Delaware News

Wife of Delaware man set aviation history

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When Sarah Van Deman took the seat next to Wilbur Wright, all but a few of the people at the College Park, Md., airfield were astonished.

They thought the 28-year-old wife of Army Capt. Ralph Van Deman of Delaware had come to the field to watch Wright fly his famous "aeroplane." But on Oct. 29, 1909, she climbed into the plane's passenger seat, allowed Wright and a lieutenant to gather her skirts around her ankles and secure them with twine and - after one false start - ascended into the sky over Maryland.

She also ascended into history. Sarah Van Deman, whose four-minute flight took her 60 feet above the field, was the first woman to fly from American soil.

Students from The Ohio State University Department of Theatre will re-enact the scene Aug. 16 and 17 at the Delaware Municipal Airport as part of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company's display during Delaware's bicentennial air show "Wings Over Delaware." (See related story on this page.)

Lee Yoakum, Delaware city community affairs coordinator, said the 1905 Wright Flyer 3 is considered "the first practical aircraft."

An almost-exact replica of the plane will be on display at the show. (The only change is the addition of two more passenger seats.) According to The First to Fly Foundation Inc., the WBAC has replicated all of the experimental aircraft - gliders and flyers - built between 1899 and 1905 by the Wright brothers. Hundreds of children, including kids in Ohio, have been involved in the project.

Scientific explanations of the phenomenon of flight will be included in the exhibit, as will a working replica of a 1903 Wright engine and a flight simulator.

The flight simulator requires would-be pilots to lie prone on the aircraft, as Wilbur and Orville Wright did, and lean their bodies this way and that to guide the plane, Yoakum said.

He said the four-seat replica of the 1905 Flyer doesn't fly.

"But you get a feel for just the achievement, for what took place in that span of time, the early years of aviation," he said. The Wright brothers tested their first glider in 1900 and received a congressional gold medal in 1909.

Although information regarding Ralph and Sarah Van Deman's history in Delaware is sketchy, Yoakum said they are believed at some point to have lived on North Sandusky Street.

Women who flew before Sarah Van Deman included the wife of the Wrights' European business manager and the wife of Leon Bollee, a French engine manufacturer. Both flew from airfields overseas. To demonstrate the plane's safety to King Edward, the Wrights' younger sister Katharine flew with Wilbur in France in March 1909. (Perhaps not so incidentally, Katharine Wright and Sarah Van Deman were acquaintances.)

Newspapers of the day made much of Sarah Van Deman's flight. One newspaper described the first, unsuccessful attempt to launch, after which Wilbur Wright climbed out of the plane and Van Deman, her ankles bound, stayed seated while the plane was hauled back to its starting point.

The newspaper also quoted Ralph Deman responding to a question about his concern for his wife.

"He said he thought there was no more danger in what his wife had done than in an ordinary motoring run or horseback ride," the newspaper reported.

Perhaps the words repeated most often after that historic flight were those Sarah herself exclaimed as she stepped out of the plane.

"Now I know why birds sing," she said.

The Wright Brothers exhibit will cover about 3,000 square feet, Yoakum said.

"It'll be a very educational, historical and significant display," he said.

Re-enactments of Sarah Van Deman's flight will be given at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 16, and at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 17.

The Flying Lab is sponsored by Fifth Third Bank; the Wright Brothers exhibit by DLZ Corp., Fifth Third Bank and the city of Delaware.

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