RUTH BANCROFT LAW
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich
“There is an indescribably feeling which one experiences in flying; it comes with no other 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. I shall never forget my first flight. I had the sensation of being shot out of a gun, as we rose from the earth. Then, slowly, I grew used to the feeling, and the joy of rising up into the air and watching the earth recede, too. It took possession of me. There is a great sense of the noise of the machine at first, but soon after that seems to fall off behind. The wind against the face is splendid, and to watch the villages, towns and cities, just pretty patches on the earth, from that nearness to the fleecy clouds, gives a spice to the sport that I find in nothing else,” Ruth told the Christian Science Monitor. She believed that, “Women have qualities which make them good aviators, too. They are courageous, self-possessed, clear-visioned, quick to decide in an emergency, and usually they make wise decisions.“
Ruth was born in May 21, 1887. Considering that she had one of the most successful careers as an early aviator, very little is known about her life.
She had an adventurous streak, and was known as a tomboy. She enjoyed outdoor games and sports. Her older brother, Rodman, was interested in parachuting and became one of the original stuntmen, jumping out of airplanes. She became interested in flying and soon began lessons. Women were not welcomed into aviation in 1911, and even Orville Wright told her that women were unfit for flying. While he was willing to sell her an airplane, he would not instruct her. She began flying lessons in the Burgess Flying School in June 1912, made her first flight on July 5th, and soloed on August 1st, and received her license on November 12th. Soon after, she was flying passengers to and from the Sea Breeze Hotel, in Florida. Also, in 1912, she became the first woman to pilot an airplane at night.
Shortly after enrolling at Burgess as a flight student, she was at the Boston Air Meet and watched as Harriet Quimby fell to her death. That gave her a bit of a start and shook her confidence a little, but it did not stop her. Later, she said, “I purchased a Wright biplane because it seemed to me they had the greatest success. Harriet died in a monoplane,but that didn’t scare me. I figured it was the monoplane’s fault.”
Ruth had one of the longest and most colorful careers of the early female aviators. At one point in 1917, she was earning $9,000 a week doing exhibition flying.
She loved flying, she also was a bit of a daredevil. She would try just about anything she was told she could not do. Well, they told her that she could not do a loop in an airplane. While giving a demonstration of aerobatics at Daytona Beach, in 1915, she announced that she would fly a ‘loop the loop’ for the first time. No woman had ever performed this stunt. Her husband Charles Oliver, who was always nervous when she was flying, was against her making the attempt. She went up and did two loops!
In 1916, Ruth set three records. She took part in an altitude competition with men. Twice she came in a very close second. She was furious because she knew she could do better. She insisted on being judged by the same standard as the men. She set an altitude record of 11,200 ft. at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. Her greatest feat was in setting a cross country distance record. Previously, the record was 452 miles. She flew from Chicago to New York State, a distance of 590 miles. She continued her flight into New York City the next day. While she was over Manhattan, the engine cut out due to fuel starvation, but she was able to glide to a safe landing on Governor’s Island. A young Lieutenant named Henry H. “Hap” Arnold helped her by changing her spark plugs. She was the toast of the city, and President Woodrow Wilson attended a dinner held in her honor on December 2, 1916.
The United States entered World War I in 1917, and she quickly enlisted as a pilot. When she learned that she would not be allowed to fly in combat, she was very angry. She wrote an article, Let Women Fly,” in the “Air Travel” magazine. She was told that while she could not fly she could wear the uniform and could help by recruiting and instructing. She became the first woman allowed to wear a United States Military NCO uniform, on June 30, 1917! She also raised money for the Red Cross and Liberty Loan drives with her exhibition flying.
After the war, she continued to set records. On June 7, 1919, she set an altitude record of 14,700 ft. Raymonde de LaRouche broke that record on June 12, flying to 15,748 ft.
At one point, she was asked if she could fly higher than the Washington Monument. Of course, she could! Wilbert (Robbie) Robinson (1863-19434) was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was famous for stunts and antics on the field. He wanted to catch a ball dropped from an airplane, but it had to be dropped from a higher than the Washington Monument. Earlier John McGraw had caught a ball dropped from the monument, and Robbie wanted to top that. She flew over the field and dropped a grapefruit. When Robbie caught it, he was knocked down and the grapefruit burst sending juice down the side of his face. He called out, “Help me, lads, I’m covered with my own blood!” It was years later that Law explained she had forgotten the ball and only had a grapefruit in her lunch in the airplane, so that is what she dropped!
She formed the “Ruth Law’s Flying Circus,” a three plane troupe that performed at state and county fairs. They would race against cars, fly through fireworks, thrilling their audiences. During this period she was one of the most famous and successful barnstormers of the 1920s. She retired from flying after one of the stunt flyers, Laura Bromwell, was killed doing a stunt.
On one morning in March 1922, Ruth Law announced her retirement from aviation in the newspaper. Her husband was always concerned about her flying, and could simply no longer take the stress of watching her hazardous occupation. She retired forever, her amazing career was over!
After defying the odds and death for 10 years in both America and Europe, she said “It’s my husband’s turn now, I’ve been in the limelight long enough, I’m going to let him run things hereafter and me, too.” She continued to explain, “Why? Because I’m a normal woman and want a home, a baby, and everything else that goes with married life. Why, I’ve been married almost 10 years to Charlie Oliver, the man who has managed my exhibitions, and scarcely anyone knew who he was. And the poor boy was so worried about me all that time that every time I went up he lost a pound. It was a matter of choosing between love and profession. Of course, I’m just crazy about flying, but one’s husband is more important!”
The Olivers moved to California where she died on December 1, 1970, at age 83.
O, Lord, Our Lord, How excellent is your name in all the earth! Psalms 8:9
Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer