Charles Lindbergh shocked the world by flying solo across the Atlantic in 1927. Not to be outdone, Amelia Earhart repeated the feat the very next year. In 1933, Wiley Post flew his Lockheed Vega around the world in a mere eight days, but a woman did not match the accomplishment for a full three decades. What could be exciting about the story of a “first” that comes almost as an afterthought?
A lot, as it happens.
In Nancy Roe Pimm‘s telling (The Jerrie Mock Story, 2016, based on extensive interviews with the pilot before her death), the difficulties start on the very first leg of pilot Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock‘s journey. Her radio goes out, and her brakes fail upon landing. The problems continue: ice builds up on her wings over the Atlantic; thunderstorms force her to reroute over Africa, a smoking electrical system induces panic, armed men greet her at an airport in Egypt, a sandstorm threatens to wreck her engine–and she isn’t even half way to her goal.
The most shocking fact for me was her lack of professional aviation qualifications. She was an amateur–in fact, “just a housewife.” She had trained to be instrument-rated but had never flown that way without an instructor at her side. She had a mere 750 hours in the air.
Mock grew up in the thirties and was inspired by the accomplishments of Amelia Earhart. But Mock was less interested in setting records, than in seeing the world. The tension between these two goals is another driving force in Pimm’s narrative. Several weeks before Mock is to depart, she learns that another woman, Joan Merriam Smith, is planning the same record-setting flight. What Mock foresaw as a leisurely sightseeing trip suddenly becomes a race to be first (as the these stories so often do). Mock is not so sure she wants to join the competition but, inevitably, realizes she has “no choice.” Yearning for more time to linger at each stop, she dutifully hops into the plane and continues her quest.
If, indeed, it is her quest. In the most distressing part of the story, Mock’s husband seems to assert his male prerogative to make key decisions for her. He prods her to move more quickly and chastises her when she dawdles. When aviation authorities advise her to wait out a storm over the Azores, Mr. Mock “beg”s her to get back in the air, seemingly regardless of her safety. From their home in Columbus, Ohio, he somehow manages to cancel all the celebrations planned to welcome her to Hawaii. Mock, the pilot, is distraught. She needs rest, but the narrative makes clear that the husband is not looking out for his wife’s interests but his own. He wants her to claim the first-around-the-world honors. I found myself wondering if their marriage survived this deep misalignment of viewpoint. Pimm does not say.
Mock received help from supportive men, especially Brigadier General Dick Lassiter and Major Arthur Weiner. But many men openly doubted the legitimacy of her even making the attempt. It is shocking to read the words announced by air traffic control immediately following Mock’s take-off: “Well, I guess that’s the last we’ll hear from her.”
Mock was a pioneer but also a woman of her time. While proving that a woman could excel in a “man’s” field, she wasn’t afraid to seek more “womanly” pleasures, as she did when visiting a beauty parlor in Manila. She hit the salon on her first day back in Columbus, too–just before resuming housewifely duties. But she had changed, too, and she had earned respect not given the average homemaker. Mock kept flying and setting records. In the years that followed, she established six more firsts, and set numerous speed and distance records. She became a real competitor. Still, she dismissed the importance of her first first memorably: “Planes are made to be flown. I was just out having a little fun in my plane.”
Source: Pimm, Nancy Roe. The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo Around the World. Athens: Ohio University Press,