SP Guide Publications puts forth a well compiled articulation of issues, pursuits and accomplishments of the Indian Army, over the years

— General Manoj Pande, Indian Army Chief

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My compliments to SP Guide Publications for informative and credible reportage on contemporary aerospace issues over the past six decades.

— Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, Indian Air Force Chief

Ruth Nichols (1901 - 1960)

In 1939, Nichols found a way to combine her love for flying with her humanitarian instincts by forming Relief Wings – a private airborne ambulance corps that could be deployed during war

Issue: 11-2021By Joseph Noronha

Ruth Nichols was an American aviation pioneer and holder of more than 35 women’s aviation records. She is the only woman ever to hold simultaneous world records in flying for speed, altitude and distance. Nichols flew every type of aircraft, including dirigibles, gliders, autogyros, seaplanes, biplanes, triplanes, transport aircraft and even a supersonic jet. During a 12,000-mile tour across the United States (US) to promote aviation country clubs, she became the first female pilot to land in all 48 contiguous US states. In 1929, together with Amelia Earhart and others, she co-founded the Ninety Nines, an international organisation of women pilots.

Ruth Rowland Nichols was born on February 23, 1901, in New York City. To mark her graduation from high school in 1919, her father arranged for a special treat – a plane ride. Although she was terrified when the pilot suddenly did a loop, she developed a lifelong love for flying. While in college, she secretly took flying lessons and earned her pilot’s licence after graduating. She became the first woman in the world to gain a seaplane licence and only the second in America to be awarded a Department of Commerce transport licence.

Ruth first became famous in January 1928 as co-pilot for Harry Rogers on the first non-stop flight from New York to Miami, Florida. Due to her socialite status and aristocratic family background, Nichols became known in the press as the “Flying Debutante”, a name she detested. In 1929, she was one of the competitors in the Women’s Air Derby (also known as the “Powder Puff Derby”), the first official womenonly air race in the US. The 20 women took off from Santa Monica, California on August 18 for Cleveland, Ohio. However, Ruth crashed and had to drop out of the contest. In 1930, she was loaned a Lockheed Vega by the millionaire industrialist Powel Crosley. She used it to break several records in quick succession.

In December 1930, Ruth Nichols beat Charles Lindbergh’s record for a transcontinental flight, completing the trip in 13 hours, 21 minutes. In March 1931, she set a women’s world altitude record of 28,743 feet. Wearing long underwear, four sweaters, a leather flying suit, fur-lined boots, helmet and heavy mittens, she accomplished the flight in the freezing, unpressurised plane. To survive in the thin atmosphere, she breathed oxygen from a tank under her seat through a tube clasped between her teeth. In April 1931, she set a women’s world speed record of 210.7 miles per hour.

In June 1931, Ruth attempted to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. After months of planning and preparation, she took off from New York in the Lockheed Vega for a refuelling halt at New Brunswick, Canada. But when she reached overhead, she found to her horror that it was a rudimentary airstrip, totally unsuitable for the Vega. With night drawing on she had no choice but to attempt a landing. Blinded by the setting sun she made an overshooting approach and crashed. She was severely injured with five broken vertebrae, a dislocated knee and serious internal injuries. The aircraft was a wreck. She was confined to a hospital bed for two months with her lower body in a plaster cast.

Just four months later, only partly recovered, Ruth resumed flying in the rebuilt Vega using a steel corset to support her painful back. In October 1931, she set a women’s distance record of 1,977 miles on a flight from Oakland, California to Louisville, Kentucky. The very next day, tragedy struck again as she was getting ready to fly to New York. A faulty valve in the Vega started leaking fuel and it exploded in flames. Thankfully no one was hurt. However, In October 1935, a private plane Nichols was flying in, crashed shortly after take-off, killing the pilot. The accident threw Nichols from the plane, critically injuring her. She was unable to fly for nearly a year afterwards. It is proof of her indomitable spirit that she flew at all.

In 1939, Nichols found a way to combine her love for flying with her humanitarian instincts by forming Relief Wings – a private airborne ambulance corps that could be deployed during war. After the war, she organised a mission of support for UNICEF, including piloting a round-the-world tour in 1949. In 1958, at age 57, she co-piloted a TF-102A Delta Dagger and reached 1,000 miles per hour and an altitude of 51,000 feet, setting new women’s speed and altitude records.

This was her final feat. Afflicted by severe depression, she died of an overdose of barbiturates at her home on September 25, 1960. 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.”