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Remembering Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb, Pioneering Woman Aviator

Posted on Thu, April 18, 2019
  • by: Margaret Weitekamp and Dorothy Cochrane
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Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb (1931 - 2019)

Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, who died in March 2019, will likely be remembered for her role campaigning for women to be considered as possible space travelers in the beginning of the space age, but the Museum’s upcoming exhibits will also showcase how important she was as an award-winning pilot who flew for years as a missionary in the Amazon.

Cobb was the first test subject recruited in 1960 by Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II and Brig. Gen. Donald Flickinger to undergo the physical testing regimen Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, developed to help select NASA’s first astronauts. When Lovelace announced Cobb’s success at a 1960 conference in Stockholm, Sweden, she immediately became the subject of media coverage. At the same time, she continued helping Lovelace find additional women pilots to examine, eventually compiling a list of 25 pilots to invite. Jacqueline Cochran, the famous pilot and businesswoman, and Lovelace’s old friend, joined the project as an advisor and paid all of the women’s testing expenses. The result was Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program, a short-lived, privately-funded project testing women pilots for astronaut fitness in the early 1960s.

Jerrie Cobb is tested in the Gimbal Rig in the Altitude Wind Tunnel in 1960.

In the end, thirteen women passed the same physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed for NASA’s astronaut selection process. They were: Jerrie Cobb, Myrtle "K" Cagle, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Jean Hixson, Irene Leverton, Sarah Gorelick [Ratley], Jane B. Hart, Rhea Hurrle [Woltman], Jerri Sloan [Truhill], Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen], and Bernice "B" Trimble Steadman. Although the group has been called the “Mercury 13,” a misleading and ahistorical moniker, Cobb called them her “Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees.”

After plans for additional testing of the women were cancelled abruptly in 1960, Cobb drove the effort to revive the project. The question of whether women could endure the physical rigors of spaceflight had been debated in popular culture for years, but Cobb’s persistent lobbying inspired the House subcommittee hearings that investigated whether NASA was discriminating on the basis of sex. Two years before sex discrimination became illegal, subcommittee hearings of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics showed how ideas about women’s rights permeated political discourse even before they were enshrined in law. After public testimony by Cobb, Hart, and Cochran, as well as NASA representatives George Low and astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, the Subcommittee finished the hearings without taking any action.

Cobb and the rest of the group found themselves in the limelight again when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. Clare Booth Luce’s article in Life magazine included photographs of all thirteen Lovelace finalists, making their names public for the first time. When NASA announced in 1998 that Sen. John H. Glenn would fly in space for a second time as a part of a space shuttle mission, women pilots who already knew the story of Cobb’s work promoting Lovelace’s testing started a grassroots campaign to “Send Jerrie into Space.” Although she never got her shot at spaceflight, Cobb’s significance lay, not only in her efforts for the United States to include a woman in spaceflights, but also in her pioneering career in aviation.

Cobb’s aviation years were bookends to her quest to be an astronaut.  She first came to Lovelace’s attention as a seasoned barnstormer, ferry, and corporate pilot with speed, distance, and altitude records. From her first airplane ride in an open-cockpit Waco at age 12, Cobb dreamt of and subsequently built a career in aviation, no easy task for a woman of the 1950s. She flew Lend Lease military aircraft around the world and then, in 1959 as a test pilot for Rockwell International, set the Absolute Altitude record of 37,010 feet in its Aero Commander business aircraft.

Jerrie Cobb seated at the controls of an Aero Commander aircraft; circa early 1960s.

Following her deep disappointment that there would be no further testing or entry into the U.S. space program for her, Cobb became a missionary pilot, merging her love of flight with her desire to serve others. A devout Christian, she bought a used Aero Commander 500B, Juliet, in 1963 and, at age 32, flew south to the Amazon River basin intent on ferrying medicine and supplies to the indigenous people of Amazonia, a vast area comprised of the great river and its tributaries in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Cobb again met with gender issues in South America, as existing missionary and humanitarian groups would not hire a female pilot, so she started her own unaffiliated foundation and flew solo for more than 50 years. She supported her missionary work with private donations, aerial surveys, and consulting. Cobb respected indigenous cultures, offering aid during times of sickness or floods, suggestions to aid their precarious existence in the rainforest, and conversations of faith.

In 1978, Cobb replaced her aging Aero Commander with a Britten-Norman BN-2A Islander well suited for short takeoffs and landings on cleared muddy patches deep in the rainforest. By day, she flew over uncharted territory, pioneering air routes; when there were no maps, she made her own. She stored fuel at headwaters and flew hundreds of miles up tributaries to indigenous tribes. At night, she slept in her hammock tied to her airplane, next to villagers’ hammocks or communal homes. Flying solo suited Cobb, whose faith, skill and determination guided her in her missions. Her autobiography Jerrie Cobb: Solo Pilot details her extraordinary life.

Jerrie Cobb talking with children while sitting on her hammock slung beneath the wing of her Britten Norman BN-2A Islander during a humanitarian mission somewhere in the Amazon Basin.

Cobb received many awards including the 1972 Harmon International Trophy as the woman pilot of the year and the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame, and Women in Aviation International’s Pioneer Hall of Fame. The Oklahoma Historical Society and Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study have significant Cobb artifacts collections and archives.  In addition, the humanitarian unit of We All Fly, a forthcoming general aviation gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, (following our current renovation) will display a Cobb hammock, flight equipment, and wooden bird and animal figures, hand-carved gifts of Amazonian indigenous people.