"A buckaroo riding in a saddle on an airplane that looped the loop and did two Immelmann turns over the grandstand added an extra touch to a program filled with thrills," said an early day Okanogan County newspaper.
The daring young cowboy who strapped his saddle to the fuselage of the first airplane ever to appear at Okanogan and took that wild ride was Virgil Vance. The year was 1922. In observance of Independence Day that year, Okanogan put on a three-day celebration intended to surpass any previous celebration given in Okanogan County and apparently it did.
From the time the Wenatchee and Okanogan baseball teams trotted onto the diamond that Monday morning until the last Indian stick games on Wednesday night, scheduled events kept the crowd interested.
There were bucking contests, parades, horse races, baseball games, stick games, band concerts, stunt flying, special attractions at the Paramount theater and even a public wedding whose participants remained a secret until the appointed hour (Later, the barnstorming pilot treated the newlyweds to a free airplane ride).
The Elks Band came from Wenatchee and, according to the paper, they played "from 'Swanee River' to 'Ain't We Got Fun'," rendering the music with excellent appreciation. The stunt flyer was Lt. Cecil Langdon from the Foster-Russell Aviation Company of Spokane. The lieutenant attained a maximum altitude of 4200 feet with his biplane during the celebration.
Fred Lambkin of Tonasket was the winner of the bucking contest, and thus was entitled to strap his saddle on the airplane and make an exhibition ride, an invitation proffered by the imaginative pilot. However, Lambkin's wife objected to the dangerous stunt, thereby depriving him of his chance at fame.
Vance had taken second place in the contest and although he had never been near an airplane before, he readily agreed to ride the machine. Apparently there were no objections to Vance riding the aerial bronco or, at any rate, he was not deterred.
The account of Vance's wild ride as told in the 1922 newspaper differs slightly with the way in which the late Bill Robler remembered it. Bill, a rodeo announcer in the days when announcing was done by shouting through a megaphone, was at the Okanogan celebration and watched the flight. Both, however, agreed that Vance rode the flying machine just as he'd have ridden a bucking horse--without straps or ties or restraints of any kind, taking his chances with being bucked from the sky.
The newspaper account states that before the pair left the ground, the saddle was securely cinched above the cockpit and Vance rode in the seat. After Langdon had done a few loops and turns, he nodded to Vance who then crawled out from the seat and into the saddle. When he had his spurs snug into the ship, Langdon put the biplane through more tricks, flying directly over the crowded grandstand.
Bill Robler's version told it this way. When asked if he wanted to ride the airplane, Vance said, "Sure," slung his saddle over his shoulder and strolled down the field to where the plane was waiting. Virgil threw his saddle over the tail section of the airplane and mounted up. The plane took off. "I got worried", Bill recalled. "I thought for sure the pilot would have tied Virgil onto the plane somehow. But he didn't."
A picture from Vance's photo album shows the saddle cinched onto the tail section.
Regardless of its precise placement on the biplane, the saddle stuck with the plane, and Vance somehow remained in the saddle. On his return to earth, he was accorded the honor due to the cowboy who made the indisputably highest and wildest ride of that Okanogan rodeo. When the plane alighted, watchers who'd been holding their collective breath exhaled to clap Vance on the back or shake his hand.
They say he grinned when he told them, "That's the most damn leather I ever pulled in my life!"
Virgil spent some time as a cowboy on the Colville Indian Reservation where his brother, Byron, homesteaded.
In 1924, he married Alice Smouse. The couple ranched in various locations in Okanogan County, spending their later years in the Wauconda and Republic areas. They raised their daughters, Charlotte O'Neil of Malott, Mary Whitman of Mathis, Texas, and Leslie Hutton of Republic. Vance died in 1981.
Virgil Vance ranched and rode horses all of his life, but he never again slapped his saddle on an airplane.
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