History Hour: Ruth Nichols world speed record on Lockheed Vega
This article was written by Brian. R. Swopes and first published on This Day in Aviation.
On April 13, 1931, Ruth Rowland Nichols set a World Air Sports Federation – Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) – World Speed Record of 210.64 mph (338.99 kph) over a 1.9 mile (3 kilometers) course at Carlton, Minnesota (U.S.).
Nichols airplane was a 1928 Lockheed Model 5 Vega Special, serial number 619, registered NR496M, and owned by Powell Crosley, Jr., who had named the airplane “The New Cincinnati”.
Built by Lockheed, the Vega was a single-engine high-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. It was flown by a single pilot in an open cockpit and could be configured to carry four to six passengers.
Ruth Nichols with the Lockheed Vega. Her records are painted on the engine cowling. (FAI)
The Lockheed Vega was a state-of-the-art aircraft for its time. The prototype flew for the first time on July 4, 1927, at Mines Field, Los Angeles, California. It used a streamlined monocoque fuselage made of molded plywood.
The wing and tail surfaces were fully cantilevered, requiring no bracing wires or struts to support them. The fuselage was molded laminated plywood monocoque construction and the wing was cantilevered wood.
The Model 5 Vega was 27 feet, 6 inches (8.382 meters) long with a wingspan of 41 feet (12.497 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 2 inches (2.489 meters). Its empty weight was 2,595 pounds (1,177 kilograms), gross weight – 4,500 pounds (2,041 kilograms).
Nichols airplane was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged 1,343.804-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp C nine-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 5.25:1. It was rated at 420 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level, burning 58-octane gasoline.
The engine drove a two-bladed controllable-pitch Hamilton Standard propeller through direct drive. The Wasp C was 3 feet, 6.63 inches (1.083 meters) long, 4 feet, 3.44 inches (1.3-7 meters) in diameter and weighed 745 pounds (338 kilograms).
“Ruth Nichols was the only woman to hold simultaneously the women’s world speed, altitude, and distance records for heavy landplanes,” according to Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Women In Aviation and Space History, The Golden Age of Flight.
Ruth Nichols’ records are painted on the engine cowling of her Lockheed Vega. (FAI)
Nichols soloed in a flying boat and received her pilot’s license after graduating from Wellesley College in 1924, becoming the first woman in New York to do so. In January 1928 she flew nonstop from New York City to Miami with Harry Rogers in a Fairchild FC-2.
The publicity stunt brought Nichols fame as “The Flying Debutante” and provided headlines for Rogers’ airline too. Sherman Fairchild took note and hired Nichols as a northeast sales manager for Fairchild Aircraft and Engine Corporation.
Nichols helped in the founding of the Long Island Aviation Country Club, an exclusive flying club and participated in the 12,000-mile (19,312-meter) Sportsman Air Tour to promote the establishment of clubs around the country. She was also a founder of Sportsman Pilot magazine.
Nichols set several women’s records in 1931, among them a speed record of 210.704 mph (339.0952 kph), an altitude record of 28,743 feet (8,760 meters), and a nonstop distance record of 1,977.6 miles (3182.638 kilometers).
Her hopes to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean were dashed by two crashes of a Lockheed Vega in 1931, in which she was severely injured, and again in 1932.
In 1940, Nichols founded Relief Wings, a humanitarian air service for disaster relief that quickly became an adjunct relief service of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) during World War II. Nichols became a lieutenant colonel in the CAP.
After the war she organized a mission in support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and became an advisor to the CAP on air ambulance missions. In 1958, she flew a Delta Dagger at 1,000 mph (1,609 kph) at an altitude of 51,000 feet (15,544 meters).
A Hamilton variable pitch propeller (which allowed a pilot to select a climb or cruise position for the blades), from her Lockheed Vega is displayed in the Golden Age of Flight gallery at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
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