On this day in 1919, American aviatrix Ruth Law breaks an altitude record. It was just one of many records that she’d break! Indeed, Law was so well-known during her day that reporters used to call her Angel Ruth or Queen of the Aces.
And yet most Americans today have never heard of this daring pioneer.
Law bought her first airplane from Orville Wright in 1912. She hoped he’d teach her to fly, but he refused to do it. He thought women were not mechanically inclined. Law was undeterred. She found another teacher and learned to fly in three short weeks.
Law is perhaps best known for a 1916 attempt to fly from Chicago to New York City—and for the speed and distance records that she smashed along the way. The trip was a hard one back then, of course, and she stopped twice for fuel. The Boston Post reported that Law “fell, rather than stepped out of” her seat at the first stop. “A mask of ice glazed her face. Her eyes were fixed like those of a marionette. Her arms remained at right angles as though she had not yet let go the wheel. It was several minutes before the daring girl could walk erect or talk connectedly.”
Remember, she was sitting in an open air seat in front of the plane (see picture). She was completely unprotected from the elements for hours. In fact, she’d prepared for the flight by sleeping in a cold tent atop a hotel roof.
Law was running low on fuel again by the time she concluded her journey in New York. It was foggy and she could barely see, but she managed to glide safely into Governor’s Island. A brass band celebrated her arrival! Her total time in the air had been 8 hours, 55 minutes, 35 seconds. “Little girl, you beat them all,” General Leonard Wood grinned at her as she landed.
Law had known that fuel might be a problem, of course. She was flying a little Curtiss pusher biplane; her attempts to buy something bigger had run into a dead end because Curtiss thought the “big machine was too much for a girl to handle.”
Maybe he came to doubt that assessment? He later told a Chicago Tribune reporter that “Miss Law’s feat is the most wonderful in all aviation.” He wouldn’t have thought that the plane she’d used “would make more than 100 miles in sustained flight.”
She’d flown nearly 900.
Naturally, this episode was just a small part of Law’s career. She was the first to fly to the Philippine Islands with official air mail. She was the first woman to do the loop-to-loop. When the United States entered World War I, she was prohibited from serving as a military pilot, but she raised money for the Red Cross through exhibitions and air shows—and she was the first woman authorized to wear a non-commissioned officer’s military uniform.
Law’s flying career came to an abrupt end in 1922. Her husband had long acted as her agent, but now he was worried: Law’s stunts were getting more and more dangerous. It seems that he got tired of tempting fate. He simply announced her retirement to reporters one day. What would Law have done in another day or another time? There’s no way to know. But, in 1922, Ms. Ruth Bancroft Law returned to her life as Mrs. Charles Oliver.
Either way, her decade-long career was inspirational to many other women of her time—and it had helped to defuse the notion that only men can handle “mechanics.”
- Billie Holladay Skelley, Ruth Law—Queen of the Air: Challenging Stereotypes and Inspiring a Nation (Ninety-Nines website)
- Chicago-New York by Air (Flying magazine; Dec. 2016) (published by Flying Association at the office of the Aero Club of America) (Vol. 5; p. 452ff)
- Eileen F. Lebow, Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation (2003)
- Eliza McGraw, This Ace Aviatrix Learned to Fly Even Though Orville Wright Refused to Teach Her (Smithsonian Magazine; March 22, 2017)
- Girl Flies 590 miles in 9 hours: Ms. Law breaks the flight record in Gale (Boston Post; Nov. 20, 1916) (p. 1)
- Janet R. Daly Bednarek & Michael H. Bednarek, Dreams of Flight: General Aviation in the United States (2003)
- Miss Ruth Law excels feat of Carlstrom: Breaks nonstop record with old plane in flight east (Chicago Tribune; Nov. 20, 1916) (p.1.)
- Ruth Law lands here from Chicago in record flight (New York Times; Nov. 21, 1916)
- Ruth Law lands on Governor’s Island after flight from Chicago (UPI archives; November 20, 1916)