Ruth Law—Queen of the Air: Challenging Stereotypes and Inspiring a Nation
Billie Holladay Skelley
Daring and courageous efforts should be remembered—especially when they result in remarkable achievements. In 1916, a young woman named Ruth Bancroft Law (1887-1970) attempted to do something that no man or woman had done before: fly from Chicago to New York City in one day. It was a dangerous journey that would require nerve and great endurance, and although her original goal had to be altered, she still made history because Law was no ordinary woman or pilot. She was a pioneer.
Law fell in love with flying at an early age and bought her first plane from Orville Wright.1 She received her pilot’s certificate in 1912,2 and almost immediately began exploring new paths in aviation. She perfected aerobatic maneuvers, such as the “loop the loop,” and demonstrated them before mesmerized crowds. Fiercely competitive, she broke the altitude record for women by flying 11,200 feet.3 It was on November 19, 1916, however, that she achieved her greatest feat. She set a new cross-country distance record by flying from Chicago to Hornell, NY. She became the holder of the American record for a distance flight. Her achievement was remarkable, but how she did it was amazing.
From the start, when Law announced her plans to try to fly from Chicago to New York, she was not taken seriously.4 Even though her attempt was sanctioned by the Aero Club of America,5 the governing body of American aviation, many had their doubts as to whether a woman could make such a flight. Some felt she would not have the endurance to withstand the cold that would numb her limbs. Others felt the prolonged confinement in cramped quarters and its resulting fatigue could not be tolerated by a female. No American woman had ever made such a journey, and no one believed she had a plane capable of making such a distance.
Law had tried to purchase a larger plane with a greater fuel capacity for her proposed flight, but the manufacturer, Mr. Curtiss, would not sell it to her.6 Busy making planes for the war effort, Curtiss had explained that he could not get a larger plane ready for her,7 and he had told her that the large plane she wanted “was too much for a girl to handle.” 8
The plane Law intended to use to make her attempt was a small “obsolete machine” with an “antiquated motor” that many felt was unequal to the task.9 This machine was a Curtiss biplane with an eight-cylinder, hundred-horsepower motor.10 Frequently referred to as a “pusher,” the nearly 12-foot, wood propeller blade was in the rear of the plane and was noted to be “a monster thing” compared to the size of the rest of the plane.11 The plane had a wing spread of 28 feet, and the engine was mounted behind the exposed cockpit.12 The pilot’s seat, which was in the front of the plane, was “a little contraption—just a cushion with a backpiece.”13 Sitting in front of the engine, the pilot had no protection from the elements. It was said that only people who had flown that type of aircraft could appreciate the exposure problems one encountered. Many could not tolerate the cold and dampness of the unprotected seat. The plane had a strong strap that fastened tightly around the pilot’s waist and allowed movement of only an inch or two.14 The rudders and controls were manipulated by two levers on either side of the pilot’s seat, and the strain on the pilot’s arms during a long flight was believed to be “exceedingly tiring.”15 Law had to work the throttle with one of her feet and the brake with the other when landing.16 Hundreds of pieces of piano wire crisscrossed the machine in every direction, and one reporter remarked that her stick-and-wire plane “looks terribly inadequate” for the work she asks of it.17
Since the plane’s controls required constant use of her hands, Law had to work out her own method for consulting compass readings and maps. She solved this by summarizing the compass directions of her planned flight and marking the readings on the long cuff of her leather gauntlet.18 She mapped out her projected course and placed the scroll of charts, mounted on rollers, in a case that was strapped to her belt and the guard of her seat.19 While she could never safely remove her hand from the left (vertical) control, she could use her knee to hold the right control, for short instances, so she could wind the knobs of the map case to evaluate her position.20
To prepare her plane for the historic flight, Law added an extra gas tank to the small machine. Originally, the plane carried only 16 gallons of gasoline, but she had an additional tank fitted to bring the fuel capacity to 53 gallons of gasoline.21 She also removed all surplus weight from the plane –including the lights. To condition her own body to face the elements, she began sleeping in a tent on the roof of the Morrison Hotel in Chicago.22 She wanted to accustom herself to the extreme cold that she would encounter flying in winter at high altitudes. She also prepared by enhancing her flight attire—which consisted of two woolen suits and two leather suits, a leather and wool helmet with a wool face mask, and goggles.23 She also had a skirt that she wore over her flying suit in public. In 1916, proper women wore skirts, but once onboard, the realities of flight trumped fashion, and she stored it behind the seat.24 The layers of heavy clothing at times made it difficult to move her arms and complicated the job of handling the controls, but they did provide essential protection. Her only real “baggage” was a set of letters for people in New York. 25
Law was clear in her objectives. She wanted to set the American non-stop flight record and also to establish the practicality of women aviators.26 She meant to challenge the current distance flying record, but in the process, she knew she was also challenging the current stereotypes regarding women.
