Ruth Law & Pioneer Aviator

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  • 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.

The Orville – 1905.

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.

Harry Nelson Atwood circa 1913… my doesn’t he look sharp!

Below is a newspaper article from The Boston Herald, August 17, 1912 which details the daring-do of Ruth Law even as she was learning how to be a pilot! I got the article from READEX, a division of NewsBank.

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At the time of her accent, the altitude record for a female pilot was 8,100 feet by Mademoiselle Helene Detriue of France. Or at least I believe she was the record holder… she certainly was as of November 8, 1912… the point is, Law came close while still learning to fly – flying higher than her male instructor ever had before.

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.

Ruth and her brother Rodman atop their Wright Model B aeroplane.

While I originally said here that I could not NOT find any solid data on what Ruth Law did in the years 1913-1914, I was wrong. Thanks to READEX I was shown many articles depicting what Ruth did during that time period.

The March 24, 1913 edition of The Miami Herald wrote that while she was in town performing exhibition flights, she offered the famous oil man John D. Rockefeller a flight in her plane. He politely declined, laughing: “I’ll wait till my wings grow.” Image below is from THAT article.

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The July 26, 1913 edition of The Pawtuckett Times of Pawtuckett, Rhode Island noted that Law would fly at Newport Beach on Sunday, July 27.

The Springfield Daily Republican reported on September 10, 1913 that Ruth Law was in Springfield, Massachusetts (thanks READEX). Note that the altitude aviation record is far different from what was written in the first article above – a not so surprising occurrence in the world of aviation history, I’m finding. While the altitude record noted in the article below may be in doubt, I’m sure the rest of the information is likely correct. I do like that it notes that Law had visited a woman’s suffrage meeting earlier:

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The Philadelphia Inquirer published the advertisement below on October 4, 1913 for The Great Mt. Holly Fair taking place October 7-10. Ruth got second billing after the horse races, but was well up on the funny donkey act. Actually, I point this out to let you know just what exhibition aviators (of all persuasion) had to do to make money in the early days.

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The December 7, 1913 edition of The Trenton Evening Times (of Trenton, New Jersey), denoted a “funny” incident involving Ruth Law and the law the day before:

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We also know that Ruth Law was back again in Daytona, Florida on February 6, 1914 giving rides to the public, per an article in The Grand Rapids Press of Grand Rapids, Michigan:

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What’s odd about the news above are two things… that the passenger was identified as Mrs Robert Goelet – which was the unfortunate style of the day – and that it was reported in the Michigan press rather than the Florida press… I’m unsure if Mr. Goelet was a person of enough importance to denote the flight of his wife with Ruth Law… but what the article does show is the public’s appetite for aviation in 1914. Heck… I’d go up for a ride if I had been around in that era!

By the way… here’s a photo of Law and Mrs Robert Goelet from https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/31008:

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We also 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 Hornell in New York State, a distance of 590 miles (950 km), averaging 100 miles an hour – according to a Boston Journal, November 20, 1916 article.

The article says: “Miss Law left Chicago at 8:25 A.M., Eastern time. A strong wind blew toward the east. Aided by this, she kept up an average speed of 100 miles an hour, at an altitude of about 6000 feet. During the last 200 miles, before the stop at Hornell, a sharp crosswind blew, with the result that her gasoline tank was soon emptied. She glided two miles into Hornell at 2:07.

After replenishing her gasoline supply, she flew the remaining 117 miles to Binghamton without mishap. Darkness overtook her, and she was forced to descend. She will continue on to New York tomorrow morning.

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.

Ruth Law arriving at Governor’s Island, New York after her flight from Chicago, November 20, 1916.

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).

Ruth Law’s Flying Circus – photo via: http://theoldmotor.com/?p=130926

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.

General Characteristics

  • 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.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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9 Responses to Ruth Law & Pioneer Aviator

  1. Great article – entertaining as well as informative. Thanks for your research and for sharing it!

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  2. Pingback: Women and Flying Machines – Miss LiV Adventures ~A Journey Through Time…and Time Again

  3. FFF says:

    I’m going to ask my husband to announce my retirement. Don’t think it will make it happen, but it’s worth a try.

    I have missed you! Welcome back to the blogosphere.

    Like

  4. Roy Mize says:

    Not sure my previous post went thru since I was searching and didn’t log in first.
    Two glaring errors in your otherwise excellent blog. 1. Hap Arnold didn’t change her sparkplugs at Hornell. Don’t take my word. Check for yourself. He was in San Diego re-qualifying as an Army aviator per USAF Historical Records. 2. Ruth Law didn’t fly a 1911 Headless Model D. She flew a late 1915, similar to but not the same as the 1911. Each Model D built used lessons learned from each previous aeroplane and that meant each one was different. Ruth’s aeroplane was completed in Hammondsport in late1915 and tested on Lake Keuka. There is an image. I know the source of the Arnold story, “Yankee Magazine.” Never been able to find out why the author said it. Glad you didn’t use the reference that said Arnold joined her in the final flight to New York. That would have been very cozy in a one seat aircraft. I’m an early aviation historian, mostly before WW1 (The Great War). I have a Ruth Law bio currently in review. (Don’t bother looking at our Website. Since I retired, my wife uses it for practice.

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    • mreman47 says:

      Hi Roy… y’know… that whole crap about him changing her sparkplugs didn’t sit right with me… I mean, she knew her aviation mechanics… I’m sure she could have changed her own darn sparkplugs. And that 1915 Model D… yeah, it ate at me… it just didn’t feel right. I’m so very glad you took the time to correct me, Roy. I will go back and fix my errors, and provide you with the credit. Cheers, Andrew

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      • Roy Mize says:

        Appreciate the reply. As a historian, I like to keep the record straight. So much of what is written about Law is wrong. As for the Arnold story, could you find the time to change her Wikipedia page?

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      • mreman47 says:

        Hey Roy… I’ve never “changed” anything in Wikipedia before. I don;t even know how it’s done… but I’ll try. Do you have the facts in a book or magazine that I could use and then mention?

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      • Yes but the USAF historian and USAF Arnold history give the San Diego dates for Arnold and you can compare with the dates of Ruth Law’s flight. S/b enough attribution.

        Roy Mize

        Mountain View, CA (Silicon Valley)

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