Claire Vance: Pioneer pilot extraordinaire |

Claire Vance: Pioneer pilot extraordinaire

Gordon Richards
Echoes from the Past
courtesy of Truckee Donner Historical Society

In the 1920s a new breed of pioneers came to the Sierra: aviators. Airplanes first crossed the Sierra in 1919, and in 1920 the United States government launched the U.S. Air Mail Service. Young, experienced aviators, mostly World War I veterans, were chosen to fly the dangerous cross-country routes. One of the most daring, famous and well-liked was Claire Vance, the youngest commissioned aviation officer in France during World War I.

After the war, Vance taught new private pilots to fly until 1920 when he signed up for the newly established Air Mail Service. He thrilled at flying, especially over the Sierra, which was a breeze on a sunny summer day.

With traditional leather cap and goggles, Vance braved all but the fiercest Sierra storms. Winter weather often grounded pilots, even Vance, who waited out the squalls in Reno or Sacramento. All this in a wood-framed, cloth-covered, open-cockpit biplane.

He had many adventures over the Sierra in his route between San Francisco, Reno and Salt Lake City. From 1922 on, Vance flew 3,500 trips and logged 8,000 hours ” 2,000 of which were flown at night.

On one memorable trip across the Sierra, Vance’s airship dropped several thousand feet in a downdraft over Donner Lake. He gained control only a few hundred feet above the frozen water. Then, in the winter of 1923, his engine went out over Donner Pass and he brought his aircraft to a safe, forced landing on the Summit.

On another crossing in a blizzard, when other pilots were grounded, Vance hit a wall of fog, snow and ice high over the summit, which filled up his open cockpit. He tried to keep his instruments and gauges clear of ice, and his goggles from fogging up, but he was absolutely lost and confused in hurricane-force winds.

Vance went into a tailspin when his control stick became clogged. After dropping 8,000 feet, he regained control and flew out of danger. He commented that it was the “nearest shave to a washout I’ve ever had ” that’s all.”

In 1923, while over San Francisco Bay, Vance was testing out a new mail plane when the engine quit and he was forced down. After floating in the bay for nearly an hour, a tugboat rescued him.

Just weeks later, Vance had to fly to 12,000 feet to avoid fog and clouds over San Francisco. He flew above the clouds all the way over the Sierra. Spying a small hole in the coverage over Donner Lake, he zoomed within 50 feet of the ground through the tortuous Truckee River Canyon. Vance flew on to Reno, brushing building tops in the dark. He landed in the unlit, unmanned airfield, pulled up to the hanger and startled the night watchman.

On the next week’s trip, he again got lost in the fog near Blue Canyon at 15,000 feet. He found himself flying upside-down when suddenly he plummeted 4,000 in a deadly tailspin. Vance came within 200 feet of the ground before gaining control and leveling off. But the mail must come through, so he cleared his goggles and flew on to Reno.

Vance set speed records in 1921 when he flew at 176 mph in a open-pit biplane on the Reno-Elko leg of his route. This was a routine flight, and all in a days work for the air mail pilot.

When fellow airmail pilot William Blanchfield was killed near the Reno flight field, Vance suggested the airfield be renamed BlanchField for his friend, and so it was, before it became Reno Airport. Vance performed a tribute flight over Blanchfield’s funeral, hoping he wouldn’t suffer the same fate himself.

When 24-hour mail service was inaugurated in July 1924, Vance brought the first mail pouch over the Sierra. Vance was a pioneer of Sierra night flying, and relied on moonlight to navigate from San Francisco to Reno. He battled a thick Bay Area fog bank for an hour before breaking into sunshine, then he sped over the Sierra to arrive ahead of schedule.

As new planes were developed for the Air Mail Service, Vance was the West’s leading test pilot. Until 1926, pilots were still flying wooden, World War I de Haviland biplanes, but the new Douglas biplane with steel wing construction and an enclosed cockpit became the standard.

The West’s U.S. Air Mail contract was given to the Boeing Company in 1927 and the pioneer period of aviation history came to a close. Soon after, Boeing put the tri-motor airship into service and the safety, comfort and reliability of the trans-Sierra trip increased. The contract encouraged commercial passenger service and soon planes were full of long-distance travelers.

Vance, one of Boeing’s first pilots, still felt the thrill of the flight as weather would constantly change. There was always something new to see, even at 12,000 feet. When the first scheduled transcontinental airline opened service in 1931, Vance was one of the selected pilots. And when United Airlines took over all flight service from Boeing, Vance was one of the first pilots hired.

In 1922 the Vance Aircraft Corporation was formed in an effort to build the new Vance-designed plane. The Flying Wing was one of the first high-speed long-distance single-wing planes that paved the way for modern aircraft design. This 700-horsepower twin-tail, sleek speeder was designed for long-distance flight and stability in intense windstorms.

Claire Vance had dozens of close calls during his career, and always knew that death was just a moment away. Mostly he flew by the seat of his pants, keeping close enough to the ground to maintain his bearings. As the 1930s dawned, instrument flight was incorporated in commercial aviation, and Vance began to rely less on his instincts and more on technology.

On Dec. 17, 1932, Vance was flying his normal route from Oakland to Reno. Relying on new instruments, Vance flew off the radar and radio contact was lost. For two days every available plane in the Bay Area flew search missions looking him. Fellow air mail and Boeing pilots searched frantically.

Vance’s plane was found at the top of Rocky Ridge near Danville. He had crashed in the fog, missing the top of the ridge by ten feet. The impact caused his immediate death and the airship to burst into flames. Vance died doing what he loved ” his thrill in life was the freedom of flight.

Even after his death, Vance was remembered as a hero of a dozen exploits.

He was additionally remembered as his Flying Wing design was incorporated in many new commercial and military planes built in years prior to WWII.

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