Pioneer stunt aviator believed in power of women

Posted 6/19/24

Approximately 10,000 people gathered at the old racetrack at Narragansett Park in Cranston on Labor Day weekend of 1912 to stare at the sky. Up there in the clouds, “The Only Living Woman …

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Pioneer stunt aviator believed in power of women

Ruth and Rodman in her plane.
Ruth and Rodman in her plane.

Approximately 10,000 people gathered at the old racetrack at Narragansett Park in Cranston on Labor Day weekend of 1912 to stare at the sky. Up there in the clouds, “The Only Living Woman Operator of a Wright Aeroplane” would be instilling awe.

Ruth Bancroft Law was born in Lynn, Mass. on March 21, 1887 to Frederick and Sarah Law. She grew up in East Haddam, Conn. where her father was employed as a traveling manufacturing supply salesman. Her sister Louise was a music teacher and her brother Frederick Rodman Law was a famous daredevil and movie stuntman, riding motor-cycles across a river, exploding from a balloon 300 feet above water, being shot up in the air inside a skyrocket, jumping off bridges, being shot out of cannons and dropped from planes. Known nationally as “The Human Fly,” he was the first person to parachute off the Statue of Liberty. He performed stunts in nine films, including the “Dare-devil Rodman Law” in 1914.

It seemed that a couple of Frederick and Sarah’s children were born thrill-seekers. Ruth attempted to hire aviation pioneer Orville Wright to teach her how to fly a plane. However he refused, explaining that he didn’t believe women were suited to the task. Undaunted, Ruth made the same request of engineer and inventor Harry Nelson Atwood and American pilot Archibald Freeman who both agreed to give her flying lessons at Saugus Field in Mass. Shortly after receiving her pilot’s license, she performed at Rocky Point and the Kingston Fair where she offered flight exhibitions for two days and left her Wright Model B bi-plane, designed by the Wright Brothers in 1910, on exhibit throughout the four-day fair.

On Memorial Day weekend of 1913, she appeared at Rocky Point performing some of the greatest aerial feats ever witnessed in Rhode Island – the “dip of death,” the “spiral glide” and the “ocean roll.” She also made four flights out of Newport that year, garnering massive attention. Each person lucky enough to gain a ride in her plane received a personalized certificate of flight containing Ruth’s image and autograph.

In 1914, on Christmas Day, Ruth performed at the Wright School of Aviation in Augusta, Georgia, demonstrating the “dip of death,” an aerial trick which had been fatal to several aviators. By the end of 1914, Ruth had made 2,140 flights without an accident of any kind.

The 30-year-old woman, who stood five feet and five inches tall and weighed 125 pounds, broke the cross-America flight air speed record on Nov. 19, 1916. The existing record of 452 miles had been held by Victor Carlstrom. Ruth flew non-stop from Chicago to New York, a distance of 590 miles through 45-mile winds. She completed the journey in eight hours and 55 minutes.

Ruth enlisted in the United States Army on June 30, 1917, expecting to become a military pilot. When she was told that women were not assigned as pilots, she led an unsuccessful campaign to change rules regarding the ban on females flying military aircraft. She served her country as part of the United States Army Accessions Command, assisting with the recruiting process. Her daredevil brother, who was also serving in the military, died of tuberculosis.

When out of uniform and free to take to the skies, Ruth was earning approximately $9,000 per week doing exhibition flights in her Curtiss Pusher plane. On June 10, 1919, she broke a record set three days earlier by Raymonde de Laroche, a French female pilot who set the women’s altitude record at almost 13,000 feet. Ruth reached 14,700 feet. The back and forth contest continued. On June 12, Raymonde went 15,748 feet.

Ruth married Charles Augustus Oliver, an amusement manager, in 1907 and he had been acting as her business manager since that time. As the years progressed, watching his wife risk her life to generate their livelihood became more difficult and she agreed to retire in the spring of 1922. She later died at 1:30 in the morning on Dec. 1, 1970 at Notre Dame Hospital in San Francisco, after suffering from heart disease. She was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, Mass.

Ruth Law despised being seen as an oddity. She believed that women should engage in anything they’d dare dream of without turning heads simply because they were women. That day in the sky above Cranston – and any day she was soaring over the clouds – she got to be more than a gender. She got to be an awe-inspiring pilot.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.



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