The Daredevil Fly Girl Who Challenged Amelia Earhart
Ruth Nichols was one of several fearless female pilots who shattered flying records in the early days of aviation. But the real test was a trans-Atlantic flight.
Ruth Nichols saw her chance—her chance to make history. It was late 1930 and her rivals were distracted. Record-setting pilot Louise Thaden had recently given birth in Pittsburgh to her first child, a son. Thaden would soon be taking the baby to the airfield with her, showing him the airplanes. But Thaden wasn’t making any daring flights anytime soon. And neither was Nichols’s other rival: Amelia Earhart. In late 1930, Earhart was busy denying rumors that she was getting married to New York publisher George Putnam—then she was actually marrying him in a private ceremony in Connecticut a few months later. Yes, this was her chance, Nichols believed. Her chance to shock Thaden, Earhart—and the world. Nichols was going to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic—not flown by men, as Earhart was in 1928. Nichols didn’t want to be a passenger. She wanted to be the first female flier to cross the ocean in full control of her own plane.
The native New Yorker, born in Manhattan and raised in Westchester County, had been thinking about it for at least four years, mulling it over in her usual Nichols fashion—careful and meticulous and, for a long time, patient.
“OBJECT,” she wrote, typing out her plans. “To show that a trans-Atlantic or Around-the-World Flight can be made commercially safe.
“TIME: To be stated as soon as the equipment can be purchased.
“CREW: Miss Nichols, as organizer and pilot of the ship.”
It was, for Nichols, about proving a point. Not money, exactly. But in order to make a case for the flight to investors, Nichols calculated the financial windfall that could be reaped by getting a woman—her—over the ocean. Book deal: $7,500. Endorsement deals: $10,000. Newspaper and magazine contracts: $15,000. Lecture tour: $23,000. And, of course, a motion-picture contract worth, Nichols estimated, $100,000. The gross total exceeded $160,000, Nichols said, more than double the cost of the proposed flight, making it, seemingly, a lucrative endeavor.
Investors, at first, weren’t listening. With the stock market crash of 1929, and the deepening Depression throughout 1930, businessmen were looking to save money, not spend it on female pilots, historic flights, and airplanes. But in Cincinnati, radio magnate Powel Crosley Jr. couldn’t stop himself. He wanted a plane, and a fast one—a Lockheed. He purchased it that summer for fifteen thousand dollars and then paid an additional ten thousand dollars for modifications. The plane, dubbed the New Cincinnati, would help make the Crosley name famous, he figured—or, to be accurate, more famous. In 1930, Crosley’s radio station, WLW, was one of the nation’s largest broadcasters, with a signal covering almost twice the size of Texas. Listeners almost everywhere east of the Mississippi River tuned in to WLW for the Crosley Homemakers’ Hour, Crosley Saturday Knights, and, at times, Crosley himself. He was forty-four, tall and lanky, and proud of his new plane, which was bright red, could seat seven, and was able to reach Indianapolis in a swift forty-three minutes. Nichols just had to speak with him about it, pressing her case in a chance meeting on the ground in Cincinnati in October 1930.
She was in the market for a Lockheed, believing she could use it to break Earhart’s speed record—and perhaps cross the ocean—if only someone would trust her with such a machine. “Have had eight years flying experience,” she said, ticking off her bona fides to potential backers. “Last year solo toured in 46 states without a scratch . . . Would very much like to pick up your ship on my way east.”
Crosley, sensing the potential of his name next to hers, their names in the papers, agreed to let her borrow his plane. After years of waiting and watching—passed by, overlooked, and underestimated—Nichols, about to celebrate her thirtieth birthday, finally had a plane capable of setting records like Earhart and Thaden. On November 19, 1930, one week before Thanksgiving, she climbed into Crosley’s plane, left Cincinnati, and headed home to New York. The Lockheed’s engine was so powerful that Nichols felt like it might jump right out of the nose of the plane, and the modern instrument panel before her was unfamiliar and complicated. But it was a clear day, and Nichols felt good—at least until she ran into the wall of fog five thousand feet high across the Pennsylvania state line, in the Allegheny Mountains. Unable to navigate below it and unwilling to turn around or go through it for fear of plowing into a hidden mountain, Nichols had only one option: a forced landing—in Crosley’s brand-new plane. She came down in a rocky field, plunged the plane through a wire fence, and drove the propeller into the hard ground, where it came to a stop. Nichols was alive and uninjured but, as she saw it, an idiot. “What would Powel Crosley think of me?” she wondered as she walked away from the busted plane in search of help or a telephone.
