Thursday, March 5, 2015

Happy Birthday - Jerrie Cobb

Geraldyn "Jerrie" M. Cobb (born March 5, 1931)

Jerrie Cobb has spent her entire life chasing her dreams. And passing them, more often than not.

Image of Jerrie Cobb in the cockpit of a plane. Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

She was born in Oklahoma during the Great Depression to Lt. Col. William H. Cobb and Helena Butler Stone Cobb, both of whom encouraged her love of flying. After taking lessons, her father, being a pilot himself, accompanied her on her first flight when she was just 12 years old, both of them tucked into the open cockpit of his 1936 Waco biplane .

Four short years later, Jerrie was flying solo, "barnstorming" all over the Great Plains in a Piper J-3 Cub. She earned money by leafleting small rural areas to announce big events, like the circus coming to town, and used that money to buy the gas to enable to her give rides to folks in order to get more flight time under her belt.

It paid off. By the time she was 17, she earned her private pilot's license, and by 18, she had earned her commercial license.

She didn't slow down one bit. By 19, she was teaching others to fly. And at the age of 21, she was a ferry pilot, delivering military fighters and bombers to locations all over the world.

Even with all this work, she still faced enormous amounts of discrimination. Still, she took any and every flying job she could get, including patrolling along pipelines to check for damage, and even crop dusting, just so she could continue to earn higher ratings, including the Multi-Engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor, and Ground Instructor ratings, and eventually her Airline Transport license.  When she wanted to buy a surplus WWII Fairchild PT-23, which would provide her a way to support herself, she played semi-professional softball for the Oklahoma City Queens to earn the funds.

A born adventurer, she wasn't content to merely fly. She wanted to soar. And break records. And she did, left and right, and traveled the world doing so. She regularly flew in air shows, and even earned the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement while attending the Paris Air Show.

Before she was 30, she'd already set a slew of new world records, including speed, absolute altitude, and distance. At the age of 28, in 1959, she set the world records for both the nonstop long-distance flight and the light plane speed record. The next year, she broke the world altitude record for lightweight aircraft, hitting a remarkable 37,010 feet. At the same time, she became one of the few women executives work in the aviation field. She was hired by Aero Design and Engineering Company, the company that made the Aero Commander aircraft she flew during her record-setting flights.

The 1960s brought even more excitement for Jerrie, but also some stumbling blocks for the advancement of women in aviation. In May of 1961, Jerrie was appointed as a consultant to the NASA space program, as part of an unofficial project to test women using the same stages of evaluation for the (male) Mercury astronauts. Thirteen of the women in her test cohort passed all three stages with flying colors, and even surpassed some of the men, and were referred to as the Mercury 13. But because women were officially banned from flying jet fighters, none of them had any jet fighter flying experience, and they were refused admittance to the space program.

She didn't give up hope. In 1963, she testified in front of Congress about the question of allowing women to participate in the space program as astronauts. She faced such esteemed men as astronaut John Glenn, who said, "Men go off and fight the wars and fly the planes, women stay at home. It's a fact of our social order." (Later that year, the USSR launched Valentina Tereshkova into space, making her the first woman in space, a full 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.)

As for what became of the Mercury 13, well... you can read Erin Blakemore's piece on that sad story.

Once it was clear the dream of becoming an astronaut wouldn't pan out, she changed her focus to a new mission here on Earth. A devout Christian, Jerrie began a new career offering her flying services for humanitarian needs -- transporting supplies, surveying air routes in remote areas. She has received numerous honors for her missionary work in South America, and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.

In 1999, the National Organization for Women led an effort to send her to space to test the effects of aging, similar to John Glenn's return mission in 1998. Sadly, that trip didn't pan out either.

More recently, this real-life super hero was the inspiration for the fictional character Helen Cobb in Kelly Sue DeConnick's Captain Marvel series.

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For more information:

Makers: Women in Space
Wikipedia: Jerrie Cobb
The Ninety-nines: Women in Aviation
Women in Aviation: Jerrie Cobb
The Sunday Oklahoman: "State-Born Aviatrix Yearns for Space. 2nd Astronaut Bid Supported." The "Mercury 13 Were NASA's First Women Astronauts," by John Shepler

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