- Ruth Bancroft Law aka Ruth Law Oliver aka Ruth Law: born March 21, 1887 at Lynn, Massachusetts, United States of America – died December 1, 1970 in San Francisco, California, United States of America.
Who gave the proverbial middle finger to Orville Wright and inspired Amelia Earhart? Ruth Law, that’s who.
Ruth Law was a female aviation pioneer, seen here above in a 1915 photograph seated in a Curtiss Pusher Model D biplane with Wright Brothers controls. In an era when women were still seen as being inferior to men, she proved that women were equals in the air, earning as much as US$9,000 a week performing exhibition flights – a fortune then as now (it’s about US$113,000/week) – as well as providing record-setting flights while acting as her own business manager (though some sources suggest she was managed by her husband, Charles Augustus Oliver, whom she married in 1907). [Can anyone confirm which is which re: manager?]
Her brother, Rodman (1885-1919), was her inspiration – a parachutist and pioneer movie stuntman who on February 2 of 1912 parachuted from the top of the Statue of Liberty’s flaming torch. As for his movie work, Rodman took part in several silent movies, including the 1914 flick Daredevil Rodman Law, which was based on his daredevil deeds.
As a youth, Ruth always felt the need to keep up with and challenge the physical boundaries set by her brother.
In 1912, she sought out Orville Wright to receive pilot training, but he refused. She said that Wright did not think that women were mechanically inclined. No need to vilify Orville here – that was what the majority of men on the planet believed in that era, right or wrong. It’s wrong, of course, but that’s beside the point.
According to Ruth, Orville Wright’s dismissal of her as a woman only made her want to become a pilot even more. “The surest way to make me do a thing is to tell me I can’t do it,” she said (McGraw, Eliza. “This Ace Aviatrix Learned to Fly Even Though Orville Wright Refused to Teach Her”. Smithsonian.)
Instead, Ruth learned to fly via Harry Nelson Atwood who was the chief instructor of the General Aviation Corporation of Saugus, Mass., and assistant instructor Archibald A. Freeman who either did not agree with Orville Wright, or felt the weight of her money said otherwise.
Attaining her pilot’s license in November of 1912, and showing that she harbored few ill feelings, purchased her first aircraft from Orville Wright and soon became the first woman to fly an aeroplane at night.
I can NOT find any solid data on what Ruth Law did in the years 1913-1914 – I assume she was honing her craft and testing the limits of both her plane and herself – but we do know that in 1915 she performed at an aviation exhibition in Daytona Beach, Florida.
In front of the large crowd, she announced she would perform a Loop-The-Loop for the first time, and went out and did it. Twice. Which apparently angered her husband. Whatever.
In early 1916, Ruth participated in an altitude competition, twice narrowly coming in second (to male fliers). I’m unsure if coming in second was the reason or if coming in second to men was her force majeure (compulsion), but not winning only managed to drive her more.
She realized (unlike Orville Wright et al), that aviation records need not be the domain of men. She sought to set a record that would stand out against all comers.
On November 19, 1916, Ruth achieved her goal as she broke the existing cross-America flight air speed record of 452 miles (728 kilometers) previously set by pilot Victor Carlstrom when she flew her Curtiss Pusher Model D biplane nonstop from Chicago to New York State, a distance of 590 miles (950 km).
It was however, one day later on November 20, 1916, that Ruth was flying over a foggy Manhattan, NY, when a fuel-line issue caused her to glide down to attempt a landing.
As she approached Governors Island for a landing, she noticed a brass band playing below, but managed to miss them in her safe landing.
She was met by US Army Captain Henry “Hap” Arnold who changed her spark plugs – a gentlemanly thing to do (and not an euphemism), as Ruth was an accomplished mechanic (and probably short of a set of plugs). Arnold would, in the future, become Commanding General of the US Air Forces. He was trained to fly by the Wright Brothers in Dayton, OH.
In honor of her long-distance record-setting achievement, a dinner was held in her honor on December 2, 1916, with President Woodrow Wilson attending.
When Ruth Law enlisted in the US Army on June 30, 1917 (the US had only entered into WWI on April 6, 1917), she became the very first woman to wear a military uniform.
Despite the honor and her dinner with the President, Ruth was denied permission to fly in combat.
She had enlisted to be a pilot, but was instead assigned to the US Army Accessions Command, where she assisted with recruiting and instruction. They did the same to Steve Rogers aka Captain America (in the first movie), so at least she in good company if not historically inaccurate. Sorry, I’m being snippy. I hate injustice.
Law trained with the 38th Infantry Division at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and did get to serve in Europe where she maintained the rank of Sergeant. Heck, even Steve Rogers was granted the rank of Captain.
Despite not being able to achieve combat mission status, Ruth did participate in exhibition flying, raising money with her daring-do for both the Red Cross and Liberty Loan drives.
Immediately after WWI (aka The Great War or the tragically misnamed “war to end all wars”), she formed Ruth Law’s Flying Circus, an exhibition troupe of three planes that visited State and county fairs racing cars and attempting (and setting) altitude and distance records (of minor renown nowadays).
Still, it must have been some shock when, in 1922, Ruth cracked open a newspaper and read of her retirement from flying at the age of 35.
Apparently her husband,
Orville Wright Charles was fed up with all of her daredevil antics, and made the announcement of her retiring. Despite what she had accomplished, it appears that Ruth complied, and did not divorce her husband, as might be the norm of 2020.
Did you know that in that early 20th century era, Ruth Law, had she NOT been a famous pioneer aviator, would probably have just been known as Mrs. Charles Oliver. It was that way through the 1950s and into the ’60s for most women.
Despite acquiescing to her husband’s demands, Ruth was obviously quite proud of her aviation accomplishments, as she had maintained her own detailed scrapbook. Now situated in the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, it is available to visitors on pre-visit request.
Within, you can find hundreds of articles and mementos, back when Ruth was known as Angel Ruth and Queen of the Aces.
Unfortunately, while in the early days of aviation where female pilots were seen as a curiosity and as equal to men in daring-do and skill, sexual inequality once again reared its ugly head, with women not allowed to be pilots. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973 when a woman was allowed to be a commercial pilot for a major airline (American Airlines).
While husband died in 1947, Ruth Law lived until December 1, 1970, when she died at the age of 83 at Notre Dame Hospital in San Francisco. She was buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, Mass. If you click on the link, you can see her gravestone et al.
Ruth’s Aeroplane: The Curtiss Pusher Model D (Type IV)
The 1911 Curtiss Model D (aka the Curtiss Pusher) was, as its name suggests a pusher-type biplane, with the engine and propeller situated behind the pilot.Considered to be one of the first “mass-produced” aeroplanes in the world, all were manufactured by Glenn Hammond Curtiss.
This type of aircraft was the first aeroplane to take-off from the deck of a ship (flown by Eugene B. Ely) – the USS Birmingham on November 14, 1910. It was also the first to land on a ship, the USS Pennsylvania on January 18, 1911.
To avoid copyright infringement on the Wright Brothers (ha-ha) wing-warping technology, this and all Curtiss aircraft used ailerons to control rolling during flight.
- Crew: 1;
- Length: 29 feet 3 inches (8.92 meters);
- Wingspan: 38 feet 3 inches (11.66 meters);
- Height: 7 feet 10 inches (2.39 meters);
- Empty weight: 700 pounds (318 kilograms);
- Gross weight: 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms);
- Powerplant: 1 × Curtiss E-4 4-cylinder water-cooled in-line piston engine provided 40 horsepower;
- Propellers: 2-bladed fixed-pitch pusher propeller;
- Maximum speed: 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour);
- Endurance: 3 hours 30 minutes.