The cold wind bit hard against Jerrie’s skin as she pulled on her life-vest. The plane was packed, the engine checked, and her provisions were in place. One thing Geraldine Mock wasn’t prepared for was the shouting crowds that came with their flashing cameras and invasive microphones, poking and prodding her with questions she didn’t know how to answer.
She didn’t anticipate so many people on the runway to see her off, from the press to total strangers. Mock only had one goal in mind that cold morning on March 19, 1964. Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock wanted to see the world in her Cessna 180. The fact that she would be the first woman to do it, was just an added bonus.
Geraldine “Jerrie” Fredritz Mock was different from the get-go. From a young age, Jerrie knew she wanted to be a pilot. A tomboy, Jerrie approached the world differently compared to girls her age. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Jerrie remembered her childhood as a time of clarity. “I did not conform to what girls did,” she said.
“What the girls did was boring.” Who could blame her? As a young girl in the mid to late 30s, the roles expected of young women were mostly in the direction of domesticity.
Not a conventional woman
Living in Newark, Ohio, Jerrie felt isolated in a town that the outside world had never heard of. The only form of escape she had to a life outside Newark was through her first-grade teacher who told her stories about her trip to Europe.
In her biography, The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World, Jerrie commented on her life in Ohio, “Most people in my town didn’t travel anywhere. I had no idea what was out there…” An avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction, reading helped her see the world through story. That’s when she came across her hero, Amelia Earhart.
As a child, Jerrie’s biggest hero was Amelia Earhart, the first woman to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1928. Growing up and hearing Earhart’s travels excited Jerrie. So, when she and her family took a plane ride around their local airport, she was inspired; she wanted to be a pilot like Earhart and travel the world.
When Jerrie announced her professional decision, Jerrie’s parents just smiled and nodded to their daughter. Little did they know their Jerrie would soon commit to that very promise. She knew she was destined for a life filled with adventure.
Not here for looks
From girlhood to womanhood, Jerrie showed sharp intelligence. Jerrie attended Ohio State University and majored in aeronautical engineering. The only woman in her class, let alone major, Jerrie received much criticism about her sex in a major dominated by men. Told she was only in school to find a husband, Jerrie proved them wrong by receiving perfect scores on her chemistry exams — the only one in her class to achieve such a feat.
Jerrie felt that as long as she could keep up with the boys, if not outsmart them, then she wouldn’t hear a single complaint about her place among their ranks, “If I’d been stupid, they might not have liked me,” Jerrie confessed to Buzzfeed. “But as long as I got the 100s, they couldn’t very well protest.” Not only was Jerrie wicked smart, but she had classic good looks. It was in college that Jerrie bumped into her soon-to-be husband Russell Mock.
Unfortunately, a woman working in aeronautical engineering in 1945 wasn’t ideal, nor was it realistic (Uhm, hello? Hidden Figures?). Jerrie ended up dropping out of Ohio State University at age twenty to marry Russell C. Mock. Russell, unlike Jerrie, was an extrovert and outgoing whereas Jerrie was introverted and insightful.
Both were intelligent and shared a love for culture, the finer things in life, and a curiosity for the world. Three years into their marriage, Jerrie welcomed her first two sons, Roger and Gary, and later welcomed their daughter Valerie in 1960. Her dream of becoming the pilot and seeing the world on pause, Jerrie assumed her role as mother and wife.
Head in the clouds
As her children grew, so did her free time. Soon, Jerrie remembered her dream of being a pilot and wanting to see the world. Over time, Jerrie began taking flying lessons with her husband Russell and eventually earned their respected pilot’s license. Jerrie was one step closer to her dream.
A licensed pilot, Jerrie got back to thinking and hoping that maybe she’ll be able to travel around the world as she originally planned. That dream became a possibility when she and her husband became co-owners to a four-seat Cessna 180. Jerrie and Russell would use the plane for family weekend getaways and business trips. However, things were about to change for the better.
Though she and her husband had bought a plane, she wasn’t exactly crossing foreign borders or oceans. As her kids got older, Jerrie couldn’t help but feel a void that she needed to fill. Something was missing. Jerrie had an inkling. “I wanted to see the world,” she said.
“I wanted to see the oceans and the jungles and the deserts and the people.” Jerrie wanted a taste of the world — and she was about to get her chance. Opportunity was about to come knocking.
Just a taste
Jerrie wanted to start flying long distances, and in 1962, she decided to enter a women’s air race, one that will embark across the Western Hemisphere. Russell joined her in the race and both flew toward the Canadian coast. Throughout their travels, Jerrie heard pilots communicate their positions as they soared over the Atlantic.
The exciting chatter of who and where made her body rattle with excitement. It made Jerrie feel that much closer to what she’d always wanted to accomplish, but still, she felt something was holding her back.
Her kids grown, Jerrie found herself bored in her own house. Her husband at work most of the day, she spent a lot of time home alone. Jerrie couldn’t stop imagining herself floating above the cloud line and feeling the soft orange light of early morning on her face.
Jerrie was having some serious wanderlust. Finally, she had enough and complained to her husband about her plight. Russell looked at his wife curiously, but shrugged off her complaint. “Maybe you should get in your plane and just fly around the world.” It was obviously a joke, but not to Jerrie. Her reaction was priceless.
Daydream turned reality
We can imagine Mr. Mock waving his fork full of meatloaf and mashed potatoes as he laughed at her expense. Though he wasn’t serious, Jerrie’s light bulb went off. Without hesitation, she replied, “All right, I will.”
Jerrie was serious — dead serious. The housewife and mother of three would soon begin to plan an expedition that she dreamed as a child, and she was going to do it solo. If she planned it just right, she would be the first woman to do so.
Flying with giants
When we think about famous pilots we tend to think of Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart. Charles Lindbergh was twenty-five when he successfully crossed the Atlantic in 1927. Right after, Amelia Earhart did the same a year later at age thirty.
Though Earhart attempted to become the first woman to fly around the world, her plane was lost while crossing over the Pacific in 1937. Regardless, she and Lindbergh were pioneers who pushed forth a new age of air travel. Due to their accomplishments, aviation technology evolved into commercial flying. Now it was Jerrie’s turn to make history.
Jerrie’s family was extremely encouraging when she decided to fly around the world. It took Jerrie a year of planning. She called the National Aeronautic Association and met with Air Force officers to chart her flights. She needed permission from air-bases at each stop.
She needed to reassure each country she was neither foe nor spy. In 1960s America, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and Jerrie was sure to run into a conflict or two in her travels. There was much controversy around her flying over Asia. In fact, they almost didn’t let her fly over Asia at all. However, thanks to careful planning, Jerrie managed to obtain permission to land in Thailand, Vietnam’s neighbor. The only thing standing in her way was a little friendly rivalry.
The competition is fierce
Though her flying around the world wasn’t necessarily a race, the press seemed to think otherwise when Joan Merriam Smith stepped into the spotlight. Another Amelia Earhart admirer, Smith was also attempting to fly around the world in conjunction with Jerrie’s flight.
Neither of the women had ever heard of each other until a National Aeronautics Association official had informed them of each other. That’s when the media had a field day. Imagine! Two women, both planning to fly around the world at the same time. The media loves a good cat fight. Smith was no novice when it came to flying either — she was a whiz at flying a plane. She was a charter plane pilot who learned how to fly before she could drive. Her motives were innocent enough, but, her reasons for flying couldn’t be more inspirational.
Who will win?
As said before, Smith was an Earhart lover and was in love with the idea of following in her footsteps (minus the whole disappearing part). Smith planned to fly out from California and follow Earhart’s flight pattern over the equator. Both women had no intention of racing, however, the idea of becoming the first woman to fly around the world was too promising. Smith planned to fly a route 4,000 miles longer than Mock’s, with a plane that brazenly advertised stickers from multiple sponsors. Jerrie’s plane was a more modest and a lot older.
Unlike Amelia Earhart and her competitor’s plane, Jerrie was going to fly an eleven-year-old Cessna. However, the risk of flying an older aircraft was too great and Jerrie had to give her plane a new engine and paint job. They painted the plane red and white and named the bird The Spirit of Columbus, or Charlie in Jerrie’s case.
