Ruth Rowland Nichols: Pioneer in American Aviation

In the late 1920s through mid-1930s, Ruth Rowland Nichols was one of the best-known American women in aviation. She was born February 23, 1901 in New York City to Erickson Norman Nichols and Edith Corlis Haines.

She grew up in Rye, New York, attended The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry and then went on to study at Wellesley College graduating in 1924.

A founding member of the Ninety-Nines and a Women’s Air Derby racer, Nichols became first woman in the world to earn an international hydroplane license. She knew from a young age that her interests were not in the classroom but outdoors.

She set record for non-stop flight from New York to Miami in January 1928 with flight instructor Harry Rogers and was nicknamed the "Flying Debutante" by the press. She became the first woman to land in all 48 contiguous states in 1929.

Nichols set a transcontinental record in 1930, beating Charles Lindbergh's record set earlier that year, flying from New York to Burbank, California in 16 hours, 59 minutes. On her return flight, she flew even faster, completing the trip in 13 hours, 22 minutes.

She planned to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a Lockheed Model 5 Vega, owned by Powell Crosley, Jr., founder of the Crosley Radio Corporation. On the afternoon of 22 June 1931, Nichols took off from Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York, to stage for the transatlantic flight at Harbor Grace, Dominion of Newfoundland, making an intermediate stop at Saint John, New Brunswick, Dominion of Canada.

Her hopes to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean were dashed by a crash in which she was severely injured, and again in 1932. Fellow Ninety-Nines founding member, Amelia Earhart, became the first woman and the only person since Charles Lindbergh—to fly nonstop and alone across the Atlantic in 1932.

Ruth Nichols set a record for the highest altitude flown by a woman at 28,743 feet.

In 1931-32, she became the only woman to hold at once the women's world speed, altitude, and distance records.

Over the course of her aviation career, Nichols held more than 35 women's aviation records. She flew the dirigible, glider, autogyro, landplane, seaplane, amphibian, monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes, twin and four engine transports and supersonic jets.

In 1932 she also was part of the "good will tour" promoting the International Congress of Women in Chicago for 1933.

In 1935, Nichols joined the British-based Women's Engineering Society, at the time the only organization in the world for women engineers and pilots.

She worked for the Emergency Peace Campaign, a Quaker organization that sought to promote peaceful resolution to international conflicts.

In 1940, Nichols founded Relief Wings, a humanitarian air service for disaster relief that became an adjunct relief service of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) during World War II. Nichols became a lieutenant colonel in the CAP. After the war she organized a mission in support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and became an advisor to the CAP on air ambulance missions.

She became the first female director of a major aviation company, the Fairchild Airplane Manufacturing Corporation.

At 57, Nichols set new women's world record as co-pilot for altitude of 51,000 feet and speed record of 1,000 miles per hour in an Air Force Supersonic TF-102A Delta Dagger.

She died of an overdose on September 25, 1960 and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.

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.

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