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She was the only female pilot to hold simultaneous world records for speed, altitude and distance.
When Ruth Rowland Nichols stepped into the cockpit of her “Flying Furnace” airplane on 14th February 1931 at 4 p.m., she was wearing a heavy flying suit, lined boots and a purple scarf around her head instead of a helmet. The aviatrix took off and forced her noisy Diesel-powered airplane to a new altitude record of 19,928 ft (6,074 m) when two of her cylinders blew out. At temperatures of minus 15°C (5°F), Nichols had to stay calm and use the oxygen from her tank. Eventually she managed to land her Lockheed Vega safely at Floyd Bennett Field airport near New York. During the feat she relied on a Longines watch, as she did during all her major flights from 1931.
In those days Ruth Nichols was one of the most famous “fly girls”, her courage and daring spirit making her a national icon. She started her career in 1924, becoming the first licensed female seaplane pilot in the USA. Many people wanted to fly in those days, but only a privileged few could do so. In 1928, of the 29 million women living in the USA, fewer than a dozen held pilot’s licenses. Those who did pilot aircrafts were often mocked or disregarded. But Ruth Nichols flew every type of aircraft ever made and was rated in dirigible, glider, autogyro, land- and seaplane, amphibian, mono- and biplanes, twin and four engine aircraft and supersonic jets.
Nichols and her flight instructor became the first to fly non-stop from New York to Miami in 1928. In December 1930, she beat Charles Lindbergh's record time for a cross-country flight, completing the trip in 13 hours, 21 minutes. The following year, Nichols became the first woman to hold the international records for altitude (28,743 ft/8,761 m), speed (210.7 mph / 339 km/h) and long distance (1,977 miles / 3,182 km). At the end of 1932, Ruth Nichols became the first female pilot of a commercial passenger airline, flying for New York and New England Airways. The energetic air woman founded in 1939 Relief Wings, a civilian air service that performed emergency relief flights and assisted the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.
Ruth Nichols became involved in other humanitarian efforts. She organised a mission of support for UNICEF, including piloting a round-the-world tour in 1949. In 1958, Nichols co-piloted a Delta Dagger jet and reached 1,000 mph (1,600 km/h) and an altitude of 51,000 ft (15,545 m), setting new women's speed and altitude records at the age of 57.