The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She awed the country before Amelia Earhart even took to the skies

A trailblazing artist in flight, Ruth Law was the first “Queen of the Air.”

Aviator Ruth Law arrives at Governors Island in New York City following her flight from Chicago on Nov. 20, 1916. (Library of Congress)

In April 1918, during World War I, a pilot flew over the District, rallying crowds at a parade and raising money for troops overseas.

This spring day was a transitional American moment: The uniformed pilot flying above the houses of Washington power was a woman — Ruth Law. Change was literally in the air.

Law had been flying since 1912, a short nine years after the Wright brothers’ flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C. Most famously, she broke the American long-distance record in 1916, flying from Chicago to New York. Four years before Amelia Earhart first flew, Law was the country’s “Queen of the Air.”

When America entered World War I, Law lobbied the government to fly in battle, but Secretary of War Newton D. Baker refused. She wrote a newspaper article that said that if President Woodrow Wilson sent her after the Kaiser, “I should fly away on my bombing mission with not only a free conscience but a glad heart.”

Nevertheless, Law became the first woman to wear a noncommissioned officer’s Army uniform and spent her time soaring over the United States, dropping paper “bombs” that advertised Liberty Loans.

The Liberty Loan parades, which took place nationwide, brought citizens marching, buying bonds and demonstrating their support for troops overseas. In Washington alone, the parade would tally about 35,000, according to the Washington Star, with some news accounts setting the number closer to 40,000.

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What made the loan committee want Law? She was, “with the Stinson sisters [aviators Marjorie and Katherine Stinson], publicly ranked as one of the three most prominent women then flying in the U.S.,” said Fred Erisman, an author and professor emeritus at Texas Christian University.

Today the airspace around the District is more restricted than anywhere else in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. But during parade week in 1918, pilots treated the skies like a playground. Law and others, including an Italian army captain named Antonio Resnati, who gave rides to diplomats and members of Congress, gamboled in their planes. One morning, they plunged and swooped until a bald eagle joined them. The bird “really appeared to resent the appearance of the machine-birds,” wrote a Washington Post reporter.

The day before the parade, Law started at the top of the Washington Monument and corkscrewed around it, spinning to 10 feet above the ground. Next, she flipped and pivoted through a skills contest with a British aviator, and then flew on, seeming to graze the tops of streetcars and trees. Her plane’s propeller roared and whooshed hats from the heads of onlookers. They clapped; drivers honked.

When parade day came, spectators lined the sidewalks to watch the festivities. Navy Yard workers carried a bier labeled, “The Kaiser’s Funeral.” A billy goat marched alongside, wearing a sign that read, “We’ve Got The Kaiser’s Goat.” Munitions laborers walked in overalls, their shirt sleeves rolled up. There were about a thousand soldiers in uniform, and 492 men who had just been drafted kept pace in their street clothes, according to the Washington Star.

President Wilson stood smiling in his car, taking in the procession, his hat held over his heart. He had burned himself touching a tank’s hot exhaust pipe, so his arm was in a sling and his hand was bandaged in white gauze.

Law took off over the crowds from the roped-off Ellipse around 3:10 p.m. In her Curtiss biplane, she sat out in front of the engine, as one spectator said, “On the ragged edge of nothing.” She sailed over Memorial Continental Hall — now the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution — but then returned to the Ellipse, calling for her mechanic to help fix a spark plug. Then she was up again.

“Lord! Be that a woman?” an elderly woman exclaimed.

Law flung her plane into loops over the White House and the State, War, and Navy building, now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just to its west. More loops in front of Wilson, close enough that he could see her wave.

“It’s astounding to me what she did in an aircraft,” said Jerry Kidrick, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. “It was a piano wire and fabric aircraft, not a newly manufactured airplane.”

Flying toward Capitol Hill, Law dropped her black and white paper “bombs.” On one side, they read, “America’s war chest or the kaiser’s? Which?” On the other: “You must put your money in the war chest or the next bomb dropped may be a German bomb. You must fight or give until it hurts, to help save your country. Ruth Law.”

People stared and clapped. Law’s flight “would be like today watching a spaceship fly over your parade,” Kidrick said.

Law stood inside the roped-off Ellipse after she landed. Via a megaphone, a man named Charles W. Semmes reminded people that just by flying, Law had taken a 50-50 chance with her life. The implication was that the least they could do was buy a bond. People stood in line and waved their hands for the chance to purchase $50 and $100 bonds — and get Law’s autograph on the receipt.

“People like Ruth,” Kidrick said, “were the equivalent of the Mercury 7 astronauts of today. Celebrities. Rock stars.”

Yes, Law admitted, she’d been disappointed when the secretary refused to let her fly in the war, but she wouldn’t be denied her part. “I’m going to ‘carry on’ anyway by raising money by dropping bombs of literature, appeals for funds for the Red Cross, all over the country this summer.”

Law would go on to do a wing-walk, perform in Asia and found her own air circus. In 1922, Law woke up to find that her husband, tired of her dangerous job, had announced her retirement in the newspaper, according to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

It was about six years later that Earhart became the first woman to make a transatlantic flight in 1928. In June 1937, she began her flight around the world, then disappeared a month later. And while Earhart may be the most iconic aviatrix, it was Law who paved the way.

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