February is Aviation Month at the Governors Island Explorer’s Guide.
As anyone who has been to Governors Island knows, there are more than 50 bronze plaques around the island. Only one plaque on the whole island bears the name of a woman. This is Ruth Law. When Amelia Earhart was 19, Law landed a biplane on the island.
Ruth Bancroft Law was born March 21, 1887, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Law was 5’ 5” with light brown hair. Reporters noted her blue eyes, fair complexion, and serious nature.
About 1907 she married fellow Lynn resident Charles A. Oliver, who raced motorcycles and was an expert mechanic and engineer. He approved of his wife’s flying career and managed her bookings, equipment, and repairs.
Law was a spectator at the Boston Air Meet in Quincy in July 1912 and saw Harriet Quimby, the first woman licensed to fly, fall to her death. Undeterred, Law started flying lessons that summer in Boston. Lincoln Beachey was her instructor; he also flew on Governors Island and was later killed in a crash over San Francisco in 1915.
Within weeks she was flying solo and became the third woman in the U.S. to get a pilot’s license. She bought her first plane from Orville Wright.
Law was the first woman to perform the loop to loop, she wing-walked, and flew at night. In 1915 she headed the Ruth Law Flying Circus and performed across the U.S. When reporters wrote about her they invariably mentioned her iron nerve and coolness in an emergency. She toured the country giving exhibitions and feature stunt flying shows.
Law’s first great feat was to smash the long distance non-stop flight record. The 29 year-old’s journey would be monitored by the independent Aero Club of America, which at the time oversaw pilots and the aviation field. Law decided that a flight from Chicago to Governors Island would be the best route.
Law stripped her open-cockpit Curtiss Model D headless biplane to the bare minimum. She removed equipment to trim weight and decided to only fly in daylight (why she flew in the winter when days are shortest is unclear). She could only carry 53 gallons of fuel. Law had a compass bolted to the plane between her feet. A large map in a wooden box was strapped to her left leg. On her right glove were sewed a typed sheet of “sailing instructions” for her route.
The greatest distance Law had ever flown was 25 miles. She would attempt nearly 900 in a five-year old Curtiss model that was only rated to complete 100, at most. Curtiss refused to sell her new one.
For her flight she wore a woolen flying suit, with a leather suit over that, and a second leather suit. She put on a leather helmet lined with wool and a wool facemask and goggles. She also wore a skirt, because it was 1916. “I took off the skirt I had been wearing over my flying suit and stored it behind the seat,” she said.
On November 19, 1916, she took off with a roar from Chicago’s Grant Park. She flew right into a gale and her machine could only reach speeds around 82 miles per hour, forcing Law to fly dangerously low over Chicago. Her plane heavy with the extra fuel, she flew at 1,000 feet in strong winds that slowed her progress.
After 590 miles and low on fuel she touched down in a field in Hornell, a tiny upstate New York city in Steuben County. She had been in the air for eight hours and 55 minutes. Law was nearly frozen stiff and out of fuel. A witness reported, “She had her first stop on the snow-quilted acres of the Hornell Fairgrounds. She fell, rather than stepped, out of her seat. A mask of ice glazed her face. He eyes were fixed like those of a marionette. Her arms remained at right angles as though she had not yet let go the wheel. It was several minutes before the daring girl could walk erect or talk connectedly.”
After a one-hour refueling stop she climbed back onto her Curtiss. “The sun was beginning to sink and the girl began to see hopes fade,” a reporter wrote. “A fierce determination possessed her. She flung her small airplane out of the high-rimmed bowl in which the Hornell Fairgrounds lies…the hills are high and a forest of ancient oaks and spindling birches crests them. Darting wildly, like a frightened falcon, she struck the tops of the tallest trees and tore her way clear. The crowds of farmer folk started forward. The girl they thought had lost control and had come to grief. But she threw her prow skyward with all the power the engines could muster and up she shot free of the trees and out into the open sky.”
Law still had a nearly 300-mile journey to New York City. Law flew right into 45-mile an hour westerly winds but she believed she could reach Governors Island as darkness approached. She flew around 120 miles until she saw the lights of a city below her. Law headed due east and pushed the engines to 100 miles per hour to try and land in the fading light. She was flying at 6,000 feet and burning too much fuel. But it was almost dark and she had to land.
