Nichols, Ruth (1901–1960)
Nichols, Ruth (1901–1960)
Pioneering American aviator who set world records for speed, altitude, and distance. Born Ruth Rowland Nichols on February 23, 1901, in New York City; died on September 25, 1960, in New York City, an apparent suicide; first of two girls and two boys of Erickson Nichols and Edith Corlies Nichols; educated at Wellesley College; never married; no children.
Raised in comfortable circumstances and educated at Wellesley College; decided to pursue a career as a pilot when air travel was a risky and highly competitive sport; despite several serious crashes and resulting injuries, set world records for speed, altitude and distance, becoming along the way the first woman licensed to fly a seaplane, the first woman to fly nonstop between New York and Miami, Florida, the first woman to attempt a solo transatlantic crossing, and the first woman licensed as a commercial airline pilot; used her skills during World War II to organize an airborne ambulance corps and to fly around the world for UNESCO's Children's Relief Fund; spent her last years working for the Civil Air Patrol, and set her last world speed record (1958) in a twin-engine jet; inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1992).
Ruth Nichols always remembered the first time she flew through the clear blue sky of a summer's day, an 18-year-old girl who until then had been terrified of heights. "Suddenly, I felt like laughing," she wrote of that day in 1919. "What had I been afraid of? This was only air. A minute ago, I had been an earthbound caterpillar. Now, I was an airborne butterfly. I was free as the air itself. I wasn't afraid of anything any more."
It was an odd statement, given that the comfortable circumstances of her early life would have seemed more than adequate protection against threats and dangers. Born on February 23, 1901, the first of the two girls and two boys raised by Erickson and Edith Corlies Nichols , Ruth had grown up in an elegant brownstone in one of Manhattan's best turn-of-the-century neighborhoods as well as her family's country home in suburban Rye, and had been educated in the city's best private schools. Her father's family was among the elite referred to by New York society as "the 400," and Erickson himself had found enough time off from his successful investment firm to become one of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War of the 1890s. Dashing and adventurous, Erickson Nichols traced his family's descent from the Viking explorer Leif Erickson and adopted as his favorite motto, "Try anything once." But it was Edith's sense of propriety and social position that seemed to cast a shadow over young Ruth, who sometimes referred as an adult to the "multiple and complicated fears" of her childhood. Edith Nichols had been raised as a Quaker but had adopted the more socially prevalent faith of the Episcopalian Church on her marriage. She applied her Quaker sense of responsibility to seeing that her children followed the rules of proper New York society, leaving her first-born daughter torn between her contradictory parents and wishing for a way to unite "an adventurer's heart and a Quaker spirit."
It was her father who opened the door to a possible solution by taking her to an aviation show in Atlantic City during the summer of 1919 to mark her graduation from finishing school. World War I had ended just a year before, and the public was fascinated with the derring-do of the men who had flown the first air war in military history during the four-year conflict. Erickson bought his daughter a ten-minute ride in the rickety biplane flown by Eddie Stinson, one of the most famous of the aviation aces from the war. The fear of disappointing her father was stronger than Nichols' fear of heights, but it was with barely controlled panic that she climbed into the passenger's seat behind Stinson and firmly shut her eyes as the plane rattled into the air. Her nervous state was not helped when Stinson decided to fly a loop-the-loop, leaving her dangling upside down for several seconds with Atlantic City swooping, as it seemed, above her head. But by the time Stinson guided the plane to a safe landing, Nichols had learned an important lesson. "My willingness to go up in an airplane might have been sheer bravado," she later wrote, "but there was also a determination to overcome my fear by accepting the challenge of terrifying forces over which I believed I had no control." In the skies, she had found freedom.
Her next step was a decision to attend college and become a doctor—heresy to her tradition-bound mother, but supported by her influential and beloved "Aunty Angel," her mother's unmarried aunt and a strong-willed believer in the social liberalism of the Quaker faith. "If thee wants to go to college, thee go," said Aunty Angel in her preferred Quaker idiom. Ruth duly entered Wellesley College in 1920, although she agreed to her mother's demand two years later that she use her February semester break during the winter social season to travel to Miami for her formal "coming out" to society as a debutante. Even here, in the midst of cotillions and full dance cards, Nichols struck another blow for freedom by accepting an offer of a ride in the "flying boat" piloted by Harry Rogers, a gallant flying ace from the war who had become nationally famous for his barnstorming tours.