Though both women were gunning to be the first to fly around the world, Jerrie was the only pilot who was verified as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. However, if Smith were to accomplish the feat first, she would be recognized by both the public and other respected pilots.
Charlie was registered, the route was mapped, and the supplies were ordered. The moment of truth had come. It was time to fly and accomplish Jerrie’s long-awaited dream. On March 19, 1964, the press flooded the airstrip and swarmed Jerrie like a shark frenzy.
They shouted questions, blinded her with camera flashes, and threw microphones in her face, “Jerrie, what made you decide to fly around the world?” “Mrs. Mock, aren’t you a little afraid? After all, no woman has ever done this,” “Jerrie, are you really going to circle the globe with drip-dries like the newspaper says?” It was at this crucial moment that Jerrie finally understood the gravity of what she was attempting to do.
A trip of the century
Fear rising, she tried to suppress it with a reassuring smile. People were counting on her. Her husband was thrilled, however, he seemed more preoccupied about the attention she was getting rather than the journey. Russell continuously told her to keep in touch, to give him information for the press.
It was important to him that she shared each detail. Though Jerrie was overwhelmed with the idea of celebrity and winning a race, it was pulling her away from her original goal. She just wanted to see the world: plain and simple. Her husband didn’t see it that way.
Hello? Can anybody hear me?
Her first stop was Bermuda. The moment her plane took off and disappeared into the sky, Jerrie felt an overwhelming sensation of silence, peace, and freedom. There were no more cameras, no more people, just her, and she took comfort in her solitude. As she sailed through the sky with the drone of the motor and propellers, she tries to flip on her long-distance radio.
Nothing. Panic set in. What should she do? Does she go back? Does she land? Without her long-distance radio, how would she communicate with foreign airports? After a long moment of thinking, Jerrie uses her VHF (Very High Frequency) radio. She gained contact and was cleared.
She successfully landed in Bermuda, but not without a hitch. She landed two miles away from her terminal building. She had to taxi The Spirit of Columbus to the terminal. As she steadily approached, Jerrie realized her brakes weren’t holding. With all the strength she had in her 5’0″ frame, she stomped hard on the brakes, standing on the pedals.
With a gale of wind blowing her small plane in circles and her breaks failing, Jerrie managed to gain control when four attendants raced down the landing strip to guide her plane. She turned off the engine. She made it to her first checkpoint. Jerrie had made her first flight over the Atlantic.
Pressure from the press
A nest of journalists was waiting for her. Before Jerrie could so much as open her door, the press tried to wriggle it open. The moment she stepped through, she was bombarded with flashing bulbs and people shouting for her to turn this way and that. Jerrie began to feel less like a celebrity and more like an animal in a zoo.
Her energy drained, and her heels in her hands, all she wanted to do was rest from the long flight. The next day, Jerrie gets an unexpected phone call from her husband. You would think the first thing that came out her husband’s mouth would be a flourish of congratulations and pride. After all, your wife had reached a milestone in her dreams. Instead, he had this to say…
Trouble in paradise
When Jerrie greeted her husband, one of the first things that flew out of his mouth was when she was planning on leaving. Jerrie, who had contacted the Kindley Air Force Base for a weather report, knew that bad weather was just over the horizon. As an an inexperienced flier, she thought it would be safe to stay grounded.
However, Russell had other things on his mind, “Joan’s stuck in Surinam with leaky gas tanks, but she’s supposed to be ready to move tomorrow. So — get going.” The humble housewife and mother of three didn’t have the energy to argue. Her husband’s mind was on the race and all she could do is agree.
Two days later her plane was fixed up and ready to go, however, Jerrie was curious about two things: her radio and her breaks. Why were neither working? They were doing just fine before she took off in Ohio. The breaks, she later realized were never replaced before take-off (an accident on the crews part back in Ohio), however, her radio? That’s another story. It was disconnected; the lead wire was exposed and was taped and tucked elsewhere.
Jerrie was shocked. The radio had been working the night before she took off. Before her death in 2014, Jerrie had told the press it was just an accident, a detail she overlooked. But in a later interview, she was convinced that it was pure sabotage. Someone wanted Smith to win.
Ice, ice, lady!
With fair weather, Jerrie’s plane was loaded and she was more confident than ever. Because of the weather delay, Jerrie was able to see a bit of Bermuda and have a nice lunch near the harbor. She really thought she’d be able to see the world. However, there was trouble over the Atlantic. Jerrie began to lose altitude.
Taking off from Bermuda and halfway to the Azores, Jerrie was losing altitude. At first, she thought there was a malfunction in her autopilot, but it was fine. That’s when Jerrie saw something that chilled her to the core. Ice. Ice was building on her wings. Flying over nothing but water and losing altitude fast, she called for a tower in the Azores requesting to fly at a higher altitude. Higher altitude meant heat, and it could melt the ice.
The next Earhart?
At 9,000 feet and cruising through clouds, the ice was building. From an inch to two inches of ice build up, the wings were weighed down by the ice. Waiting for permission to fly higher, Jerrie couldn’t wait — she needed an answer and needed it now.
Did she have clearance to fly 11,000 feet or not? She heard stories of successful ocean landings, but then what? Wait for rescue? Would they find her or would she become the next Earhart? The minutes felt like years when dispatch finally returned her call. Jerrie was cleared to fly at 11,000 feet. Pushing Charlie to full throttle, she rose over the cloud line and was in the clearing. The ice began to melt and Charlie was back to his old self.
The other woman
After her harrowing experience over the Atlantic, the last thing Jerrie wanted to hear about was the race. When her husband called her hotel that evening she expected him to ask about her flight. Instead, she only received more news on Smith. As she pushed on in her travels, it became less about seeing the world and more about beating Smith.
Every stop was rushed thanks to Russell insistently urging her to reach her next destination. Jerrie wasn’t as aggressive or argumentative as her husband, and soon she felt that she too wanted nothing more than to be the first woman to circumnavigate the world. Her urgency, however, would cost her something vital.
Shackles of sponsorship
Jerrie realized she lost sight of what really mattered: the leisure traveling. What did it matter if Joan Smith was in South America with leaky gas tanks? It shouldn’t matter. What was once an exciting trip around the world changed into being the first woman to do so, newspaper headlines, and sponsors.
Before leaving Ohio, Jerrie was approached by The Columbus Dispatch and Champion Spark Plug Company to back her expedition, just as long as she completes her feat and gives her sponsored newspaper the juiciest details about her travels. Soon, the trip no longer belonged to her, but to everyone supporting her. It became more of a job and less of a vacation.
After flying six hours from Casablanca through severe and treacherous storms, Jerrie found herself in her fourth destination, Annaba (Previously Bône), Algeria. Jerrie was not just tired, but the epitome of exhaustion. Her anxiety from flying through a storm prevented her from eating in the air, and she had to deal with currency and language barriers before finding a place to eat.
After finally hunkering down for a well-deserved rest, a call connects to her hotel room. Russell. She sleepily answers the phone and is greeted with an agitated husband who reminded her that she was still behind Smith and needed to get back on her plane ASAP. “Give me stuff for a story,” Russell said. “The papers say that Joan’s covering 2,000 miles a day. You need to go further.” Jerrie was having none of it.
Sticking it to the man
Fatigued and beaten from a day of flying and her husband’s constant badgering, Jerrie finally put her foot down. According to her biography, Jerrie finally decided to step up to the plate, “Look, after the horrible day I just put in, I wish I never had to see an airplane again. And I don’t care where Joan is. She can be all the way back home for all I care,” she said defiantly. “If you call me again to talk about Joan, I’ll come home on an airliner.”
Jerrie nearly broke the phone when she slammed it into the receiver. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time she and her husband would have a fueled argument about Smith, the press, and her travels. The pressure of the “unofficial” race was starting to take its toll.
The “White House” city
Though Jerrie was traveling, things weren’t going as they planned, but that didn’t inhibit her from seeing the world. To hell with Russell and his personal agenda. When she was in Casablanca, she was mesmerized by the clean white buildings of the city.
First named Casa Branca by the Portuguese in the 16th century (meaning “White House”) the French later translated the name to Casablanca in 1907. To the Arabs, the decorative city was dubbed, Dar el Baida, which also meant “White House.”