Almost from the start, however, Law experienced setbacks that threatened the achievement of her goal. Her departure from Chicago was delayed due to a fifty-mile gale from the northeast27 and to the fact that it was so cold, she could not get her engine to start.28 As she prepared to leave, one of her mechanics actually began to cry because he felt “she would undoubtedly be killed.”29 She finally succeeded in leaving from Grant Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, on Sunday morning, November 19, 1916, at 8:25 AM Eastern Time,30 and when she did start, there was “a tumult of erratic air currents” with the wind traversing among the skyscrapers along Michigan Avenue.31 There were such “shifting gusts” of erratic air that spectators, fearing catastrophe, held their breath as Law could not initially attain a height of more than 200 feet off the ground.32 Resolutely and skillfully, however, Law left the windy city and headed toward Gary, IN.
Positioned forward on the nose of her little plane, Law flew “perched out in the air surrounded on three sides by nothing.”33 While she appreciated her plane for the wider range of vision it provided, she was also fully exposed to the elements and faced intense and numbing cold for hours. The cold and dampness were easily able to penetrate through her layers of clothing. Facing biting winds hour after hour tested her endurance. Having to keep her hands on the controls at all time was physically wearying, but she could ill afford to rest or relax. Mentally, however, she was pleased to be in the air and making the attempt.
When reports of Law’s actual flight reached the news, people began to admire her “pluck” in making such a daring attempt.34 That admiration turned to amazement as reports came in from cities along her path—such as Vermilion, OH and McKean, PA—which indicated that she was actually achieving her goal.35 Hundreds of people turned out to try to catch a glimpse of her and her plane.
Law had calculated that the 53 gallons of gasoline would carry her from Chicago to Hornell, New York, but she had figured that there would be some favorable wind to aid her flight.36 It did not occur. Ten miles outside of Hornell, she realized her fuel was nearly depleted, and two miles from Hornell, she ran out entirely.37 Her engine quit, and she ended up gliding the final two miles to her landing site where supporters had gathered.38 Spectators gasped with wonder and admiration as they tried to get a glimpse of her. Landing in Hornell at 2:10 PM, she was so numb from the cold that she required assistance to reach a waiting automobile.39 She quickly consumed some food at a nearby hotel, while her gasoline was replenished, and her machine was filled with oil.40
Averaging about 103 miles per hour, Law had flown 590 miles without a stop.41 It was a new American cross-country distance record. No one in the United States had flown further. She had smashed the existing cross-country distance record of 452 miles and broke the world’s record for continuous flight for women pilots,42 but Law was not finished. At 3:24 PM she left Hornell and set out again for New York City.43
On leaving Hornell, Law had a close shave. She would later tell reporters, in fact, that she very nearly wrecked. Flying toward the east, a huge hill, approximately 600 feet high, was covered with tall trees that stood in her path.44 Although she climbed as steeply as she could, she nearly collided with the trees. According to Law, her machine “practically flew through their tops with branches striking the bottom of the aeroplane.”45
Surviving the Hornell departure, Law continued toward her New York City destination. Along her route, thousands flocked to catch a glimpse of her passage.46 Near Binghamton, NY, however, darkness began to fall. Without lights, she could not see her compass or any other of her instruments. It was too dark to go on, and she realized she would have to stop. Near Binghamton, it was reported that her plane stood out “clear cut as a cameo” against the red, setting sun.47 She landed in Binghamton at 4:20 PM,48 tied her plane to a tree, and got a policeman to watch it all night.49 She continued her journey toward New York City at 7:23 AM the following morning.50
For a time, the next morning, Law encountered fog so thick she could not see any landmarks to determine for certain where she was going.51 She finally picked up the Susquehanna River and then followed the Delaware River to Port Jervis.52 Passing over Greenwood Lake, she went over the Ramapo Mountains till she encountered the Hudson River.53 Flying down the Hudson, she reached upper Manhattan, but her engine began to cut out and miss, once again, due to her low fuel supply. Law began to tip the plane and then straighten out again to get the fuel to flow to the carburetors.54 She had to volplane for the last three miles of her flight—gliding down with the wind instead of against it55—but she was able to make a safe landing at 9:37:35 AM on the aviation field at Governors Island.56 Her total flight time for the 884 miles from Chicago to New York was 8 hours 55 minutes and 35 seconds. 57
Law was greeted on Governors Island by several dignitaries and a boisterous, cheering crowd. Amidst bands playing and garrisons on parade, her record-breaking flight was hailed as “the greatest flight ever made in America.” 58 She had broken “the American cross-country and nonstop record” and the “world’s record for continuous flight for women pilots.” 59 Even President Woodrow Wilson congratulated Law and told her she was “a great little flier.”60 The Aero Club of America also made it official and named Law the record holder for American non-stop cross country flight.61
Law also met with the press. Facing a crowd of about fifty newspaper reporters, she was asked, “You have made the longest flight a woman ever made, haven’t you?” Law answered saying, “I have made the longest flight an American ever made.”62
In setting a new American record for a distance flight,63 Law had broken the previous record set by Victor Carlstrom (who had used a modern 200-horsepower Curtis military biplane64 that was more than twice as wide and high as Law’s plane and which carried 200 gallons of gasoline).65 Mr. Carlstrom was quick to praise Law’s accomplishment and said she deserved great credit for her flight. He felt her feat was “the greatest performance of the year” and that she was “one of the nerviest fliers in the business,” but he also acknowledged that initially no one “thought she would make any distance, much less break the record.”66 There were definitely doubters at first, but after Law’s achievement, many felt she belonged “in the rank of the great aviators.”67
Law also expressed satisfaction at her achievement, but she quickly noted that she was not boasting, and she only undertook the flight to prove that “it is an easy thing” to fly from Chicago to New York.68 She knew that her record-breaking flight proved that nonstop flights from Chicago to New York were possible. All one needed was an aircraft that could carry enough fuel for the journey.
Law’s flight had shown that both mail and passengers could be timely transported between cities separated by hundreds of miles. She predicted that many people would soon be flying from Chicago to New York for both business and pleasure. There was no reason, she concluded, that an airplane could not fly non-stop from Chicago to New York if the gasoline supply was sufficient, and if her gasoline had held out, she was confident that she could have flown all the way from Chicago to New York City without making a stop. 69
Hailed as both a bold and skillful aviator, Miss Law became a national hero. Her achievement transcended a mere aviation record; she inspired a nation. Her flight ignited a fire of enthusiasm for flying and sparked the imagination of people across the country. Her courage, endurance, and skill especially fostered the admiration of school children.70 While both boys and girls wrote her letters filled with enthusiasm and admiration for her accomplishment, her flight had an especially profound effect on young girls. One young girl, Esther Silverman, wrote: “Now, I am glad I am a girl, because girls can do just as wonderful things as men. I am dreaming of the day when I may come to see you fly.”71 Another girl, Anna Rosenberg, noted: “You have made me feel that I may be proud to be a girl.”72 In the process of challenging the existing flying records of the day, Law had also challenged the existing stereotypes regarding women. Young girls now had a new role model.