In these early days of aviation, when safe landing fields (not to mention safe landing gear) were scarce, pontoon planes that could take off and land on water were common, and Rogers had found the relatively calm waters off Miami a reliable setting during the winter months for his air shows and flying school. Although Nichols had not asked for flying lessons when she had been introduced to Rogers by one of her brothers, she found herself briefly taking the controls during her first flight with the famous pilot. "I grasped the wheel on the control yoke, and I was sold forever," she later said, "feeling the power of my own hands managing this fierce and wonderful machine, keeping this heavy craft thundering through the sky and directing her course." Rogers agreed to take her on as a student, at an impressive fee of $60 an hour, and proceeded to teach his young socialite-turned-aviator the rudiments of flying. Known as much for his quick temper and salty language as for the precision of his instruction, Rogers stressed the importance of proper safety procedures by telling Nichols, "I'd rather be known as the oldest pilot than the best." The lesson was driven home after several weeks when Ruth landed Rogers' plane at too slow a speed, sinking the hull deeply in the water, scraping a rock and cutting a gaping hole in the plane's hull—a hole no one noticed until Rogers himself taxied out for a flight but found himself sinking instead. "He punctuated his lessons with scorching language and an occasional clout to the head," Nichols ruefully recounted years later. But it was under Rogers' guidance that she became the first American woman to be licensed as a seaplane pilot, even as she successfully completed four years of college and graduated from Wellesley in 1924.
Given a world tour as a graduation present, Nichols traveled through China, India, and the Far East and began to feel the first glimmer of her Quaker background's social conscience. The disparity between the grinding poverty of native peoples and the affluent lifestyle of their colonial rulers profoundly impressed her. "A deep unrest began in me then and the stirrings of a determination to do something to help these people," she said. "I didn't know what, or how—I only knew that somehow, some day, I must." It would be some years yet, however, before Nichols would find the answer in the cockpit of an airplane.
For the year following her return from her travels, it seemed as if she were grounded even as Charles Lindbergh made aviation history with the first non-stop transatlantic flight between New York and Paris. Bowing once again to family pressures, Nichols had taken a job in a New York bank as an assistant manager for the special women's departments, an accepted form of sexual segregation in the world of finance and most other parts of early 20th-century life. The job was dull, the surroundings claustrophobic, and the pay below that for a similar man's position, but it was Edith Nichols' hope that her daughter would meet a suitable future husband with a prosperous banking career. By New Year's Eve of 1927, Ruth found herself frustrated, depressed and alone at the family's house in Rye, not being in suitably good spirits to celebrate the holiday. "I hadn't conformed to accepted social patterns and I had not sought a niche in humanitarian fields," she later remembered. "I'd been the girl who was going to find freedom and a career in the vast domains of the sky." But as midnight approached, the telephone rang and Harry Rogers came to her rescue.
Rogers proposed that Nichols join him as co-pilot for aviation's first attempt at a non-stop flight from New York to Miami. With the help of a wealthy backer who would join them on the trip, Rogers had purchased a new seven-seat, single-engine seaplane and had laid out a straight southwestward course 70 miles offshore, meaning that the journey entirely over water would present many of the same challenges that had faced Lindbergh. The trio of fliers took off from Rockaway Naval Air Station on the shore just outside New York City after sunrise on an early January morning in 1928. Twelve hours later, the plane gently splashed to a landing off of Miami after an uneventful flight. Even though Nichols had taken the controls from Rogers only when her mentor needed sleep, the press was fascinated with the "Society Flyer" and "The Flying Deb" who had become the first woman to fly non-stop along the East Coast. But the telegram Nichols received from her beloved Aunty Angel meant more to her than any headline. "More power to thee, child," it said simply.
Truly, you must have wings for life, as there is no living without flight.
Thanks to Rogers' thoughtful offer and the publicity it generated, 1928 marked the beginning of a career for Nichols that would rival that of her contemporary, Amelia Earhart . She chalked up another first within days of her landing in Miami by becoming aviation's first female executive, as the sales manager for Sherman Fairchild's airplane manufacturing business. Fairchild shrewdly took the measure of Ruth's value in promoting the aviation industry and billed her as "Ruth Nichols, Daring Aviatrix" for her first public speech in Newburgh, New York, in February 1928, during which Nichols struck the themes she would use in the months to come. She extolled air travel as the wave of the future, assured her audiences of its safety and practicality, and called for ambitious programs to build a network of airports from coast to coast serving every part of the country. But Ruth, Fairchild, and other aviation enthusiasts found no way to refute the fact that, at a minimum of $15,000 apiece, airplanes were hardly within the reach of most Americans. By mid-1928, Nichols found herself speaking to audiences of wealthy stockbrokers, oil barons and industrialists to promote a new idea—a chain of country clubs devoted exclusively to flying, much as other clubs were devoted to golfing or horseback riding. After helping to set up the first such club in Hicksville on Long Island, Ruth embarked on a national flying tour using two single-engine planes donated by the Curtiss Airplane Company in which she took advantage of her newly won license to fly land-based airplanes in addition to seaplanes. The tour which began in the spring of 1929 made a huge circle around the country, covering 12,000 miles, with safe landings in 43 states and lectures in 96 cities before Nichols touched down again in New York in October 1929. She was just in time for the stock-market crash that began the Great Depression and put an end to further ideas of flying playgrounds for the wealthy.
Surprisingly, the Depression did little to hinder the growth of America's love affair with flying. Stories of daredevil pilots competing in air races were a welcome relief from the grim economics of the time, and Nichols' name was frequently to be found in the listings—especially when she entered the first air race for women, dubbed "The Powder Puff Derby," from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland in 1929. Her precarious experiences during the National Air Races which followed, with two forced landings and a runway mishap that left her plane wrecked but Ruth herself unhurt, were followed avidly in the press. "When I look back," Nichols said in the late 1950s, "I realize that those early planes, top-notch aircraft of their day, were fragile, unstable, death-defying mechanisms, as different from today's multi-engine clippers as the Model-T Ford differed from a modern limousine." Despite the obvious risks, there were enough female pilots by the fall of 1929 for Nichols and Amelia Earhart to create a national organization which took its name, "The Ninety-Nines," from the number of its founding members.
Over the next year, Ruth's name entered the record books twice more after she met Clarence Chamberlin, another war-trained aviator who had become the first pilot to fly from New York to Germany in a plane he had designed himself, which he called the Crescent. Ruth became the sales manager for Chamberlin's Crescent Aircraft Company early in 1930 and, with Chamberlin, made the first air delivery of New York newspapers to Chicago in the spring of that year. "She has an uncanny feeling for drift and held her course much more accurately, for instance, than I do," Chamberlin said after the flight. "At any minute she could tell exactly where we were. She is not only a fine pilot, but has the rare gift of common sense." It was Chamberlin who first suggested the idea of a transatlantic flight to Nichols, although it would be another year before the attempt would be made.
Meanwhile, Ruth sold Chamberlin Crescents to the fledgling commercial airlines then just forming and was invited to be among the first passengers to make American Airlines' inaugural "through" flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. The country's system of airports had grown sufficiently by 1930 to allow travelers to make the entire journey from coast-to-coast by air, avoiding night travel by train—although the
lack of nighttime navigation systems still meant that Nichols and her fellow passengers had to spend a night on the ground before continuing on to the West Coast, arriving in Los Angeles nearly two days after leaving Atlanta. The transcontinental flight inspired Ruth to attempt on her own a more ambitious coast to coast route, flying a specially modified Lockheed Vega. Leaving New York on November 24, 1930, Nichols arrived in Burbank on December 1 after overnight stops in Ohio, Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico. Her arrival in California in just under 17 hours' flying time set a new women's record. After a week's rest in Los Angeles, she began her return journey to New York, taking advantage of strong tail winds to reach Wichita in just 7 hours and continuing on from Kansas to Roosevelt Field outside New York City in 6 hours and 20 minutes. Her eastbound flying time of 13 hours and 21 minutes was an hour over the existing record, although she had completed her journey in less time that it had taken Charles Lindbergh and had set another women's record for speed.
By March 1931, Nichols had added again to her growing list of aviating accomplishments by flying another Lockheed Vega up to 28,743 feet, setting a world's record for altitude at a time when pressurized cabins and heating systems had yet to be developed. Wearing long underwear, four sweaters, a leather flying suit, furlined boots and helmet, and heavy mittens, she had to rely on oxygen carried from a tank under her seat through a tube clasped in her teeth to keep from passing out in the thin air as the temperature dropped to 60 degrees below zero. Not long after flying higher than anyone else, Nichols flew faster, too, entering the 1931 National Speed Trials and clocking in at over 210 miles per hour, breaking the previous record set by Amelia Earhart. But her biggest challenge, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, lay ahead.
Throughout the first half of 1931, Nichols successfully campaigned for financial backing from a number of private investors and from the CBS radio network and Paramount Newsreels, which was granted exclusive rights to film and promote the flight. At the same time, she and Clarence Chamberlin had been outfitting another Vega for the attempt, adding extra fuel tanks, the latest advances in instrumentation and, at Lindbergh's suggestion, an emergency radio system. Ruth named her aircraft Akita, from a Native American verb meaning "to explore" or "to discover." As preparations neared completion, Nichols paid a visit to her beloved Aunty Angel and asked to be formally received into the Quaker fellowship, citing her deep respect for the American Friends' tradition of pacifism and its belief in the power of love and compassion. Aunty Angel saw to it that Ruth's request was honored, and announced she would soon set sail for France to be among the first to greet Ruth when her plane landed in Paris.
On the morning of June 22, 1931, Nichols took off from Floyd Bennett Field in New York and set Akita on a course for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, for a refueling stop before beginning her Atlantic crossing. "I felt like laughing aloud, like singing," she later wrote of her emotions that morning as the Manhattan skyline slipped away beneath her. "All the years of my preoccupations with airplanes, all the months of preparation, all the weeks of day and night work in the hangar had been leading up to this moment." The northeastward flight was uneventful, but Nichols grew concerned when the tiny New Brunswick airport appeared on the horizon. The runway seemed too short for her to land a plane so heavily laden with fuel. Then, too, she was attempting her landing to the west, into a blinding setting sun. Her fears proved well-founded when it became apparent as she touched down at one end of the runway that she would never be able to slow and stop Akita before running off the opposite end into heavy woods. She pulled back off the runway at the last moment and attempted to climb sharply, but Akita's tail brushed the treetops and shattered, sending the plane plummeting to the ground. "All I did was wrench back and wreck ship. Everything under control," Nichols telegraphed her family, but the truth was that she had suffered five broken vertebrae, a dislocated knee and serious internal injuries. She was confined to a hospital bed for two months with her lower body in a plaster cast.
But such was her determination to try again that she disregarded warnings from her doctors on release from the hospital and convinced her family to take her for long drives as a way to accustom herself to the pain of sitting for long periods. By early fall of 1931, she had taken the reconstructed Akita for a test flight, still wearing a body cast and forced to rely on helpers to lift her in and out of the cockpit; and in October, she announced she would try to break the women's long distance record with another transcontinental flight to the West Coast and back. Flying a southern route from New York, then west to California and east to Nevada and across the Midwest, Nichols landed in Louisville, Kentucky, after having covered 1,950 miles, accomplishing her goal of setting a new distance record. More important, she had covered more miles than the distance from Newfoundland to Ireland, her intended route for another attempt at an Atlantic crossing. But disaster struck again when fumes from a backfire set Akita aflame on the ground in Louisville, leaving the plane in ruins for the second time in four months.
Undaunted, Nichols took to the lecture circuit to raise money for repairs and for her intended solo flight to Europe, only to watch in dismay as Amelia Earhart flew from New York to Ireland in May 1932 to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Ruth's reaction was to set herself a more difficult task—to fly the nearly 4,000 miles to Paris in a nonstop flight with no refueling once she took off from New York. Preparations for the flight included a trip to France to tour the coastline and familiarize herself with landmarks and, as a test run once Akita was again ready to fly, a transcontinental flight from New York to Los Angeles during the summer of 1932. For the first time, Nichols combined her private and public lives by agreeing to airdrop campaign literature on her way to the West Coast for President Herbert Hoover, running for re-election that year against the Democratic candidate, Franklin Roosevelt. "As a Quaker, I had long been an admirer of the President's integrity, courage and statesmanship," Nichols said. "If I could help him in such a way, I was eager to do so." She tactfully refrained from pointing out that the Republican Party had agreed to underwrite the costs of the flight in return for her help. But disaster overtook her again on the morning of her takeoff from New York, on November 3, just a few days before the election. A landing gear malfunction as she hurtled down the runway sent Akita spinning off the tarmac, leaving Nichols unhurt but grounding the plane for a third time. All hopes of a solo flight to Europe were dashed.
By the end of 1932, Nichols found herself in low spirits. "I came back to the grim fact that I had had three major aircraft failures in one year, and that I seemed to be hopelessly grounded as far as a professional pilot's career was concerned." There was some slight solace in the invitation late in 1932 to participate in the unveiling of the monument to the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the site where America's first manned aircraft had taken to the skies three decades earlier; and Ruth's presence at the controls of the inaugural flight of Chamberlin's New York and New England Airways, from Long Island to Hartford, made her the first woman to fly a commercial airliner. But Chamberlin's airline went bankrupt early in 1933, forcing Nichols to enter barnstorming tournaments and to act as the pilot for sightseeing flights to keep herself aloft. Plans to repair Akita and fly from California to Hawaii were scotched when, once again, Amelia Earhart beat her to it. Then, in October 1935, Nichols was severely injured for the second time in four years when a seven-passenger Condor she was co-piloting on a publicity flight crashed and burst into flames near Troy, New York, after one of its engines caught fire. The pilot later died of his injuries while Ruth, who was thrown from the plane, underwent three operations and plastic surgery to repair her own multiple injuries. "In the end I came out with a shorter and what I thought was a better looking nose than before," Nichols said, glossing over the two painful years of recovery that followed the crash.
By 1937, she had regained her commercial pilot's license and had taken to the air again as troubling events in Europe led to talk of another World War. Learning that the pacifist American Friends Service Committee, a proactive arm of the Quakers, was planning what it called an Emergency Peace Campaign, Nichols suggested that aviation was the common bond between countries and proposed undertaking a world peace tour by air. "Most fliers have an outlook instinctively international, and no matter what their nationality, they speak the same language. They share the freedom of the skies," Nichols noted, although she might also have said that such a feat would make her the first woman to fly around the world. With the Committee's approval, Ruth began crisscrossing America by air to raise money for the tour, only to find that the majority of Americans she met were unconcerned about turmoil in distant countries. Their apathy and lack of financial support for the tour shocked her but only hardened her vow to put aviation at the service of peace, even if a round-the-world air tour did not seem possible. It seemed the honor of setting the women's record would once again go to Amelia Earhart, who embarked on just such a journey on May 1, 1937, from Miami. Two months later, however, radio contact was lost with Earhart's plane after she took off from New Guinea. Nichols discounted the ensuing speculation, which continues to this day, that Earhart somehow survived the presumed crash or, more inexplicably, did not crash at all but deliberately chose to disappear. "I feel … that Amelia flew on across the trackless Pacific until her last drop of fuel was gone, and then sank quickly and cleanly into the deep blue sea," Nichols wrote 20 years after Earhart's disappearance.
In 1939, Nichols at last found a way to combine her love of flying with her humanitarian instincts. After Hitler's invasion of Poland that year made another World War inevitable, she prepared for America's entry into the conflict by forming what she called Relief Wings, an airborne ambulance corps enlisting the services of private aircraft and civilian personnel that could be quickly organized in time of war. By the end of 1941, when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor propelled America into World War II, Nichols' network of emergency aviation centers in 36 states became the backbone of the government's new Civilian Air Patrol (CAP). While the war raged, Ruth served as an adviser to the CAP, volunteered for Red Cross duty, and began teaching aviation to women at Long Island's Adelphi University, the nation's first such course.
With the war's end, Ruth finally got to make her round-the-world flight—not to set a record this time, but to help the United Nations assess the effects of the war on the world's children. "Here was work into which I could put my heart as well as my hands," said Nichols, "and for which I could finally unite an adventurer's heart with a Quaker spirit." Starting from Hartford in the summer of 1948, Ruth flew west to California and then on to Japan, Thailand, India, and Greece before stopping in Rome for rest. The report she and her fellow UN workers later developed estimated there were some 60 million needy children left homeless and without sufficient food or health care after the devastation of the war. Leaving Rome for London, Nichols was offered passage home on a commercial flight from the United Kingdom to New York which was forced to ditch in the Irish Sea after developing engine trouble. Everyone survived the emergency landing, but Ruth would not soon forget the long, cold night spent in a life raft before rescue planes and ships arrived.
Ruth Nichols spent the postwar years working for the Civilian Aviation Patrol, although record-setting still ran strong in her blood. She became the first woman to pilot a twin-engine jet in 1955, and set new speed and altitude records in 1958 by flying a jet aircraft at more than 1,000 miles per hour at 51,000 feet. Still, the world Nichols had known in those early days of aviation was long gone. While it had taken her the better part of a week to reach California 30 years before, new jet aircraft routinely made the crossing in little more than six hours; and while Ruth had nearly frozen to death flying at close to 30,000 feet, passengers at that altitude now sat in pressurized, heated comfort, dining on hot meals. A few of the older airline pilots may have remembered the name Ruth Nichols, but to a nation which would soon launch its first spacecraft, the air exploits of the early century were forgotten. So it was that news of Nichols' passing on September 25, 1960, barely registered with most Americans. She had been found dead in her New York apartment, an apparent suicide. She was just 59.
Perhaps the powerful attraction of the sky proved too strong for her in the end. "When life gets too cluttered and stuffy on the ground," she wrote in her autobiography published in 1957, "I can still take to the privacy and freedom of the sky, and there adjust my sights to distant vistas not yet contacted."
Howes, Durward, ed. American Women. Vol 3. Los Angeles, CA: American Publications, 1939.
Nichols, Ruth. Wings For Life. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1957.
Sicherman, Barbara and Carol H. Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1980.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York