Can you name a famous female pilot?
The first one to come to mind probably is the great Amelia Earhart, the first woman (and second person after Charles Lindberg) to fly solo across the Atlantic, and who mysteriously disappeared on a flight across the Pacific Ocean in 1939.
Can you name another one? You might come up with Eileen Collins, who in 1995 became the first female to command a space shuttle. Any others? You could guess Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space, but you would be wrong. She wasn’t a pilot, but instead an astrophysicist who went along for research.
Today, I would like to pay tribute to a lesser-known lady pilot — and a great American woman who was ahead of her time who recently passed away. Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock, born in 1925 in Newark, Ohio, loved to fly from an early age. In the early 1930s, her father arranged for them to go up in a Ford Tri-Motor, a popular plane produced by Henry Ford in the 1920s nicknamed “The Tin Goose.” She decided during that flight, at the ripe old age of 7, that she would study aviation, get her pilot’s license and fly around the world. Her passion for flying was established for life.
After graduating high school in 1943, Jerrie enrolled in the aeronautical-engineering program at Ohio State University and was the only girl in the program. She married Russell Mock in 1945 and spent a few years raising a family, managing a couple of small airports and co-producing an educational TV show. She got her pilot’s license in 1958 and learned in 1961 that no woman had ever flown solo around the world.
Bingo — she had her goal. She would be the first.
By 1963, Jerrie was a busy, 38-year-old married woman with three children, but still she began the long, arduous task of mapping out her round-the-world flight and making refueling arrangements and obtaining permissions to land in 14 different countries. In those days of telegrams, snail mail and patchy international telephone connections, this took months of stressful planning. However, when another woman, Joan Merriam-Smith, unexpectedly announced an around-the-world trip of her own, Jerrie at short notice brought forward her take-off date by a month and set off in March 1964 from Columbus, Ohio.
The press had a field day writing about and dramatizing the race between the two women, no doubt spurred on by the fact that the Columbus Dispatch was Mock’s sponsor. Just 29 days, 21 stops and 23,000 miles later, on April 17, after enduring tropical storms, an electrical fire, fatigue and lots of cultural problems, Mock landed back at Port Columbus Airport and went into the history books. Despite leaving two days after Merriam-Smith, Jerrie beat her home by 25 days.
Over the next few years, Mock continued to break distance and speed records, including flying nonstop from Honolulu to Columbus in 1966, setting the record for the longest nonstop flight for a female pilot. She was pleased with this record, which originally was held by her role model Earhart, but then taken away by three Russian women. Mock was proud to take it back.
Her book, “Three-Eight Charlie,” makes for fascinating reading. The book’s title refers to the registration number (N1538C) of her faithful 1953 Cessna 180 Skywagon, the little 11-year-old, single-engine plane that carried her around the world and that she lovingly dubbed “Charlie.” With the passenger seats removed to make room for bigger fuel tanks, Charlie was her only companion on her long, lonely flights. Charlie, more formally named the “Spirit of Columbus,” is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
By all accounts, Mock on one hand was driven, highly motivated and determined. On the other hand, she was a polite, modest person. In her book, she says she was surprised by all the fuss about her achievements.
“It didn’t seem right that these people should say such wonderful things about me,” she wrote. “I had just had a little fun flying my airplane.”
Goodbye, Geraldine Mock. I didn’t know you, but I am convinced the world is a better place for having had great people like you in it.
God bless America!
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