Law, Ruth (d. 1970)

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Law, Ruth (d. 1970)

First American pilot to fly nonstop for 590 miles. Died in 1970.

In a plane that she had purchased from Orville Wright in 1912, aviator Ruth Law made news when she became the first woman pilot to perform a loop-the-loop. She was also the first woman to chance flying at night, a dangerous venture at the time. Law captured the spotlight once again on November 19, 1916, when she attempted to fly nonstop from Chicago to New York City.

In preparation for the undertaking, she had asked Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a major airplane manufacturer, to sell her a larger plane, one that could hold more fuel and was more conducive to longer flights. Curtiss refused, convinced that a woman could not pilot a large plane. Instead, Law had to use an older, smaller plane, one used for stunt flying at air shows. Her modified Curtiss biplane, named "Baby Machine," was outfitted with three important pieces of equipment that gave her an advantage: overhangs on the wing, which afforded greater altitude, a windshield to protect her from the wind (pilots flew in open cockpits then), and an extra fuel tank which gave her 53 gallons of fuel instead of the usual eight. But the extra fuel made the airplane heavier, so mechanics took the lights off the plane to lighten the load. Without lights, Law could not navigate well after sunset. She would have to get to New York before dark.

The night before departure, Law slept in a tent on the roof of a Chicago hotel to get accustomed to the cold. When she arrived at Chicago's Grant Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, at four in the morning, she was so bundled up against the cold she was unrecognizable. She was wearing two pairs of woolen longjohns, two leather suits, and the properly feminine skirt over her pants. "I didn't look any more like a woman than anything at all," she later recalled. "A man, a workman with his lunch pail, came hurrying over, stretched out his hand, and said, 'Well, good luck, young feller. I hope you make it.'"

With a sizeable press contingent on hand, Law climbed into her cockpit. But the freezing weather made the engine hard to start, and she lost precious daylight hours. Finally, at around 8 am, the crowd watched with fear as the plane took off. With the wind and the additional fuel, it appeared to be hard to control. Flying at the speed of 100 miles an hour, one mile above the earth, Law had no instruments to rely on. Instead, strips of survey maps mounted on rollers inside a glass-topped box kept her on course. She also had maps taped to her leg, a compass, a clock, and a speedometer.

During her flight, she had only one bad moment: her oil gauge registered no pressure as she flew over Cleveland. Since it was impossible to land, she simply kept on. Then at 2:00 pm, two hours away from her destination, she ran out of fuel over Hornell, New York, and had to land. Law had flown an unprecedented 590 miles nonstop in six hours, setting the American nonstop record. It was a staggering feat at the time. Then she ate lunch, refueled the plane, and continued on to New York City, where she was greeted by a large welcoming committee. In the days to come, Woodrow Wilson would sing her praises and a dinner would be held in her honor. One year later, Katherine Stinson would break her record.

Ruth Law spent the latter part of her piloting career barnstorming with a flying circus that bore her name, but gave up flying at age 31 at her husband's request.


"The Time Machine," in American Heritage. November 1991, pp. 43–44.

suggested reading:

Brown, Don. Ruth Law Thrills a Nation (juvenile). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

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Law, Ruth (d. 1970)

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