She at least didn’t have to go far. Nichols had landed in the tiny settlement of Manns Choice, Pennsylvania—a name so ironic that reporters writing about Nichols’s crackup couldn’t resist a dig. They called it Man’s Choice. Nichols found a general store, walked to the old-fashioned crank telephone on the wall, and called the only person she knew within a hundred miles of the godforsaken place: Louise Thaden, at home in Pittsburgh with her baby son, Bill.
“Where are you?” Thaden asked. “I’ll come and get you.”
Nichols tried to talk her out of it, but Thaden wouldn’t listen. She put Nichols up for the night at her home in Pittsburgh, drove her back to Manns Choice a day later, and stayed with her there overnight until her plane was fixed. By that Saturday, three days after the forced landing, hundreds of people from neighboring Appalachian communities were there to catch a glimpse of the women pilots and the plane. It was as if a red spaceship had landed in the rocky field—a spaceship that the forgiving Crosley was allowing Nichols to keep flying. She got off the ground that morning with a wide-eyed crowd and a nervous Thaden looking on. Then, with the forced landing behind her, Nichols was soon flying into the headlines of American newspapers from coast to coast.
In early December 1930, less than two weeks after the circus in Manns Choice, Nichols set a transcontinental speed record, flying from New York to Los Angeles with four overnight stops but a total elapsed flying time of just sixteen hours and fifty-nine and a half minutes—almost nine hours faster than any other woman had previously flown and the second-fastest east-to-west cross-country trip ever completed. Unsatisfied, Nichols turned around, flew back east, and set another record going in that direction—thirteen hours and twenty-two minutes, almost an hour and a half shorter than Lindbergh’s fastest transcontinental trip. Crosley was thrilled—and Nichols wasn’t finished. A few months later, in March 1931, she climbed back into the red Lockheed on the ground in New Jersey, wearing a green skirt, four sweaters, a plaid scarf, a fur-lined flying suit made of reindeer skin, and tall reindeer boots to match. “The total effect,” one witness noted, “was that of a well-padded Eskimo.” Not exactly a flattering look. But Nichols didn’t care. Weathering temperatures of minus-forty degrees and hundred-mile-an-hour winds that blew her out to sea, Nichols flew nearly six miles into the sky, 28,743 feet—yet another female record. A month later, in Detroit, she claimed one more record: speed. Nichols flew at a sustained two hundred and ten miles an hour, almost thirty miles an hour faster than the record Earhart had recently set in Los Angeles. In the span of just five months, she had proven herself to be arguably the fastest, bravest, and strongest female flier in America, with the best plane—and suddenly people knew it, sending letters to Rye, N.Y., to tell Nichols as much.
From the Crosley Radio Corporation: “What a gal—what a plane—what a record! Congratulations.” From George Putnam’s ex-wife, Dorothy, keenly following the women in the sky: “Hurray . . . You are doing marvelous things. Keep it up.” Old friends got in touch with her. New friends heaped praise on her. A gracious Earhart sent Nichols roses, and total strangers sent questions about everything, including the color of the sky when seen from so high in the heavens. Was it dark blue? Indigo, ultramarine, or cobalt? Or was it lighter? Pale blue or perhaps green? By April, after shattering Earhart’s speed record in Detroit, Nichols struggled to respond to them all. But she took great care in replying personally to one particular demographic: young girls.
June Thames, age eleven, in Brewton, Alabama, whose father had died when she was two and who wore her light brown hair short, wanted Nichols to know everything about her. “My best sports are football, baseball, basketball, tennis and golf.” Frances Gunn, age thirteen, in Sanford, North Carolina, told Nichols she hoped to grow up to be just like her. “Many people think I’m a boy,” she wrote, “but I’m a girl—a tomboy.” Nellie Boich, age twelve, in Bisbee, Arizona, wrote Nichols to let her know she needed help. “Please write and tell me you will be my friend . . . P.S.: Don’t forget to write.”
Nichols didn’t forget. She sent them autographs and advice. She was especially worried about young Nellie in Arizona. “If you are in any sort of trouble,” Nichols told her, “I would suggest that you get in touch with a minister or a priest in your own town, as I am afraid I am too far away to be of any help.”
Farther away than anyone even knew. In the spring of 1931, Crosley agreed to let Nichols fly his plane in one more feat, one more challenge—the test that Nichols cherished most. She was going solo across the Atlantic.
Full secrecy, Nichols thought, was the key to transatlantic success.
“I want to keep the matter entirely confidential,” she told a close friend that spring. If news of her plans leaked, other women might try to beat her to Paris. “So, please,” she urged the people closest to her, “not a word of it.” Nichols wasn’t even telling her family about her plans for now, and she wasn’t opposed to enforcing other measures to keep her plans under wraps. “As a matter of fact,” she told one friend, “it might be well for you to destroy this letter.”
There was much work to do, starting with fundraising. Flying Crosley’s red Lockheed cost Nichols about a thousand dollars a month in gas, oil, mechanics’ fees, and insurance. Getting to Europe was going to cost twenty times that—or more. Nichols needed cash, and in March, shortly after setting the altitude record, she began raising it, starting with people she knew: moneyed New Yorkers, fellow pilots, and the same air-minded benefactors who had helped make Earhart famous in 1928 when they arranged to have two men fly her across the ocean on board a plane called the Friendship.
“It’s been a long time since Friendship days,” Nichols wrote to one investor, “but I still feel you must have a corner in your heart for aviation. If so, would you be willing to loan me $10,000 to attain my life-long dream? You know well, for how many years, I have wanted to make an Atlantic hop, and now it really seems as though the door were to be opened.”
She had the Lockheed retrofitted for a supercharged 650-horsepower engine that would give her a cruising speed of two hundred miles an hour. She had the support of prominent male fliers, including her old instructor Harry Rogers; the winner of the doomed 1927 Dole Air Race to Hawaii, Arthur Goebel; and, most important, the second man to ever fly the Atlantic, Clarence Chamberlin, who was personally helping Nichols prepare in New Jersey. “All feel I am capable of making a flight from Newfoundland to Ireland or France,” Nichols said, “if the winds are favorable.” Nichols, flush with recent success, was sure they would be. “There is no possibility of failure,” she told potential investors, “except the usual law of Fate, which we meet every day of our lives.”
It was a difficult time to be asking for money—with the nation was in the grip of an unemployment panic, millions of Americans out of work, and the Great Depression taking hold. It was a testament to Nichols and her skills as a pilot that, despite these realities, money began rolling in: $5,000 from Paramount Pictures; $5,000 from Columbia Broadcasting; $3,000 from her brother; $1,600 from one of Ruth Elder’s former sponsors; and $1,000 from Crosley. Including the personal loan she secured at the bank for $4,500, Nichols had soon amassed enough cash to make the trip possible. But in order to pay off the loans—from the bank and from her friends and family—Nichols needed to make money too. To do this, she needed someone who knew how to organize the business end of such a flight, someone who had helped put a woman over the ocean before. And so, she turned to the man who had discovered Amelia Earhart. Nichols called east coast businessman Hilton Railey.
“Early in May,” Nichols told Railey, “I am determined to attempt a flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Europe, with Paris as my actual objective.” She wasn’t seeking his advice. “My decision to make this flight is absolutely definite.” She just wanted to hire him.
Railey didn’t want the job. In multiple meetings at his office on West 45th Street in Manhattan, he resisted Nichols’s proposal for all the usual reasons: It was too dangerous. She probably wouldn’t make it. Railey didn’t want her blood on his hands—the blood of another female pilot sacrificed to the god of the sea. Nichols was infuriated, almost offended, by his explanations. Finally, pacing in Railey’s office one day that spring, she snapped.
