The Spirit of Columbus: Jerrie Mock

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As the plane turned onto the runway, three trucks full of soldiers careened around a corner from elsewhere on the airfield… suddenly, they SLAMMED on their brakes… they were in shock, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They had stopped mere inches from the plane that had just landed. The soldiers LEAPT out of their trucks, guns in hand and surrounded the airplane. They were used to seeing military planes piloted by men… but this was something different. Out of the plane came a woman. She was at the controls of the 1953 Cessna 180, one she named the Spirit of Columbus, although she often gave him the nickname… Charlie. Who was this woman? A mother of three, 38-year-old Jerrie Mock from Columbus, Ohio, landing in Egypt on the sixth leg of her historic flight around the world. The first woman to do so. It was 1964. And nobody had ever quite encountered someone like Jerrie before…

Prologue

Geraldine ‘Jerrie’ Fredritz Mock was born in Newark, Ohio, on November 22nd, 1925. Her father was Timothy, always one of my favourite names, and her mother was the even better named, Blanche. Jerrie’s grandparents were German immigrants, fleeing to the land of America for a better future. This was the 1920s and attitudes were far removed from what we know today… all the girls in Jerrie’s neighbourhood played with their dolls and did the chores expected of them, but not Jerrie. On her side of the street, it was only boys. And on the other side, only girls. But Jerrie wasn’t allowed to cross the street. And so she grew up surrounded by boys. Playing Cowboys and Indians, shunning the dolls and the chores for a life of rebellion and mayhem. She decided life with the boys was far more fun but Blanche was not best pleased…

Why, she wanted a perfect daughter and tried and tried again to force Jerrie to learn to knit… but Jerrie loved trains! She wanted a toy train. But Blanche refused ever more. And she forced Jerrie to sit down and knit… something Jerrie really, really disliked doing. But nothing could stoke the embers of freedom Jerrie craved… at school, she refused to learn embroidery and demanded to be taught mechanics, just like the boys did. But the school said ‘no’. As you’re probably figuring out by now, Jerrie wasn’t a person who took ‘no’ for an answer. Newark was stifling her, she felt. She had to break free.

“I was stuck in a little town called Newark,” she said. “Where no one went anywhere. I also grew up in an age where there was no television and you could only learn about the world from geography books. I had no idea what it was like in other parts of the world but I wanted to be different than everyone else and find out.”

One thing above all others CAPTURED the attention of young Jerrie… she wanted to fly. She took a trip in a Ford TriMotor plane with her parents when she was just seven… even though the ride lasted but 15 minutes, it made quite the impression on young Jerrie. Excitedly, when she returned to Earth, she ran all around her neighbourhood with a huge smile adorning her face, screaming, “When I grow up, I will fly around the world!” She felt like it was her destiny to do so.

And you know what? I fancy her chances…

The Wright Stuff

Jerrie believed she was related to the Wright Brothers as her mother’s maiden name was ‘Wright’ – some historians think this might be true, but we’re not sure. Jerrie certainly felt like the call to the skies was in her blood, however. She looked up to the legend that was Amelia Earhart, her highly publicised feats illuminating Jerrie’s very soul… when in high school, she decided to act. Using Amelia as her northern star, Jerrie set her heart on becoming a pilot. And in high school, she took a pre-flight course. The only woman, too.

Jerrie was a wonderful person, full of energy and bursting at the seams with an effervescent joy that seemed to be her shield against and through any obstacle she came up against… nothing could bring her down. She was high on life but her dreams were on hold because, in the ‘40s, she fell in love. It seemed to take over, as love often can. She became enraptured in the embrace of one Russell Mock, who she married in 1945. Jerrie was just 20-years-old. And Russell wasn’t the straight-laced, buzz cut old American sweetheart Blanche wanted her daughter to marry. Far from it. Jerrie wanted to fly. And Russell was determined to move heaven and Earth for Jerrie so she could fly…

She was attending Ohio State University, the only woman enrolled in its aeronautical engineering program. But marriage to Russell, a pilot, saw Jerrie drop out of university. She’d given up her education for love. Soon, children followed. But this wasn’t the end of Jerrie’s dreams… Russell always encouraged her to keep going, to hold on to that dream. And in 1956, she took her first flying lesson. When I grow up, I will fly. Yes, Jerrie. You were right.

