When Geraldyn M. Cobb was born on March 5, 1931 in Norman, Oklahoma, no one would have imagined the heights to which she was destined to soar. She was one of the most accomplished and honored women in aviation history, a pioneer of and lifelong advocate for women pilots in the space program, and a passionate humanitarian to indigenous tribes in the Amazon Jungle.
The second of two daughters to Lt. Col. William "Harvey" Cobb & Helena Stone Cobb, she was raised in a happy home where faith and education were valued. It would serve her well. Known to all as "Jerrie," she was shy and humble, with her signature blonde ponytail and eyes as blue as the sky.
Jerrie first took the stick of her father's open cockpit Waco biplane at the age of 12, using a stack of pillows to see out and some blocks to reach the rudder pedals. It was love at first flight; the first step in a remarkable journey that would forge a place in history.
She was a natural. She passed her private pilot's test at age 16, earned her commercial pilot's license at age 18, and received her flight and ground instructor certificates one year later. Bitten by the aviation bug, Jerrie worked many jobs to earn money for flying lessons: odd jobs at airports, dropping circus leaflets from the air, crop dusting, waiting tables, and playing on a professional women's softball team, a job she would later revisit to save money to buy her first airplane.
While teaching flying in Oklahoma in 1952, Jerrie applied to a start-up commercial airline that was hiring DC-3 co-pilots who would be willing to fly for experience only. They agreed to interview her if she came to Miami at her own expense. Spending the last of her earnings she drove to non-stop to Miami, only to be rejected when they saw she was a woman. With no money to return home, she landed a clerical job at Miami International Airport. One day she overheard the owner of Fleetway International saying that he needed pilots to deliver surplus military planes to foreign governments around the world. It was a great opportunity for Jerrie to perfect her craft and gain experience in all kinds of aircraft. As she spoke up, he rebuffed her as a "girl wanna be pilot." Saying nothing, she handed him her log book with over 3,000 hours of flying time. The next day she ferried her first military plane to Peru, opening her heart to the people of the Amazon.
In 1959, while NASA was busy testing and selecting their all male astronaut corps, Jerrie was busy earning a world record for speed, having earned world records for altitude and distance in 1957. She would later earn a fourth world record, in 1960, for altitude.
Fast becoming a popular public figure, Jerrie's life as an aviation pioneer was well on it's way. Jerrie was the first woman to fly in the Paris Air Show, one of the first female aviation executives, and the fourth American awarded Gold Wings of the Federacion Aeronautique International. With over 7,000 hours of flying time and her rapidly growing list of accomplishments, the world took note of her remarkable career. Jerrie was honored with the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement, the Amelia Earhart Memorial Award and Woman of the Year in Aviation. An award Jerrie was particularly honored by was Pilot of the Year, because it was given by both male and female pilots.
With NASA building the space program and the space race officially in full swing, everyone in America was dreaming about flying into space, and Jerrie was no exception. Dr. Randolph Lovelace was about to change history, and open the door of possibility for what he hoped would be the first female astronaut.
At age 28, Jerrie was chosen as the first woman to enter into astronaut testing in a privately funded and then secret program at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, run by Dr. Lovelace. This was same program in which NASA's first Astronauts – eventually known as the Mercury 7 - were tested and Astronaut John Glenn would later refer to as "...most trying."
But it was not a problem for Jerrie. She aced the tests; in the end, scoring in the top 2% of all who had been tested – including the women and NASA's new corps of male astronauts. As Jerrie completed the third and final phase of testing, 12 remaining women were about to enter that final phase. These female aviators, later dubbed "The Mercury 13," were fully expecting to find a place in line with the men for flights in space.
But it was not to be. The plug was pulled on the program two days before phase three testing was to begin at the US Naval School of Aviation, leaving Jerrie as the only woman to pass the astronaut testing. The women were given no information as to who cancelled the program or why.
Jerrie was undeterred in her quest for equal consideration of women pilots in the space program. NASA's requirements to become an astronaut, by default, excluded women. They required jet test pilot experience (only available in the military), impossible for women since women were not allowed as military pilots. In 1962, a Congressional Special Subcommittee Hearing on the Selection of Astronauts regarding the disqualification of women astronaut candidates was held.
