This astonishing home movie shows two of the leading women aviators (or aviatrixes) of the 1920s and 30s: Ruth Elder and Ruth Nichols. While names like Amelia Earhart and even Florence “Pancho” Barnes are heard more commonly today, back in the era before WWII there were a number of women pilots who gained notoriety.
Ruth Rowland Nichols, who appears first in this film, (February 23, 1901 — September 25, 1960) was an aviation pioneer. She was the only woman yet to hold simultaneous world records for speed, altitude, and distance for a female pilot. In 1929, she was a founding member, with Amelia Earhart and others, of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of licensed women pilots. In 1930, she beat Charles Lindbergh’s record time for a cross-country flight, completing the trip in 13 hours, 21 minutes. In March, 1931, she set the women’s world altitude record of 28,743 feet (8760.9 m). In April, 1931, she set the women’s world speed record of 210.7 miles per hour (339.1 km/h). In June, 1931, she attempted to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, but crashed in New Brunswick and was severely injured. Following her recovery, in October, 1931, she set the women’s distance record with a flight from Oakland, California to Louisville, Kentucky, 1,977 miles (3182 km).
On 14 February 1932, Nichols set a new world altitude record of 19,928 feet for diesel-powered aircraft at Floyd Bennett Field, NY while flying in a Lockheed Vega. On 29 December, Nichols became the first woman pilot of a commercial passenger airline, flying for New York and New England Airways.
On 21 October 1935, Nichols was critically injured in a crash during a private flight in Troy, New York. The flight was to be an airborne wedding for two couples over New York City, but the plane, a Curtiss Condor, registration NC725K, crashed shortly after takeoff, killing the pilot. Nichols received a broken left wrist, ankle and nose, contusions, burns and “possible internal injuries”, according to newspaper accounts of the crash. ]She was unable to fly for nearly a year after. When she returned to flying, Nichols went to work for the Emergency Peace Campaign, a Quaker organization that sought to promote peaceful resolution to international conflicts then brewing. In 1939, she headed Relief Wings, a civilian air service that performed emergency relief flights and assisted the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. Nichols would eventually attain the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Civil Air Patrol.
Following the war, Nichols became involved in other humanitarian efforts, using her celebrity to bring attention to causes and to raise funds. She organised a mission of support for UNICEF, including piloting a round-the-world tour in 1949. In the 1950s, she served as director of women’s activities for Save the Children, director of the women’s division of the United Hospital Fund, and field director for the National Nephrosis Foundation.
In 1958, after lobbying the United States Air Force for permission, she co-piloted a TF-102A Delta Dagger and reached 1,000 miles per hour (1600 km/h) and an altitude of 51,000 feet (15 545 m), setting new women’s speed and altitude records at age fifty-seven.
Ruth Elder (1902-1977), who appears in the film at Perth Amboy, New Jersey for inauguration of air mail postal service, was a pilot and actress. She carried private pilot certificate P675, and was known as the “Miss America of Aviation.” She was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines.
In 1927 she took off from New York in the airplane American Girl, with her co-pilot, George Haldeman, in an attempt to become the first woman to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic crossing to Paris. Mechanical problems caused them to ditch the plane 360 miles from land, but they established a new over-water endurance flight record of 2,623 miles. It was also at the time the longest flight ever made by a woman. She and George were honored with a ticker-tape parade upon their return.
In 1929 she entered the first Women’s Air Derby, flying in her Swallow, NC8730, and placed fifth.
She starred in Moran of the Marines (1928) and Glorifying the American Girl (1929). She married six times, lastly to Ralph King, to whom she was married for 21 years and who outlived her. She had suffered emphysema for several years before she died.
In 2013 a children’s book was published about her, written by Julie Cummins and illustrated by Malene R. Laugesen, titled, Flying Solo: How Ruth Elder Soared into America’s Heart.