After just nine hours and 15 minutes of instruction, Jerrie’s instructor felt like she was ready to go solo. After nine hours! THAT’S IT! Well, she must have been good, then. In 1958, she earned her pilot’s licence, using landmarks to guide her because, at the time, pilots were not required to fly with radios. But something wasn’t right. Jerrie was growing restless. Pilots in Ohio were given these routes to fly and they had to stick to them. But Jerrie was bored. She was sick of the same routes and the same pattern to daily life… flying was meant to be something special but she felt like that was being zapped away by the monotony of daily life. She wanted to fly over the oceans and off to faraway lands… but no-one in Ohio was qualified to teach her how to do this.

“I plotted more complicated routes to fly than experienced pilots. Even the old-timers asked me how I navigated.” Jerrie.

Jerrie was stuck. She didn’t really know what to do next, only that it MUST involve airplanes. So she took on the job of managing an airport. Yes, she really did. In 1961, she became the first woman licenced by Ohio to manage an airport. Price Field in Columbus. It was little but it was SOMETHING for Jerrie to keep her mind busy. On Sundays, she was at the airport alone, meaning she had to fuel airplanes, tie them down and, sadly, make the coffee, something she really despised.

“The male instructors did not like a woman telling them what to do. I did not worry about it and ignored them.” Jerrie.

As if this wasn’t enough, Jerrie soon took on managing ANOTHER airport, Logan County in Illinois, which is still there today. She was helping out a friend, flying from Columbus to do so. By now, Jerrie had some 700 hours of flying time under her belt, with most of that long distance flights to places such as the Bahamas, Canada and Mexico. But those feet were getting ever itchier. And one day, at home, Russell could tell something wasn’t right with Jerrie. She seemed agitated, pacing up and down, flustered and not herself. What was wrong? She was bored with being a housewife. She wanted to do something exciting, something different, to break free from the monotony. Russell was always one to support Jerrie, but he was also a joker.

Jokingly, Russell suggested to Jerrie that if she really wanted to break the monotony, she should fly around the world. He was joking, of course. But Jerrie rather liked the idea.

And soon, she decided that’s exactly what she would do…

The Voyage of a Lifetime

Russell didn’t believe Jerrie not because he didn’t support her but because it was a feat rarely accomplished. Amelia Earhart died trying to that very same endeavour – it was no laughing matter. But Russell soon realised that Jerrie wasn’t joking when he arrived home one day to find Jerrie on the phone with the National Aeronautic Association. What… what are you doing, honey? You know something Russell, a woman has never flown solo around the world. And? Well… I intend to be the first! And she wasn’t kidding.

Jerrie couldn’t believe it – she genuinely thought a woman had ventured around the world. Nothing could change her mind, now. Jerrie approached US Air Force personnel in Columbus to get her started. They agreed to help her… unofficially, of course. This was the start of Jerrie assembling her Avengers. The US Air Force were on her side, and soon, she recruited John Peck, who had been the personal mechanic of Eddie Rickenbacker, Robert Peck, an engineer, and Brigadier Dick, a family friend. But she needed money.

Jerrie made it her mission to get sponsorship and she started calling in to local companies. The following year, the Columbus Dispatch agreed to be Jerrie’s sponsor because, like all newspapers, advertising was a huge revenue stream for them and Russell had many connections in advertising. Russell offered to use his contacts in advertising to get the paper new advertising partners, whilst his wife would get the money she needed from sponsorship. Ah, don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

But this was only the start. Jerrie needed permissions to fly across countries and have observers and timers appointed by the NAA at each stop to document landings and take-offs. “I visited each embassy in Washington DC to get clearance,” Jerrie said. Good heavens… she really knew her stuff. “The actual flying was a lot less complicated than putting together all these little details.” Most importantly, of which, was the airplane. None existed that could go around the world, so Jerrie decided to modify her 11-year-old Cessna 180. A new engine, a new compass, twin radio direction finders, dual short-range radios and a long-range high frequency radio system with a trailing antenna. She took out the passenger seats and replaced them with massive petrol tanks, that alone costing her $4,000. Holy heck.

