Nichols, Ruth Rowland
Record Setter/Dare DevilEnshrined 1992 1901-1960
As a present for her high school graduation in 1919, Ruth’s father arranged an airplane ride for her with her hero, Eddie Stinson. During the flight he did a loop-to-loop which terrified her. Her resolve to conquer this fear led her into the aviation field. She learned to fix and fly a Curtiss Seagull and after graduating from college in 1924 she became the second woman pilot licensed by the Department of Commerce.
- In 1924, Nichols became the first licensed woman seaplane pilot in the U.S. She eventually flew every type of aircraft developed and was rated in the dirigible, glider, autogyro, landplane, seaplane, amphibian, monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes, twin and four engine transports and supersonic jets.
- Nichols and her flight instructor became the first to fly non-stop from New York to Miami in 1928.
- In 1929, Nichols became the first women to land in all 48 contiguous states.
- Co-founder of the women’s flying organization “the Ninety-Nines”.
- November 1930 Nichols set a women’s transcontinental record of 16 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds, and on her return trip she set a Los Angeles to New York City record of 13 hours, 22 minutes.
- In 1931, Nichols became the first women to hold three international records: altitude, speed and long distance.
- Organized Relief Wings, a flying ambulance for mercy missions.
- Flew faster than any woman in the world, as co-pilot in an Air Force Supersonic TF-102A Delta Dagger flying over 1,000 mph, in 1958.
The year was 1929 and Ruth Rowland Nichols had not only learned to fly, but she had helped to form the “Ninety Nines,” a remarkable group of female pilots. Although many of them would become famous for their aerial achievements, she was determined to be the best of them.
While helping to organize the elite Long Island Aviation Country Club, Ruth came to know some of the greatest women pilots. During a 12,000 mile tour to promote other aviation country clubs, she became the first female pilot to land in all 48 states. Soon Nichols was a veteran of numerous tours and local air races, and also earned fame as an aerial style-setter. Dressing with charm and distinction, she often donned purple flying togs.
When Nichols entered the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, from Santa Monica to Cleveland, it was the first time that women competed in a major air race. It later became known as “the Powder Puff Derby.” During the 1929 and 1930 National Air Races, Nichols also took part in the women’s events. Although she didn’t win any major prize money, she gained invaluable competitive flying experience. However, she also realized that in order to excel in aviation in the future, she needed a newer and faster plane. Fortunately, Nichols soon met Clarence Chamberlin, an aviator famed for his 1927 transatlantic flight. This meeting would be the beginning of a lasting friendship. Together the duo planned for Nichols to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic alone. They hoped to use a Lockheed Vega, but its price tag was over $20,000 (which was worth a lot more in those days than today!). However, their prayers were soon answered during a flight stopover in Cincinnati when Nichols convinced Paul Crosley to loan her his Vega, the New Cincinnati. She told him that setting records in it would be good publicity for his Crosley Radio Corporation.
By late 1930, Chamberlin had added an adjustable pitch propeller, a supercharged engine and wheel pants to Crosley’s Vega. To test its long distance capability, Nichols took off from New York in November 1930 and headed west, making four stops en route. She set the women’s transcontinental record of 16 hours, 59 minutes with her landing at Burbank. On the return flight, she set a Los Angeles-to-New York flying time of 13 hours, 22 minutes.
To test the plane at high altitude, Ruth dressed like an Eskimo before she flew it high over New York. With the weather at 50 degrees below zero, and Nichols on life-sustaining oxygen, the laboring plane’s altimeter finally read almost 30,000 feet. Six miles up, she put the plane into a dive and, despite being light-headed and numb, made a safe landing. Nichols had set an international record of 28,743 feet – higher than any woman had ever flown before. A month later, National Aeronautic Association officials clocked Nichols as she screamed the Vega across a three-kilometer speed course. In four passes, she set a new women’s record of 210.6 miles per hour, 25 m.p.h. faster than the previous record.
During a visit to Cincinnati, Paul Crosley finally told Ruth, “Go fly the ocean, if you must!” As a result, Chamberlin’s crew blocked out the Vega’s windows, removed its seats, filled the fuel tanks for a 3,000 mile flight, installed an artificial horizon and directional compass, and gave it a white-and-gold paint job. Now the plane was christened Akita, an Indian work meaning “to explore.” After weeks of waiting for good weather, Nichols finally took off from New York. But while landing at St. Johns, Newfoundland, the sun blinded her and she crashed. Miraculously, Nichols survived and she painfully crawled out of the wreckage with five broken vertebra.
Months later, Nichols made a valiant comeback. Wearing a steel corset to support her back, she took off from Oakland, California in the rebuilt Vega. Some 1,977 miles later, she landed at Louisville, Kentucky, setting a record by having flown farther than any woman before her. The following day, tragedy almost ruined this achievement when the plane caught fire while taxiing. Nichols escaped injury, but the Vega again sustained serious damage.
Nichols’s next record came in 1932 while she was flying Chamberlin’s diesel engine-powered Vega. Jokingly referred to as the “Flying Furnace,” it was noisy and smoky but efficient, and she took it to 19,928 feet over New York, a record that still stands today. Three months later, Nichols used the plane to make a 3,000 mile goodwill tour promoting an international conference of women at Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair. Amazingly, her fuel bill in the diesel-powered Vega was only $15.
Unfortunately, by the time Chamberlin rebuilt Crosley’s Vega and secured Lifesavers as a sponsor, the Atlantic had been finally conquered by a woman: Amelia Earhart. Nichols’s chance for transatlantic flight fame had been lost. Nichols then turned her business talents to the field of aviation. She became the first female director of a major aviation company, the Fairchild Airplane Manufacturing Corporation, and served its interests very well.
Ruth Nichols once said “it takes special kinds of pilots to break frontiers, and in spite of the loss of everything, you can’t clip the wings of their hearts,” and she was such a pilot. By her willingness to pit her skills against the challenges and adversities of the sky, she proved the ability of women to help push across the unknown aeronautical frontiers.
Ruth Nichols died on September 25th, 1960.
For more information on Ruth Nichols, you may want to visit the following websites: