THE FLYING DEBUTANTE
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich
Ruth Rowland Nichols was born on February 23, 1901, in New York City to Erickson Norman Nichols and Edith Corlis Haines. Her father claimed descent from Leif Ericson, and had been one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. He was a member of the New York Stock Exchange. Her mother was a strict Quaker. This interesting combination gave her a confusing and complicated childhood.
Ruth was sent to the Masters School, which was a private preparatory school for young women. When she graduated, her father gave her an airplane ride with World War I Ace pilot, Eddie Stinson. During this flight he performed some aerobatics. She enjoyed the flight, but was terrified when he did a loop in the airplane. Not being one to give in to her fears, she decided she must become a pilot!
She entered Wellesley as a pre-med student, planning a career as a physician. However, all during her college days she was secretly taking flying lessons. Shortly after graduating in 1924 she received her pilot’s license. In 1924, she became one of the first two women to earn a Department of Commerce Transport license. During her long career she flew every type of aircraft, and was flew dirigibles, gliders, autogyros, land and sea planes, monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes, twin and four engine transports, and supersonic jets.
On New Year’s Eve of 1928, she joined her flight instructor, Harry Rogers, on a flight from New York to Miami. This flight brought her notoriety, and due to her “socialite” upbringing, the press dubbed her the “Flying Debutante,” a moniker she was not fond of!
In 1929, she participated in the first All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race. The race began on August 18th in Santa Monica and ended in Cleveland, Ohio. When the humorist Will Rogers learned of the race he had to make fun of it and called it, “The Powder Puff Derby.” She was one of the 20 women in the race, but crashed her plane and did not finish. After that race, the women decided to form a support organization, and “The Ninety-Nines” was formed. (see my previous article, “The Ninety Nines”). In an effort to promote women in aviation, and aviation clubs for women, she flew a 12,000 mile tour and became the first woman to land in each of the 48 states.
Ruth realized that they were a remarkable group of women and many of them were becoming famous through their achievements. She determined to be the best of them. In order to do that she would need a newer and faster airplane. She was able to make the acquaintance of Clarence Chamberlin, who had completed a transatlantic flight in 1927. With common interests, they began a lasting friendship. One of her goals was to be the first female to fly across the Atlantic, and he joined her in planning the flight. They decided that she would need to use a Lockheed Vega for the flight, but with a price of $20,000 that seemed out of reach!
During a flight, Ruth stopped at Cincinnati and was able to convince Paul Crosley to loan her his Vega. She convinced him that her setting records in his airplane would in bring great publicity for his Crosley Radio Corporation.
Chamberlin modified the Vega with an adjustable pitch propeller, wheel pants, and a supercharged engine. To test the distance capability of the modified airplane she set off heading west. Four days later she landed in Burbank, California, setting the women’s transcontinental record of 16 hours, and 59 minutes. On the return flight, she set a Los Angeles to New York record of 13 hours, and 22 minutes, breaking Charles Lindberg’s record!
Her next challenge was to test the airplane’s altitude capabilities. Bundled up like an Eskimo she took off and began her climb. With the outside temperature reading 50 degrees below zero, breathing oxygen and nearly numb, and the airplane struggling in the thin air, her altimeter was reading almost 30,000 feet. She put the airplane in a nose dive and though light headed and numb with the cold, was able to make a safe landing. She had set a record of 28,843 feet, and international record for women.
One more test to see how fast the airplane would fly. In four passes of a three kilometer speed course, the officials clocked her at 210.6 miles per hour, another record for her. She was 25 mph faster than the previous record! She was now the first woman to hold three simultaneous international records – speed, altitude, and distance, and was certainly making a name for herself. She 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.” She was such a pilot, and was willing to put her skills up against the challenges of the day.
There was still the challenge of crossing the Atlantic. During a visit to Cincinnati, Paul Crosley told Ruth, “Go fly the ocean, if you must!” Chamberlin began working to get the plane ready. He took out the seats and installed fuel tanks for a 3,000 mile flight; installed an artificial horizon and directional compass; and gave it a new gold and white paint job. They christened the airplane, “Akita,” an Indian name meaning “to explore,” and began waiting for suitable weather. After weeks of waiting, Ruth finally decided the time was right and took off for St. Johns, Newfoundland. Blinded by the sun in her eyes while landing, she crashed! She had survived the crash and painfully crawled out of the wreckage, having suffered five broken vertebra.
After months of recovery, and wearing a steel corset for support, she took off from Oakland in the rebuilt Vega. 1977 miles later, having set another record by flying farther than any other woman, she landed in Louisville, Kentucky. The next day, her elation from setting another record turned to tragedy. The Vega caught fire while taxiing. Again, Ruth was safe, but the airplane was seriously damaged. This time, her dream was crushed. While the Vega was being rebuilt, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Ruth’s chance for the fame of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic was lost to Earhart.
While that dream was lost, she continued to tackle new challenges. She founded a civilian air ambulance service, “ Relief Wings,” which became a part of the Civil Air Patrol, where she achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. Using her medical training she worked as a nurse and a flight instructor during World War II. She used her celebrity to raise funds for various charitable causes. In 1958, she flew faster than any woman in the world. She co-piloted an Air Force Supersonic TF-102A Delta Dagger at over 1,000 mph!
Ruth Nichols was not done yet. In 1959, at age 58, she entered NASA’s program. In preparation for future space missions, Ruth underwent the same isolation, centrifuge, and weightlessness training that had been devised for astronaut candidates. At the Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio, USAF Brigadier General Donald Flickinger and his mentor Randy Lovelace were studying the suitability of women in space. She was not able to pass all the Phase I tests, but she did well and encouraged the other women. She urged the Air Force scientists to include women in their space flight plans. She later reported that they said, “under no circumstances!”
In 1960, suffering from severe depression, this wonderful woman who had conquered almost everything she set out to do, who had set amazing records for women, was found dead in her home in New York City. May her spirit and determination continue to inspire not just women, but everyone with a vision!
Give unto the Lord the Glory due His name,
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Captain Nancy W Aldrich