None of this was easy. NONE. Jerrie had to fly her plane to Wichita for some of the modifications, then back to Columbus, a 1,000 mile trip – she had to fly around a restricted area. “I also had to fly to Florida to get the high-frequency radio installed, since no-one in Columbus knew how.” Then on to Muskegon, Michigan, where the engine was built. And it was. Everything was ready. Jerrie would set off from Columbus at 9:31am on March 19th, 1964. She would travel 1,000 miles to her next stop, Bermuda. Could anything go wrong?

Enter a new player, Joan Merriam Smith…

“I did not conform to what girls did. What the girls did was boring.” Jerrie.

The Quest to be the First

Joan Merriam Smith of Long Beach, California, had also set her eyes on the prize of being the first around the world. She took off two days ahead of Jerrie, challenging her. The flight around the world… it had become a race. Gosh darn it! Jerrie intended to stop off along the way to take in a spot of sightseeing, not now she couldn’t! Jerrie was airborne. And Russell did his best to follow her on the ground. He was very much Jerrie’s emotional support. Jerrie was SO keen to see the sights but she had a race to win… even then, she couldn’t help herself, so Russell was there to make sure Jerrie set off as soon as she could.

Luck was with Jerrie. Joan ran into technical difficulties and logistical problems. She would not win this race. In fact, it soon became apparent that Jerrie had won because Joan was too far gone. For Jerrie, it was always about the thrill of the flight. The administrative and logistical problems were hard, but the flying, for her, was easy. She often met red tape and was forced to spend more time on the ground than in the air, but it was worth it for Jerrie, because being in the air is what she lived and breathed.

At Cairo airport, the officials refused to believe that Jerrie was a pilot and not a passenger – they would not stamp her visa. And she faced similar problems in Saudi Arabia when her plane was boarded by soldiers looking for the male pilot. When they couldn’t find one, the soldiers were stunned into silence. A woman had piloted this plane? A… woman? After a few minutes, the soldiers erupted into a round of applause for Jerrie. That’s… that’s a bit patronising, isn’t it? Women in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to drive cars until 2017, never mind fly an airplane. Jerrie had become the first woman to land a plane in Saudi Arabia. Also the first woman to fly from America to Africa via the North Atlantic, the first woman to fly the Pacific in a single-engine plane and the first woman to fly both the Atlantic and the Pacific alone. She was rather good at all this.

Despite such problems, Jerrie did find the time to fulfil many of her childhood fantasies. She trekked into the rainforest of Sri Lanka to see some elephants in the wild. She rode a camel in Egypt to see the Sphinx. She even visited another famous female pilot, Suchria Ali, in Pakistan. A commercial glider pilot and instructor. And in Guam, Jerrie was greeted with a huge crowd of people, greatly enthusiastic, as well as the admiral and a live band. She was even invited to stay in the governor’s mansion… the farther Jerrie flew, the more famous she became. She was a celebrity. A hero of the sky…

“There were no nightmares of thunderheads over the Atlantic,” Jerrie said of her time in the mansion. “Dressed in red satin, I danced in marble palaces.”

Jerrie really did see the world. She landed in Morocco and Vietnam. Travelling the world had given her a new perspective on life, not to mention thousands of exciting new experiences. Sure, there were problems. On her flight from Tripoli to Cairo, she accidentally landed at a top secret military base. She encountered ice on the wings, sand in the engine and the antenna motor burning out. But, on April 17th, 1964, Jerrie landed back at Columbus Airport. She had done what her childhood hero Amelia Earhart had set out to do, but never finished. Jerrie had become the first woman to fly solo around the world.

Better yet, she beat Joan, who flew around the world in 50 days. For Jerrie, it had taken only 29 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes. But she wasn’t completely happy.

“After I returned home, I remember reading a newspaper story about Smith shopping in Singapore.” Jerrie.

Yup, Jerrie really wanted to do that, but… she didn’t…

Epilogue

Upon landing, Jerrie became an American hero overnight. The crowd to welcome her home was enormous… those itchy feet had been silenced and with it, a lifetime of memories, a record that she had set cementing her place in the history books, just over 30 years after Wiley Post became the first man to fly solo around the world. Ohio’s Governor James A. Rhodes and a huge mob of fans rushed to greet Jerrie. She was dubbed ‘Ohio’s Golden Eagle’ and Governor Rhodes proclaimed April 18th ‘Jerrie Mock Day’.