“All right,” Nichols said. “Don’t help me.”
She understood what was happening here. “If I were a man, you’d help me,” Nichols said. “But because I’m a girl, you turn me down. You’re, you’re”—she was stuttering now, trying to find the right insult for Railey—“you’re mid-Victorian,” she said.
As insults went, it was flimsy, and Nichols knew it. But it was out there now, and she let it sink in, staring down Railey. In the end, she told him, it didn’t really matter what he thought or said. “I’ll sell my car,” she told him, “and everything I’ve got to make this flight possible.” She was going across the ocean. “Whether you help me or not, I’m going to make this flight.”
Railey, admiring her persistence, couldn’t refuse her now. To protect himself in case of calamity, he put his objections in writing, and Nichols acknowledged receipt. If something were to happen to her, the world would know that it wasn’t Railey’s fault. It wasn’t a man pushing a woman onto a plane for a story. It was the woman’s idea, Nichols’s. But he’d take the job—for $13,500. “Since I have not been able to dissuade you from the attempt,” Railey told her, “I very earnestly want to help you.”
He estimated that she stood to make $215,000 from the flight—a life-changing amount of money, given the jobless masses huddled in the streets outside and the dwindling Nichols’s family fortunes, hard hit by the worsening Depression. Within just two weeks, Railey was making good on his promises. He secured her a book deal, two magazine contracts, and an endorsement from a milk company. Just as important, Railey was gathering intelligence on other female aviators who might be considering a solo transatlantic flight that spring and passing it along to Nichols. Most notably, Railey knew exactly what was happening with Earhart: She was going nowhere. “Definitely not to be considered,” Railey said. Nichols’s biggest problem with Earhart, Railey believed, was going to be Earhart’s pride. By the end of April, Nichols’s proposed flight was probably the worst-kept secret in New York. Earhart had learned of it and was understandably disappointed that it was Nichols, not her, making the first female solo flight across the ocean. But Railey didn’t want Nichols to worry about it. “I do not think that Earhart is anything but disappointed in a mild way,” he told her. “The best thing to do about this matter is to regard it as a closed issue.”
They had a bigger problem on their hands: the newspaper reporters. With the rumors out there, the press began running stories about Ruth Nichols’s alleged plans. And once the stories hit the papers, fans began writing Nichols to make bold requests. “If you consider taking anyone on your proposed flight,” a woman in Illinois wrote to her in late April, “would you PLEASE take me?” At least a half a dozen other people, all strangers, made the same request. Others sent her personal items—crucifixes, rabbit’s feet, and Saint Christopher medals—hoping they would ward off evil winds. One person even offered to send a Boston terrier for her to take to Paris as a mascot. “I have a hunch,” the breeder said, “that he will bring you good luck.”
Nichols turned them all down, even mailing back the medals and charms. She was trying to focus on the flight itself. Nichols met regularly with transatlantic flier Clarence Chamberlin, who was directing the overhaul of Crosley’s plane in New Jersey. She took notes on blind navigation, ran calculations figuring speed and time, and made a list of everything she needed to bring with her.
She had maps of every state in New England, plus Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Ireland. She had charts of the stars, the ocean, the moon, and British lighthouses. She knew which way the steamers were going, what they looked like, and what she would eat when she was hungry. She was packing three Thermoses of coffee and soup, plus an emergency knapsack that held six chocolate bars, six packs of gum, two cans of food rations, two fishing lines and hooks, one Bible, one magazine, and one pistol, and twelve bullets. Not that she was going to need it. Nichols was packing for Paris too. Amid the tools, equipment, and atlases, she stashed away four hats, four dresses, three pairs of shoes, two different styles of bedroom slippers, and one special item: “Evening in Paris perfume.” She made a neat little checkmark next to it on her master list and prepared to leave any day.
“I’ll see you on the other side!” she told Railey.
