More than a century ago, Ruth Law made area history when she became the first woman to fly a plane in Florida skies. The aviatrix again made history when she set the nation’s flight distance record—for a man or a woman. She was also among the first licensed female pilots in the nation and eventually among the most fearless and best known.
In 1912, at age 24, Law purchased her first plane from Orville Wright. Then she made her way north of Daytona Beach to the Hotel Clarendon in Seabreeze where Law gave daily exhibitions and provided “hops” for individuals daring enough to go up. Often her flights took her to Jacksonville’s Pablo Beach, later known as Jacksonville Beach.
When Jacksonville’s Metropolis newspaper of Jan. 3, 1913 announced a scheduled race from Pablo Beach to Seabreeze between Law and noted race car driver John Smith, Lubin Studios, part of Jacksonville’s fast developing silent film industry, decided to get in on the action. The studio captured the race featuring “Florida’s first female pilot” for an upcoming film.
Law set numerous records to seal her fame in aviation history. In 1915, above Daytona Beach, she became the nation’s first woman to perform a “loop the loop”—and did so twice! In 1916, Law broke a man’s record for non-stop distance flight, and her late November route from Chicago to New York added to the challenge. She flew 590 miles, from Chicago’s frigid Lake Michigan shore to Hornell, New York. Revered aviators said the flight was impossible. The previous U.S. distance record, set by a man, was 452 miles.
Her record-setting flight was not easy. Bundled in her flight outfit of wool and leather head gear, two sets of clothing and two jackets, Law camped out on a Chicago hotel rooftop to condition her body for the icy winds she’d encounter in the open cockpit. Exposed to the elements on all sides in her outdated plane, one observer described the contraption as a stick and wire plane with hundreds of pieces of piano line crisscrossing the machine.
The plane’s controls required constant use of her hands, so Law devised her own method for consulting compass readings and maps. She summarized directions on her long leather glove. She mapped out her projected course on a cased scroll and strapped it to her belt. While she could never remove her left hand from the vertical control, for short distances she could use her knee to hold the right control to review her position by winding the map’s case knobs.
Law added an extra gas tank to the small plane, increasing the fuel capacity from 16 gallons to 53 gallons of gas. She also removed surplus weight, including the airplane’s lights. Once the flight was airborne, shifting wind gusts were yet another issue, as Law struggled to reach an altitude of more than 200 feet.
As reports spread that Law was seen flying above towns along her Ohio and Pennsylvania route, her skill and daring were underscored by her circumstances “perched out in the air surrounded on three sides by nothing.” Ten miles from Hornell, New York, Law realized her fuel was nearly gone, and two miles from her landing site, she was on empty. Without an operating engine or fuel, Law glided the remaining distance to her landing site at 2:10 p.m. With this act, Ruth Law set the nation’s record for non-stop distance flight.
Refueled, Law took off at 3:24 p.m. toward New York City, and later reported skimming the tops of pine trees on the fast approaching mountain. With no lights and visibility low, Law decided to land less than an hour later at Binghamton, New York. She tied her plane to a tree and was “taken in” for the night.
Early the next morning, she was off again only to encounter thick fog. Eventually she located and followed the rivers, one by one, until the flight over the Ramapo Mountains soon revealed the Hudson. Flying down the Hudson River into upper Manhattan, Law repeatedly tipped the plane wing to wing to get the last remaining drops of fuel to the engine. Out of fuel, she glided to a landing on Governor’s Island.
She was greeted by dignitaries, booming bands and cheering crowds—and later a dinner party in her honor was attended by President Woodrow Wilson. The record-breaking flight was hailed as “the greatest flight ever made in America.”
Law continued to captivate the nation. During ceremonies to illuminate the Statue of Liberty, she flew around Liberty’s torch spelling out the fiery message “Liberty” to thousands of admirers. Denied permission to fly in WWI combat, she was the first woman authorized to wear a military uniform. As a non-commissioned officer, she raised money for Liberty Loan drives and the Red Cross.
After WWI, Law and her husband, Charles Oliver created “Ruth Law’s Flying Circus,” a three-plane troupe that amazed spectators. She flew through fireworks and set altitude records, but in 1922, Law retired from her high risk occupation at her husband’s urging with plans to experience normal family life.
To see images of Ruth Law and her plane, please go here.