She swooped low and circled a farm on the outskirts of Binghamton. She made wide loops over a field and farmhouse, bringing out the family of Willis Sharpe Kilmer. She put down on a horse-training track. Law sat in her plane as men and women rushed up to her. Law didn’t know where she was.
“What town is this?” she asked. “And how far have I come?” Law was told she had flown about 600 miles and was in Binghamton. “I was so sure that I could make New York before nightfall that I carried no lights for my instruments. I had removed the batteries to lessen the weight of my machine. Now I am sorry. I know that I could not fly at night without my instruments before me, so have stopped. Please give me a hand.”
She threw a blanket over the engine, tied her plane to a tree, and put her skirt back on over her flying suit. Law was taken into Binghamton for the night. The next morning, November 20, she had difficulty firing up her airplane due to the cold. A big crowd went to see the aviatrix off. At 7:12 a.m. she shot into the air and a great roar from the crowd cheered her. Law waved goodbye to the crowd and disappeared in the sky as she turned to New York.
The pilot encountered flying visibility so poor she was reduced to fly as low as 150 feet and cut her speed to 60. She passed over Port Jervis at 1,000 feet and continued downstate and flew over Manhattan. Governors Island was finally within sight.
At 9:27 she touched down at the Fort Jay airfield, which is roughly where Liggett Terrace is today. Law was flying on fumes and had only a few drops left in her tanks. “I couldn’t have gone another thousand yards,” Law said as she climbed off the plane and removed her wool flying cap. A big crowd of aviators, press, and soldiers was waiting. Major General Leonard Wood, commander of the U.S. Army Department of the East, was the first to welcome her. “Well done, little girl, you’ve beaten them all. We all feel proud of you,” General Wood said. “Your pluck and self control are almost inconceivable.” To which Law replied, “Thank you. I am none the worse for wear, as you can see.” She then pulled out three airmail letters from her jacket and delivered them.
Law’s achievement at the time set the American cross-country non-stop record, by either a male or female aviator in the western hemisphere. Her total trip was 880 miles.
The Aero Club awarded her a $2,500 prize (about $56,000 today). New York was thrilled. She was feted in Times Square with a banquet at the Hotel Astor. She was seated on the dais between Admiral Robert Peary and explorer Roald Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole. Law sent a telegram to the Women’s Suffrage party convention in Albany: WOMAN’S SPHERE IS WHEREVER SHE CHOOSES TO BE.
One year later she broke the world’s altitude record. She soared to 14,217 feet. In 1919 she broke the speed record flying 190 miles an hour in France. As the records fell no woman had flown as far, or as fast, as Ruth Law. She could not convince the U.S. Army Air Service to allow her to fly in World War I. She used her talents as a stunt flier to raise money for war bond drives. Law flew down Pennsylvania Avenue—over the tops of streetcars—and touched down in the backyard of the White House. She flew around the Statue of Liberty at night with electric lights spelling LIBERTY on the wings; she also fired fireworks from the plane.
Even as the Army blocked her from becoming an aviator, it asked her to help with recruiting (men) and the skirt was required if she wore a uniform. After the war ended in 1918 she toured widely and ran an aviation business and flight school in Miami.
In 1922 at age thirty-five Law quit flying at the insistence of her husband and retired to Beverly Hills. She had never crashed and had an unblemished safety record. But her husband said that after ten years of watching his wife fly he was too nervous. She complied.
However, her name was back in the news following Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris. In April 1927 Law told reporters she wanted to try to be the first woman to make the trip. “I hope to land in France in July,” Law said. “A New York organization has offered to finance me in the flight. Yes, I thought I had settled down—but I’d like one more thrill.” But she remained on the ground and Earhart made the flight in 1932.
Law said years later that even the sight of flying uniforms and airplanes soaring overheard got to her. She sold her airplanes and all her memorabilia. Law only held onto three souvenirs: the propeller, helmet, and map she used to fly from Chicago to Governors Island.
She died at age 83 on December 1, 1970, in San Francisco. She is interred in her hometown, Lynn, at Pinegrove Cemetery with her husband and parents.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick has written and edited seven books with ties to New York history, including "The Governors Island Explorer's Guide" and "World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War." Kevin is a licensed sightseeing guide and has been leading walking tours since 1999. He resides in Manhattan.