Cobb, Geraldyn “Jerrie” M.
Aviation PioneerEnshrined 2012 1931 -
Geraldyn M. Cobb was born March 5, 1931, in Norman, Oklahoma, the second daughter of Lt. Col. William “Harvey” Cobb and Helena Stone Cobb. At the age of six Jerrie discovered the great outdoors and fell in love with the sheer expanse and wonder of the vast wide-open sky.
During World War II the family was stationed at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, where 12-year-old Jerrie experienced the joy of flying for the first time in her father’s 1936 Waco. Soaring above the earth gave the shy girl a confidence she didn’t feel on the ground.
After the war Jerrie’s family moved to Oklahoma City. At age 16, Jerrie earned her private pilot’s license. Her only thoughts were to buy a plane so she could earn a living as a pilot. After graduation, playing professional women’s softball provided money for flying lessons. By age 18 she not only had earned her commercial pilot’s license, but was a certified ground instructor with ratings in civil air regulations, navigation, meteorology, airframe, and engines.
Jerrie spent a year at Oklahoma College for Women, but found more joy by working at Chickasha Municipal Airport doing general maintenance and crop dusting work. Playing pro softball again afforded Jerrie the opportunity to purchase a surplused Fairchild PT-23 that she named “Par-a-dice Lost.” The next few years found Jerrie working any job that would allow her to fly – crop dusting, pipeline patrol, or flight instructing.
She traveled to Florida in pursuit of a job as a DC-3 co-pilot, but was turned down once they discovered Jerrie wasn’t a man. With no money to return home, she found work at an aircraft maintenance shop at Miami International Airport – as a typist and file clerk.
It was here that she met Jack Ford, president of Fleetway Incorporated, an international aircraft ferry service. He needed a pilot to help him deliver two AT-6’s to Peru. Jerrie, all of 21, eagerly volunteered. He reluctantly agreed to give her a try, giving her the briefest of instruction. When Jack’s plane was grounded in Colombia, Jerrie continued on alone, successfully, to Peru.
Jerrie spent the next three years delivering all types of aircraft worldwide, from trainers to surplus flying boats to B-17 bombers. In 1955 she left Fleetway, returning to Oklahoma City.
Over the next several years Jerrie set several aviation records for speed, distance, and altitude in a twin engine Aero Commander, earning her a job with the type’s manufacturer as both a pilot and a manager. Then, in September 1959, Jerrie was presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The 28-year-old was selected to be among thirteen women subjected to the Mercury astronaut selection process. Committed to earning her way into space, she successfully completed all three phases of the rigorous program.
However, three years of political wrangling and one contentious Congressional hearing later, NASA closed the door on sending Jerrie or any other of the “Mercury 13,” into space as this group of women had become known to the public. It would be another 20 years before the first American woman would orbit earth and 32 years before a woman would command a space mission.
Spurned by NASA, Jerrie thought long and hard about how her piloting abilities might be better used back on earth. Melding a deep spirituality with her love of flight, in 1963 Jerrie felt called to become a missionary pilot serving the indigenous people of the Amazon jungle.
Typically flying solo in her Aero Commander, she pioneered new air routes across the hazardous Andes Mountains and Amazon rain forests, using self-drawn maps that guided her over uncharted territory larger than the United States. For the next 48 years Jerrie enabled the deliveries of medicine, food, seeds, clothing and other necessities to the primitive inhabitants of isolated regions, creating deep bonds of mutual understanding, admiration and friendship.
In 1973, President Nixon awarded Jerrie the Harmon Trophy, naming her “the top woman pilot in the world.” In 1981 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work in South America.
With well over 10,000 hours of flight time, Jerrie more than fulfilled her personal obligation in the sky. As a record-setting and humanitarian pilot, she inspired many others on earth. This includes helping pave the way for all American women astronauts.
Jerrie Cobb is truly a trailblazing aviation pioneer, and tonight we proudly welcome her into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.