Railey sailed to Europe by steamship on the last day of April. He wanted to be there to greet Nichols when she arrived in France and organize a welcome of Earhart-ian proportions. Once in Paris, he checked in to a hotel near the Louvre and went to work, securing permissions for Nichols to land, making plans for her to visit the House of Commons in London, managing the press buildup in Paris, and supervising the Paramount camera crew that would film her triumphant arrival. By May 22, everything was in place. “Please advise Miss Nichols,” Railey wired his New York office in a coded message, “that we are all set at London and Paris.” Then, in his hotel near the banks of the Seine, he waited—and waited.
Back home, the Crosley plane was ready and more beautiful than ever. Nichols hadn’t just overhauled the engine and removed the passenger seats to prepare for the flight; she had redecorated. The Lockheed was no longer red, like the Cincinnati baseball team that Powel Crosley would soon purchase, but white with golden wings, and it had a new name dreamed up by Nichols painted across the nose: Akita. It was a Dakota Indian word, Nichols explained, that meant “to search, discover or explore.” For the moment, however, she was doing none of the above. She was slowed by all the usual delays—test flights, plane-weight problems, bad weather, and then, on June 18, landing-gear failures—which pushed her back for a few more days, maybe a week.
Across the ocean, Railey was growing impatient and, to be blunt, going broke. He had never intended to spend six weeks just sitting in Paris. “The days into weeks,” he said, “the weeks into months.” He wasn’t upset just for his own sake; the lost time was hurting the operation too. Despite his early successes in whipping up excitement for Nichols’s flight—the book deal and the endorsements—Railey was forced to admit that with all the delays, prospects weren’t looking as great as he had hoped. “In New York,” he griped, “one reverse has followed another—cancelled contracts, frozen collections, the utter failure of new business to materialize.” Nichols needed to get to Paris and soon, as far as Railey was concerned. At the same time, others around her tried to talk her out of making the flight at all.
The U.S. Weather Bureau was opposed to her flight, in part because Nichols was a woman. “It looks to us,” one top meteorologist said, “like personal or sex competition.” Nichols’ brother, a navy pilot, was worried too, asking her to take more time to prepare. “Might mean your success,” he told her, “even though a slight delay.” Even fellow female pilots begged Nichols not to fly across the ocean.
“I guess the reason we don’t want you to try is that we know there is no in between,” pilot Mildred Morgan told Nichols while Nichols waited out the delays that spring at a new airfield in Brooklyn. “You will either make it, or you won’t. And what in the world is there, anyway, that is worth taking that chance for?”
But Morgan knew there was no stopping Nichols.
“Go to it, if you feel that you must,” she said. “But remember that if you do, and when you do, every girl flier in the country will be praying for you every minute of the way. None of us will sleep a wink until we know that you are safe across—and the most famous woman in the world.”
On the morning of June 22, Nichols awoke in her room at the Commodore Hotel near the beach in Rockaway, Queens. As soon as she got word that the Akita was ready, its landing gear fixed, she reported to hangar no. 6 at the airport in Brooklyn, arriving just after midday. It was hot and cloudy. The city was in the throes of a heat wave, with sidewalks buckling in Manhattan and massive crowds flocking to the beach at Coney Island a few miles to the east. But the weather was clear up the coast all the way to Saint John, New Brunswick, where Nichols planned to spend the night. There was no point in another test flight.
“It is time,” Nichols said, “that I got going.”
For the long flight across the ocean, Nichols planned to wear a lavender flying suit—a splashy getup, both functional and fashionable. But for the short hop to New Brunswick, she put on a knit sport outfit and, casual and calm, walked toward the gold-winged Akita as if she were going on a Sunday drive in the Hamptons. Her mother handed her a bouquet of flowers picked from the family garden. Nichols climbed into the cockpit, tested the engine, opened the throttle wide, and then, after pronouncing the motor good, waited while a team of mechanics and bystanders pushed the plane to the north end of the runway.
In her preparations for the flight, Nichols, rediscovering her Quaker roots, had scrawled Bible passages in a personal notebook. Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” John, chapter 14: “If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it.” And Psalm 121: “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.” Now, with no time left for prayers, Nichols hit the throttle; the propeller spun up, and the Akita started to roll—fifteen seconds down the runway, gaining speed, then up into the sky over New York. Nichols briefly flew south over the water before making a steady 180-degree turn and pointing the Akita north. She was on her way, flanked by a squadron of U.S. Navy Helldivers that were accompanying her in a grand show at least as far as Connecticut.
