Wellesley Celebrates Record-Setting Pilot Ruth Rowland Nichols ’24

August 18, 2017

August 19 is National Aviation Day, a fitting time to celebrate a pioneer of flight, Ruth Rowland Nichols ’24. The New York native loved to fly so much that, while a student at Wellesley, she secretly took flying lessons, and not long after graduating she became the first licensed woman seaplane pilot.

A groundbreaking aviator whose accomplishments included a number of firsts, Nichols just missed being a household name—if her damaged plane hadn’t needed repairs, she might have completed a transatlantic flight even before Amelia Earhart.

In 1928, Nichols and her flight instructor were the first to fly nonstop from New York to Miami. Two years later, she set a transcontinental record, flying from New York to Burbank, Calif., in 16 hours, 59 minutes, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. On her return flight, she flew even faster: 13 hours, 22 minutes.

Later, Nichols tested her plane at high altitude. Wearing insulated clothing, she climbed into the cockpit and flew over New York until the altimeter read 30,000 feet. Then, she turned into a dive toward the earth. She made a safe landing, setting a record for the highest altitude flown by a woman at 28,743 feet. In 1931, she held three international flight records for women, for altitude, speed, and long distance.

At one point during this stretch of her flying career, Nichols’ plane crashed. She crawled out of the wreckage with five broken vertebrae.

In a later incident, her plane caught fire during a landing. She was not injured, but the plane was badly damaged. While Nichols was waiting for it to be repaired, Amelia Earhart made her historic transatlantic flight.

A Quaker, Nichols founded a disaster relief air service in 1940 that became part of the Civil Air Patrol program during World War II. She became the first female director of a major aviation company, the Fairchild Airplane Manufacturing Corporation.

Read more about Ruth Rowland Nichols on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website.