Ruth Nichols: Rye’s Aviatrix Flies High

Ruth Nichols with her plane, a Lockheed Vega, in 1931. Photo Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institute.

Ruth Nichols with her plane, a Lockheed Vega, in 1931. Photo Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institute.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we bring you the story of Ruth Nichols, a young woman from Rye who followed her passion for flying to become one of the leading aviators in the early twentieth century. Nichols set an example in her personal ambition to achieve new heights as an aviator and also in her commitment to public service, shaping the way that the field of aviation could improve the lives of others.

Ruth Nichols was born in 1901 to Erickson N. and Edith Corlis Nichols. She grew up in Rye, attended The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry and then went on to study at Wellesley College. While Ruth was a capable student, she knew from a young age that her interests were not in the classroom but outdoors. Ruth’s father was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and she inherited his adventurous spirit. When she graduated from The Masters School, her father’s gift to her was a flight with a World War I pilot named Eddie Stinson, Jr. Ruth took up flying during college and soon after graduating Wellesley, she decided to pursue a career in aviation. She loved being in the air and taking risks, but she was more than a fearless female flyer.

Soon after learning to pilot a plane, Ruth Nichols started breaking records. In 1928, at the age of 27, she completed the first nonstop flight from New York to Miami. She broke Charles Lindbergh’s transcontinental record in 1930, shaving an hour off his time. By 1931, Nichols held three major international women’s records for speed, distance and altitude. While her personal accomplishments were impressive, when interviewers talked to Nichols after her flights, they noted that she talked less about herself and more about the potential of the field of aeronautics to revolutionize our world. She was analytical, articulate and dedicated, earning her a leadership position in general aviation promotion for the Fairchild Aviation Corporation.

In her various roles, Nichols worked tirelessly to implement her big dreams. She met with schools and educational groups to advocate for the teaching of aeronautics in classrooms. She addressed women’s groups to encourage support, met with leaders of corporations to outline trade opportunities, and raised money in an effort to build an airport in Westchester. Nichols became a well-known figure at the time, flying in her signature purple suede flying suit and redefining possibility for men and women alike.

As her record-setting successes continued, Nichols dreamed of becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic in flight. With her sight on the goal, tragedy hit. In July 1931, Nichols crashed soon after takeoff in Canada while attempting her first transatlantic flight. She was badly injured but optimistic, promising to fly again as soon as she recovered. When she returned home, flown on a stretcher and still in a plaster cast, Nichols told reporters, “They can’t keep me down.” She crashed again in October 1931, parachuting out of a burning plane in Louisville, Kentucky. Despite setbacks, Nichols was courageous and determined.

In 1932, not long after these accidents, Amelia Earhart made the flight across the Atlantic, earning the record that Nichols had dreamed would be hers. The women were friends and colleagues, and with Nichols in Rye and Earhart in Harrison, they flew together and gained momentum from one another. She supported Earhart through her successes and mourned her loss. In 1938, one year after her disappearance, Nichols helped coordinate a memorial service for Earhart at Playland Pier, flying over the crowd to scatter rose petals in her friend’s honor.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, Nichols shifted into different roles in aeronautic advancement. She was influential in organizing charitable drives and relief missions during World War II through the Civil Air Patrol. With the creation of more accessible airports still on her to-do list, Nichols was an early backer of Westchester County Airport. She was an advocate for women and children worldwide, organizing missions for UNICEF and serving as the director of women’s activities for Save the Children.

Throughout her life, Nichols expanded her influence from pioneer flyer to dedicated philanthropist and industry innovator. She continued to set personal goals and break records, including a flight in 1958 in which the Air Force granted her special permission to fly an F-102. During that flight, Nichols became the first woman to surpass 1,000 mph. She was 57 years old.

While publicly, she accomplished her goals and paved a path for others, Nichols faced personal struggles. As she grew older, her many injuries from earlier flights brought her continuous pain and led to severe depression. Nichols died from an overdose of barbiturates in 1960 at 59 years old. She leaves behind a legacy of commitment, achievement and belief in one’s ability. By envisioning a world without limits, Ruth Nichols broke gender barriers and proved that one can reach for the sky.

 

Interested in the sources behind this story? Contact the Rye Historical Society for more information about Ruth Nichols. Contact Rye Historical Society

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