Surprisingly, Jerrie later said that her round-the-world adventure was not her most memorable trip. Not long after, she became one of the few women to fly at supersonic speed, thanks to an Air Force pilot who gave her a ride in a McDonnell F-101 Voodoo jet fighter. The jet reached a speed of 1,038 miles-per-hour or 1,670 kilometres-per-hour, that’s Mach 1.7. And the best bit? Jerrie was allowed to fly it for a few minutes. “Fantastic!” she screamed. Later, she said, “I didn’t want to come down.”

Sadly, Jerrie never flew Charlie, the Spirit of Columbus, ever again. Cessna gave her a 206 and so Jerrie bid a fond and sad goodbye to her 180. It was stored at the Cessna factory in Wichita until the firm donated it to the National Air and Space Museum, displayed until 1984 when it went into storage at the Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility, where it remains to this day. As for Jerrie, on May 4th, 1964, she received the Federal Aviation Agency’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service from President Lyndon Johnson and in 1965, she became not only the first woman, but the first American, man or woman, to earn the Louis Bleriot Silver Medal for aviation. And the awards just kept flooding in. She ended up with the keys to 10 cities and 18 honorary memberships, including in the 87th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of the US Air Force.

And don’t think Jerrie slowed down. In 1965, she broke several world records, ending up with 21 for speed and distance. She broke the speed record for a closed course of 312 miles and with a plane weighing less than 2,200 pounds, flying 205 miles-per-hour in an Aero Commander 200. In 1966, she broke the nonstop distance record for a woman after a 4,550 mile or 7,332 kilometre flight from Honolulu to Columbus that took Jerrie 31 hours… NONSTOP. Nonstop! Governor Rhodes, once more, greeted Jerrie at the airport as did a huge crowd. Jerrie had broken a Soviet Union record. That pleased the Americans.

More records tumbled – Jerrie broke a world speed record in 1968, flying from Columbus to Puerto Rico and back in 33 hours. In 1969, she shattered nine world speed records whilst delivering her Cessna 206 to a priest in New Guinea to use for his mission. Rather fittingly, Lae, in New Guinea, was the last place Jerrie flew to in her career, also the last place Amelia Earhart took off before her disappearance and presumed death in 1937. Jerrie was basically showing off by this point but hey, if you got it, flaunt it, and Jerrie LOVED to show the world just what she was made of.

By the late ‘60s, flying was too expensive, which saddened Jerrie because there were still many places she wanted to go to visit. So she retired. And enjoyed much more peaceful later years. In 1979, she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame. But don’t think Jerrie loved the limelight. She downplayed her achievements. “I just went out to have fun and see the world.” Oh, I really love her. She sounds amazing. She was overwhelmed by the love the world had for her. “It didn’t seem right that these people should say such wonderful things about me,” she said. “I just had a little fun flying my airplane.”

A very modest woman, but one who believed her endeavours did encourage more women to take up flying, which is probably true. Jerrie moved to Florida and for the rest of her life, she got fan mail from women across the world, with many saying that Jerrie changed their lives. In one letter, a woman wrote, ‘You made me realise that I did not have to be “just a housewife”.’ One Columbus woman, Terry Fogle, once said, “I followed [Jerrie’s] flying career closely, even though I was just a kid. I thought it was so cool that she was such a fearless woman flying everywhere in her little plane.”

I can hardly believe we only lost Jerrie five years ago. She died on September 30th, 2014 at the magnificent age of 88. And what a legacy she’s left behind.

Jerrie’s desire to keep out of the spotlight means that not many people will have heard of her today, but she was a truly formidable and awe-inspiring human being, who dared to dream and showed the world just what a woman was capable of in a time when women were thought of in such a negative light. She did not want to be in the spotlight but she did what Amelia Earhart never managed to do. She really was a trailblazer but perhaps what identified her best was her personality. Warm and energic, a smile that never stopped and a drive and determination to do what the hell she wanted, damn anyone who stood in her way. I truly love this woman. What Jerrie did and the life she led will never be forgotten. Because honestly, they really don’t make people like her anymore…

“I was never going to abide by man-made laws that said women couldn’t do something.” Jerrie.

Happy New Year :}{:
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