Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock’s love of aviation started at an early age. Her first flight was at the ripe old age of seven, when she and her father rode in a Ford TriMotor. The flight only lasted about 15 minutes, but it started a lifelong love of flying—a love strengthened when Amelia Earhart made her around-the-world attempt four years later.
She went on to become, at the time, the only woman to enroll as an aeronautical engineering student at The Ohio State University, but decided to marry her high school sweetheart, Russell Mock, instead of earning her degree.
Thankfully, starting a family didn’t mean ending her flying career.
The couple earned their pilots’ licenses in 1958, and by 1962, Jerrie had racked up more than 700 flight hours. During a trip to St. Pierre island in northeastern Canada, the couple were eating dinner right outside of the radio room. Jerrie could hear communications from pilots crossing the Atlantic, and that started a discussion about how she wanted to try flying across the ocean. “Then I thought, ‘I might as well go all the way around.’”
Over the next 15 months they prepared her 1953 Cessna 180 for the journey, upgrading the engines, adding radios and navigation equipment, and ensuring there were enough fuel tanks for the long stretches of open water flying the trip would require.
It also turned out that she wasn’t the only woman trying to circumnavigate the globe. Joan Merriam Smith would wind up taking off two days earlier than Jerrie, using the same flight path as Amelia Earhart. (Jerrie had worked with an Air Force friend to plot her own course.)
The Spirit of Columbus now hangs at the National Air and Space Museum. (Image used under Creative Commons License. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spirit_of_Columbus_in_Udvar-Hazy_Center,_February_2015.JPG)
Jerrie began her easterly journey March 19, 1964, from Columbus, Ohio. Her plane, The Spirit of Columbus that she nicknamed “Charlie,” had been prepared but still had some problems. She discovered her long-range radio was incorrectly wired while over Bermuda, had her brakes fail during a landing at Kindley Air Force Base (they had not been upgraded), and even had a threat of her fuel catching fire when an antennae wire began burning while over Libya.
She refused to be daunted, instead soaking up the cultures and people and even food she came across. “I had a wonderful time in Casablanca,” she said. “I had some friends I stayed with…They took me to a wonderful restaurant. The main dish was a couscous with all kinds of delicious things. In all my meals in all my life, that’s number one.”
At 9:36 pm on April 17, after 29 days, 21 stopovers and almost 22,860 miles, she touched down at Port Columbus airport, beating Smith by 25 days and becoming the first woman to fly solo around the globe. She also set six other records during the flight, including the around-the-world speed record for Class C1-c aircraft.
Her accomplishments led President Lyndon B. Johnson to present her with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Exception Service Decoration, and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) awarded her with the Louis Bleriot Silver Medal, making her the first woman and first American to receive the honor.
Despite referring to herself somewhat dismissively as “The Flying Housewife,” Mock was truly an accomplished pilot and went on to set numerous other records for women in aviation, even if she downplayed her talents. She even wrote a best-selling book about her trip entitled Thirty Eight Charlie, in honor of her aircraft’s number, and a statue of her is featured at John Glenn Columbus International Airport (formerly Port Columbus).
“It was a good, practical thing that dozens of women, both in the United States and other countries, could have done before I did,” she said in 2014. “Just nobody else had the sense—or shall I say, the stupidity—to try it [laughs]. There were women who told me that they flew because of me. I’m glad I did what I did, because I had a wonderful time.”