Breaking Gender and Air Barriers

Ruth Law in 1915: Her aircraft is a Curtiss Pusher, but has Wright Brothers’ control levers.

On November 19, 1916, Ruth Law sat clinging to her hand controls as she flew exposed to the frigid November air at more than 100 miles-per-hour. She looked out at the land, easily identifying landmarks that corresponded with her maps. Actually, it was the map that was most difficult to see as it was rolled up on scrolls in her lap, attached to her seat belt. Law was flying an old, small Curtiss pusher biplane. It had a V-8 engine that sat right behind the pilot. Law controlled the direction of her plane with two hand-held levers. While she could never let go with her left hand, which directed her up and down movement, she was able to briefly let go of the right lever – holding it in place with her right leg – while she turned the scroll in her lap.

Law wished Glen Curtiss had sold her a larger plan, as she had requested. He said he couldn’t, as they were required for the war effort, but then he added that larger planes were “too much for a girl to handle.” She wasn’t deterred. In fact, his comments and those of other male aviators helped push her to make this flight. She would show that women could fly as well as men. The easiest way to prove this is by breaking a record.

The previous record for the longest flight by an American was set by Victor Carlstrom earlier that year in a Modified Model J airplane. It had a 200-hp engine that sat in the front of the plane. His plane also had a 200-gallon tank. He flew 452 miles.

Law thought about her gas tank now. The plane’s original gas tank only held 16 gallons. She added a second tank that increased her capacity to 53 gallons. She thought that would be enough to take her from Chicago to Hornell, New York.  However, she assumed she would encounter favorable winds along the way. She didn’t. Two miles from her destination, her engine stopped because her fuel tank was empty. Cool under pressure, she guided her plan silently onto the landing strip at 2:10 pm.

Even though Law flew with two layers of wool and two layers of leather clothing, the cold, damp air penetrated the layers. She had slept at the top of a Chicago hotel for a few weeks to try to get used to being in the cold. Even still, she needed to be helped off her airplane and into a car that took her to a hotel where she had a bite to eat while her plane was refueled and replenished with oil. She had been flying since 8:25 am and with only an hour and fourteen minutes of rest, she was back in the air making her way to New York City.

She only flew for about an hour before the lack of light necessitated a stop in Binghamton, New York. She tied her plane to a tree, asked a police officer to watch it and got some rest. At 7:35 the next morning, she was back in the air. When she took off, she flew over heavy fog, which made it almost impossible to see the necessary landmarks. Eventually, she found and followed the Delaware river toward New York City.

When she finally reached Manhattan, her engine again started to cut out. In a moment of calm decision-making, Law rocked her plane, sloshing the gas onto the carburetor, and the engine came back to full strength. Her engine stopped before she made the runway. She had to glide the final three miles onto Governor’s Island at 9:37 am, where nearly 50 newspaper reporters were waiting to ask her questions. One reporter asked, “You have made the longest flight a woman ever made, haven’t you?”

Law knew she had done something no other woman had even attempted. She was constantly reminded that women and men were not treated the same. She believed in her abilities. She hadn’t achieved her goal in spite of her gender, but because of who she was. She was a pioneer, an aviator, and a champion. She answered saying, “I have made the longest flight an American ever made.”

Law went on to show she was capable of much more. With a better plane, she would hold aerial shows with two other male pilots, flying through fireworks, doing tricks, and defying those that doubted women weren’t capable of flying a complex flying machine. She believed and set out to do what she wanted, regardless of the limits others put on her.

For you:

Law wasn’t the only woman to fly airplanes in the early days, but she grounded any arguments about women not being capable of flying as well as a man. She offered her services in World War I, but President Wilson refused her as a fighter pilot. She still helped out with the war effort in America. She believed she could make a difference and set about doing just that. Little girls saw her and said in letters to Law, “Now, I am glad I am a girl, because girls can do just as wonderful things as men.”

That’s what champions do. They see that more is possible. So they break the imagined barrier and that allows others to believe they can do more.

What barrier do you see between you and your goal? Don’t wait for someone else to be the champion. You can be that champion. Then you will lead others to believe in themselves just like Law did.

About

I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy. My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

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