Sampling the best
From Morrocco to Bône, Jerrie saw the cities and ate local cuisines prepared by the locals including a traditional Ramadan soup. One of her most memorable dishes was the couscous, a dish prepared with cracked wheat or burghul, and steamed over vegetables and meat.
She saw women in veils, dressed with gold chains, and saw the markets with a couple who were housing her during her stay in Casablanca. All was as it should be. However, Ohio kept calling. Jerrie did her best to appease the press. However, there were some days where she would fail to deliver. Sometimes her communication between her location and her husband’s would fail, or the offices where she can phone long-distance calls were closed. Good old Russell, however, was a former journalist and wrote articles under his wife’s name. Husband of the year, ladies and gents!
This escapade adventure turned to a Spanish novella worthy tale. Jerrie wanted to take breaks, she wanted to ride camels across vast deserts, eat exotic foods, and buy souvenirs in markets and bazaars. She wanted a Julia Roberts’s Eat, Pray, Love scenario. Although she was able to meet some of those desires while staying in Casablanca, her husband kept pushing.
One phone call left Jerrie understanding something vital about her husband. “If you take off now, you can be in Guam in the morning, and be ready to leave tomorrow night for Wake [Island].” He was describing a 3,000-mile-trek in a span of a sentence. Jerrie soon realized, “He just wanted a ‘first,’ not me.”
Give and take
For what it’s worth, Jerrie appreciated her month of freedom. She was even able to feel the warm gold light of pure sunlight radiate on her face while flying over the cloud line. She saw breath-taking sunrises, experienced a surreal sense of peace, and was able to fly in a blanket of stars that made up the Milky Way. When she neared the end of her journey, she saw people who dressed impeccably in India, with gorgeous saris and colorful scarves. She saw the horrors of third world poverty.
Though it was brief, Jerrie rode a camel and smiled with people she never dreamed of meeting. For what it was worth, the frustrations, the angry phone calls and the vultures that were the press, she kept her sites on achieving a dream, “I didn’t dare admit it to anyone, [but] I was more interested in the world than in being the first woman to fly around it alone.”
In the end, Jerrie Mock accomplished what she was set to do. She flew around the world. And yes, she was the first one to do so. She was two days ahead of Smith. However, Smith did get a piece of Jerrie’s cake by breaking the record for history’s longest solo flight.
Smith was even humble enough to send Jerrie a cablegram: Hoping the clear skies and tailwinds of your trip will always be with you. It was the only time that the two ever spoken to each other, and it would be the last. A year later, Joan Smith crashed her plane in the San Gabriel mountains and passed away. Though they were rivals, Jerrie respected the pilot and thought of her as a kindred spirit. You had to have guts to fly around the world, woman or man.
When Jerrie returned home to Columbus on the evening of April 17, 1964, over 5,000 people greeted the Ohio native on the airstrip. They treated her as if she were Charles Lindbergh himself, racing toward her plane with smiles and congratulations. The swarm of people touched Jerrie so deeply that she couldn’t help but shed a tear.
Her family, along with her children, were there rejoicing her return. During the month of her return, she received an award from President Lyndon B. Johnson and was interviewed on the Today show. Unaccustomed to the rush of celebrity, and exhausted from her travels, all Jerrie wanted was for it all to pass so that she could rest and recharge her introvert batteries.
Accomplishing the near-improbable
Jerrie Mock accomplished a feat that many never dared to brave today. A pioneer, Jerrie followed her aspirations and pursued after her dreams. She accomplished a journey that not many women in her time had the opportunity to accomplish. Passing away in 2014, Jerrie was able to experience significant moments that truly mattered in her travels; the sun above the cloud line, and meeting new people, and seeing new places.
As for Russell Mock, he and Jerrie rightly divorced after her return. Though it was a difficult chapter in her life, it turned into a positive outcome; she put herself first. What is it about travel, crossing invisible boundaries that make our eyes open, and see what we couldn’t see before? Is it tackling the impossible, which enables us to see past the trivialities of our lives, or is it uncovering bravery in a time of fear, and immortalizing it? Whatever the case, Jerrie Mock found a place in her life that enabled change. Though not publicly recognized, she will always remain as the first woman who flew around the world and succeeded.
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