1927-1928, a journey of more than 24,000 miles.  The copyright owner is shown as Mrs. Sarah McCune Lang of Del Monte, California (now Monterey).    A digitized version of this entertaining book (with photos) is available online at www. hathitrust.org.

Lady Jack died in 1967.

David Spradling

7/19/2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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