At that time, Jerrie Cobb told lawmakers, "...we women pilots who want to be part of the research and participation in space exploration are not trying to join a battle of the sexes. As pilots, we fly and share mutual respect with male pilots in the primarily man's world of aviation. We very well know how to live together in our profession. We see, only, a place in our Nation's space future without discrimination. ... There are sound medical and scientific reasons for using women in space."
The opposing view was voiced by NASA astronaut John Glenn, basking in the afterglow of his heroic orbital space flight a few months prior. "I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and design the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a matter of our social order. It may be undesirable."
After the hearings failed to change the policy to open the door for female pilots in the space program, Jerrie charted a new course. Keeping her faith in the forefront of her life, she decided to give herself to her fellow citizens of the world in one of the most remote parts of our globe, the Amazon Jungle. In what would perhaps become her greatest contribution to humanity, she flew dangerous humanitarian aid missions serving the indigenous people of the Amazon, discovering tribes of Indians never before known to man and helping them sustain life. Even in the Amazon she faced gender discrimination in trying to fly for humanitarian aid groups.
But this time she prevailed. The government of Ecuador honored her for her work in pioneering new air routes over the Andes Mountains and Amazon Jungle. She was honored by the governments of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru for her humanitarian aid work. Jerrie received the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for "Humanitarian Contributions to Modern Aviation." She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.
In 1998, NASA decided to allow John Glenn, then 78, to fly a second spaceflight, ostensibly for medical research for the aging. News of his impending shuttle mission prompted Fresno State University professor Don Dorough to organize, and the National Organization for Women to support, a grass roots campaign to allow Jerrie to fly on a similar research mission.
The campaign took off with The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, The Ninety-Nines, scores of other organizations, and school children and teachers from across the country joining in. Many US Senators and Representatives gave their support.
On July 28 and 29, 1998 in Washington, DC, Jerrie met privately with the Associate Administrator for NASA, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and ten US Senators and Representatives to advocate for her spaceflight. She also secured a 15 minute meeting with John Glenn whom she had not seen since that fateful congressional hearing thirty-six years earlier.
The meeting was cordial and respectful but profoundly disappointing to Jerrie. Jerrie congratulated Senator Glenn on his shuttle mission. She asked Glenn if he would consider supporting her for a medical research mission for women. Senator Glenn stood up and wished her well in her endeavors, with no mention of his support. It was a cordial and respectful farewell on both parts. Jerrie commented afterward that she still "considers him a friend and wishes him well."
But there were many others in Jerrie's corner. Indeed, a full blown media and grass roots campaign continued for Jerrie with news stories spreading virtually all over the world.
On September 8, 1998, Jerrie met with then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. He told her there were no plans to send up a second senior citizen for geriatric research. But two weeks later in a reversal of his position, he announced publicly that NASA would consider a second research mission – if all went well with the Glenn mission - admitting that there was no one more qualified and deserving than Jerrie.
And when John Glenn launched, Jerrie was there with a big smile to cheer him on - surrounded by reporters determined to help her cause. But NASA never called, and Jerrie returned to her missionary work in the Amazon.
Jerrie always remained a steadfast advocate for female aviators. When Eileen Collins sat on the launch pad as NASA's first female shuttle commander in July of 1999, thirty-seven years had passed since the congressional hearings failed to allow women pilots as astronauts. Jerrie along with other members of the Mercury 13, and several female aviation pioneers were there in the VIP seats, personally invited by Eileen Collins. It was a bittersweet milestone on the long road to equality for women in aviation. Collins believes it would not have happened without the skill, courage and tenacity of Jerrie and her generation of female aviators.
Jerrie continued her missionary work in the Amazon until recent years. Always humbled by her honors, Jerrie was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the recipient of The Harmon Trophy. She was a proud Oklahoman who cherished several recognitions by her home state. In 2007, Jerrie and the Mercury 13 were presented Honorary Degrees of Doctor of Science by The University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.
Jerrie authored two books about her life: "Woman Into Space" (with Jane Rieker) and "Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot.""
After living sixty-six adventure filled years as a pilot and advocate for female pilots, and sharing over fifty years of her life with the indigenous Indian tribes of the Amazon, Jerrie's humble smile and sky-blue eyes live on in our hearts. It is fitting that Jerrie was born in, and would leave us in, Woman's History Month. Jerrie Cobb passed away peacefully on March 18, 2019 in Florida.
Whenever we look to the heavens, we will see those sky-blue eyes and be reminded of her humble smile, deep compassion and steely determination.
Via con Dios, Jerrie!