Perhaps being a daredevil pioneer was part of Law’s genetic makeup. She was, after all, the sister of Rodman Law who was well known as the “human fly” for his daring efforts at climbing tall buildings with his bare hands and for his exploits parachuting from balloons and planes.73 Ruth Law’s record-breaking Chicago to New York flight, however, established her, in her own right, as one of the best aviators of the time and cemented her role as a spokesman and promoter of aviation. She especially defended female aviators and their interest in flying. In talking about the qualities that women possess that make them good fliers, she said: “They are courageous, self-possessed, clear-visioned, quick to decide in an emergency, and usually they make wise decisions.”74
After her record-breaking flight, Law continued to captivate and inspire the nation. During ceremonies to illuminate the Statue of Liberty for the first time, she flew around Liberty’s torch in a fiery airplane that spelled out the message “Liberty” to the delight of thousands of admirers.75, 76 During World War I, she wore a regulation army aviation uniform and was billed as “Uncle Sam’s only woman aviator ”77 as she promoted the war effort by dropping Liberty Loan “bombs” from her plane.78,79,80 After the war, she organized and starred in a barnstorming flying circus where she thrilled crowds with her aerial acrobatics.81 She also carried the first official air mail to the Philippine Islands. 82 Simply put, Law said: “I fly because I like to.”83
It was this sincere love of flying that enabled Law so effectively to promote aviation and to inspire others to fly. She once stated, “There is an indescribable feeling which one experiences in flying; it comes with no other form of sport or navigation. It takes courage and daring; and one must be self-possessed, for there are moments when one’s wits are tested to the full. Yet there is an exhilaration that compensates for all one’s efforts.”84 Law’s daring, courage, and skill should be remembered because she was a remarkable pioneer who challenged stereotypes, established new aviation records, and encouraged others to share her passion for flying and her vision for the future of aviation.
1. “Pilot Stories: Ruth Law.” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, 2004. Available from: http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/airmail/pilot/pilot_female/pilot_female_law.html
2. “She Holds Other Records: Won Altitude Competition for Women—Has Been Licensed 4 Years.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
4. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop; Beats Both Victor Carlstrom’s Records; Due to Reach New York at 9 A. M. Today. Down for Lack of Fuel: Makes Remarkable Trip in Obsolete Machine in Use Two Years. Her First Distance Effort: Travels Without a Hitch at 103 Miles an Hour Till Supply of Gasoline Is Exhausted. World’s Woman Record: Gets Away from Chicago in Gusty Wind—Aviators Are Amazed by Performance.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 1 + 4.
5. “Will Try To Fly Here: Woman Aviator to Attempt to Break Carlstrom’s Records.” New York Times, 17 Nov. 1916, 16.
6. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight: Gasoline Nearly Gone on Last Leg of Her Journey, She Volplanes to Governors Island. Glides Through Dense Fog, Gen. Wood Greets Her at End of 884-Mile Trip, Made in 8 Hours, 55 Min., 35 Sec., Almost Benumbed by Cold, Trip Hailed as America’s Greatest Flight—Will Try Again with a Big Machine.” New York Times, 21 Nov. 1916, 1 + 3.
7. Ruth Law. “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight; To Try Non-Stop New York Trip Next: Proud That She Has Beaten Carlstrom’s Recent Record and Has Done So In a Small and Old Machine With Limited Fuel Capacity.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 1 + 4.
8. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 3.
9. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
10. “Noted Aviatrix Says She Likes to Fly Because Other Girls Can’t.” Joplin Globe (Joplin, MO), 13 June 1917, 2.
12. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
13. “Noted Aviatrix,” Joplin Globe, 13 June 1917, 2.
18. Emily Watson. “Not Afraid: Daredevil Ruth Law Almost Forced to First Fly Plane.” Sarasota Journal, 6 Nov. 1958, 19.
19. “The Record Made Official.” New York Times, 21 Nov. 1916, 3.
20. Watson, “Not Afraid: Daredevil Ruth Law,” Sarasota Journal, 6 Nov. 1958, 19.
21. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
22. “Starts in Gusty Half Gale: Miss Law Sails Away Toward Indiana Only 200 Feet in the Air.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
23. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1+ 4.
25. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 3.
26. “Will Try To Fly Here,” NYT, 17 Nov. 1916, 16.
27. “Starts in Gusty Half Gale,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
28. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
29. “Starts in Gusty Half Gale,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
30. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
31. “Starts in Gusty Half Gale,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
33. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 1.
34. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
36. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
39. “Lifted From Her Craft: Miss Law So Benumbed at Hornell That Men Assisted Her to Auto.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
41. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
44. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
46. “A Cameo in the Setting Sun: All Binghamton Out to See Miss Law Sweep in from the West.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
48. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 1.
49. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
50. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 1.
51. Ibid., 3.
55. Ibid., 1.
58. Ibid., 3.
59. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
60. “Peace Can Come Only With Liberty, Not While Destinies are Ruled by Small Selfish Groups, Says Wilson: Cheers Greet Sentiment, President by Inference Picks France for Special Favor, Says We Have Same Ideals, Diners in Honor of Liberty Light Give Ovation to Message from Poincare, Wilson Greets Ruth Law.” New York Times, 3 Dec. 1916: 1 + 2.
61. “The Record Made Official,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 3.
62. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 1 + 3.
63. “A Woman Flies 590 Miles.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 12.
64. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
65. “Ruth Law Lands Here From Chicago in Record Flight,” NYT, 21 Nov. 1916, 3.
66. “Finest Feat of Year, Carlstrom’s Opinion: Says Miss Law Has Set Mark for Men Aviators—Calls Her ‘One of Nerviest Fliers.’” New York Times, 20 November 1916, 4.
67. “Topics of the Times: An Aviator Is She In Reality.” New York Times, 21 Nov. 1916, 10.
68. Law, “Miss Law Tells of Her Record Flight,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
69. “Ruth Law Flies 590 Miles Without Stop,” NYT, 20 Nov. 1916, 1.
70. “Ruth Law the Idol of Boys and Girls: Fifty Pupils of Brooklyn School 83 Write Individual Letters of Congratulation, Girls Proud of Her Flight, Boys Generously Chivalrous and Hopeful that They May Some Day Be Aviators.” New York Times, 26 Nov. 1916, 14.
73. “She Holds Other Records: Won Altitude Competition for Women—Has Been Licensed 4 Years.” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1916, 4.
74. “Women as Aviators.” The Christian Science Monitor, 26 May 1917, 22.
75. “Miss Law to Circle Statue of Liberty: Aviatrice Who Made Flight from Chicago Will Help Dedicate Lighting Plant. She Won’t Do Any ‘Stunts,’ Her Aeroplane Will Carry Electric Lights and Magnesium Torches.” New York Times, 30 Nov. 1916: 5.
76. “Signal by the President Bathes Liberty Statue in Flood of Light: Throngs See Dedication of Illuminating Plant—Warships Boom Salute, While Ruth Law Soars in Fiery Aeroplane about Liberty’s Torch.” New York Times, 3 Dec. 1916: 1 + 2.
77. “Ruth Law Now Due Here This Morning: Famous Aviatrix Encounters Severe Kansas Windstorm and Is Delayed.” Joplin Globe (Joplin, MO), 12 June 1917, 2.
78. “Ruth Law, in Sensational Flight, Beats Rainstorm.” Joplin Globe (Joplin, MO), 9 June1917, 1.
79. “Ruth Law, Famous Flier, to Bombard Joplin Monday Morning.” Joplin Globe (Joplin, MO), 10 June 1917, 13.
80. “Ruth Law Thrills Crowd That Greets Flight in City.” Joplin Globe (Joplin, MO), 13 June 1917: 1.
81. Watson, “Not Afraid: Daredevil Ruth Law,” Sarasota Journal, 6 Nov. 1958, 19.
82. “Pilot Stories: Ruth Law.” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, 2004. Available from: http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/airmail/pilot/pilot_female/pilot_female_law.html
83. “Noted Aviatrix,” Joplin Globe, 13 June 1917, 2.
84. “Women as Aviators.” The Christian Science Monitor, 26 May 1917, 22.