The flight up the coast was uneventful, as easy as Nichols thought it would be, and by sundown she spied the tiny airfield in New Brunswick where she planned to stop for the night. It didn’t look good. Instead of an expansive field, wide and open, it was more like a small bowl—“a veritable trap,” she thought—dropped into a valley in the middle of the hilly Canadian woods. Believing she must be mistaken, that this couldn’t be New Brunswick, she circled the airfield twice, checking her maps. But no, this was it. Despite years, months, and weeks to plan, she and her team of consultants had failed to properly investigate the very first stop on the journey, this trap of a runway in the woods. Now it was too late. With the sun in her eyes, photographers waiting on the ground, and darkness coming soon, Nichols decided to land.
She came in fast, at eighty miles an hour, half blinded by the sun. Unable to get a clear view of the runway below, Nichols missed her mark, touching down not at the start of the runway, but in the middle. Realizing now that she wouldn’t have enough time to stop the plane before it barreled into the craggy rocks at the runway’s edge, Nichols hit the throttle, trying to take off again. And for a moment, it looked like she would succeed. With the Akita’s engine shrieking and its tires squealing, Nichols lifted the plane off the runway just before the landing strip came to an end. She was in the air again, but only a few feet up, and still so low that the plane’s propeller skimmed the ground, mowing a path through the brush. There was not enough time. There was not enough space. The Akita was heading for a rocky ledge, and Nichols braced herself for the inevitable: a crash.
The rocks ripped away the wooden undercarriage of the plane, shattering it like a matchbox. The engine broke apart, the cockpit splintered, and the Akita stopped dead in the waist-high bushes, jerking Nichols’s body forward with such force that she felt as if the plane’s tail were on top of her. People on the ground waited for an explosion; Nichols did too.
Get out, she told herself. Get out.
Wincing in pain, she climbed through the jagged wreckage and fell to the ground—free, apparently safe, and suddenly aware she was not alone.
A photographer was already upon her, snapping pictures. Then a half a dozen other men with pickaxes and fire extinguishers arrived. But they found no one to save, no fire to put out, no explosion coming. Just an injured pilot standing there with a request for her would-be rescuers.
“Wire,” she said, “for another plane.”
It was, for Nichols, wishful thinking, spoken in a flood of adrenaline. There was no other plane, no other chance, and no way she was going anywhere anytime soon. In the crash, she had broken at least two vertebrae in her back. Doctors at a local hospital in New Brunswick said she could expect to spend the next six to eight weeks in a plaster cast in bed. As terrible as that sounded, it was better, at least, than the alternatives. Nichols was fortunate not to be paralyzed—or worse. “How did she ever come out of it alive?” Nichols’s consultant Clarence Chamberlin asked when he finally got a chance to survey the airfield and her busted plane on the edge of it. Even under the best conditions, Chamberlin figured, it would be hard for any pilot to land a fast plane at that little field in the bowl. The sunlight at that time of day had made it even more difficult for Nichols, ending her transatlantic dream before it even started. “It looks as though it’s all off now,” Chamberlin said.
He had the Akita dismantled, piece and piece, and shipped by steamship to Detroit, where maybe, with insurance money, Nichols could pay to have it rebuilt. But gone was the book deal. Gone were the magazine contracts. Gone were the endorsements, the lecture tours, the motion-picture plans, and promises of big money—$215,000. At this point, Nichols would be lucky just to pay off her loans.
In the crash, she’d lost everything.
Author’s note: Ruth Nichols was never a quitter—and she wouldn’t quit now, either. In the months ahead, Nichols would return to the sky intent on getting across the ocean—and intent on getting there before Amelia Earhart. Learn more about Nichols’s story—and an ensemble cast of other female aviators—in Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History.
Excerpted from FLY GIRLS: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien. Copyright © 2018 by Keith O’Brien. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.