Ruth Rowland Nichols was the only female pilot to hold records for speed, altitude, and distance. She was born on this day in 1901. Ruth’s father worked the stock exchange after he served as one of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. As a graduation gift to his daughter, he bought her an airplane ride with a widely admired ace World War I pilot. She was so moved by the experience, Ruth decided she wanted to be a pilot; the only problem was that she was already on her way to medical school.
While she studied medicine Ruth covertly took flying lessons; not long after graduating, along with her degree in medicine, she walked away with a pilot’s license as well. Her secret was made public when in 1928, she co-piloted with her flying instructor on the first ever nonstop flight from New York to Miami. As word spread through socialite circles about Ruth’s unusual path in life, she became known as the “Flying debutante.”
In 1929 Ruth, and another female pilot (by the name of Amalia Earhart), founded the Ninety-Nines. The organization supported woman pilots by helping them gain access to professional opportunities related to flying. By the early 1930’s Ruth landed a job working for a variety of aviation companies, it was during this time her flying talent began to emerge and really take shape. She raced a male pilot on a cross-country flight — and won. In the spring of 1931, she set flying records in altitude and speed. While spring was fruitful, in summer, Ruth’s flying came to an abrupt stop. She was about to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean when her plane crashed. Ruth was badly injured. But by October she not only recovered she set yet another record. This time it was in distance after she successfully flew from Oakland, California to Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1932, Ruth became the first woman to pilot a commercial passenger plane. That same year, she set another record in altitude. Her sky inspired adventures once again came to an abrupt halt when she was involved another airplane crash. This time, she was on a private flight that crashed during takeoff. Ruth was badly injured. The pilot did not survive. The incident left her unable to fly for one and a half years.
By the time Ruth returned to flying her focus shifted toward humanitarian causes. Over time, they grew in number and began to fill her life for years to come. In 1959, she worked with NASA’s Mercury program by undergoing physical tests that would later serve as evidence supporting that woman should be seriously considered as candidates for astronomical space programs.
The end of Ruth’s life hinges on a tragic plateau: the extraordinary, ground-breaking, record-setting pilot suffered from depression. Ruth died from an overdose of pills on the 25th of September 1960, in New York City, where she was born.