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Geraldine Mock (1925-2014)

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale recognised her as the first woman to fly solo around the world, certified her record for speed around the world and awarded her the Louis Blériot medal

Issue: 06-2015By Joseph Noronha

Geraldine Mock was the first woman to fly solo around the world and that too in a single-engine plane. In the process she also became the first female pilot to fly single-engine across the Pacific Ocean and the first woman to fly solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific.

Geraldine “Jerrie” Fredritz was born on November 22, 1925, in Newark, Ohio, USA. Her interest in flying began at a very young age when she and her father were once able to fly in the cockpit of a Ford Trimotor. Later she became one of the first female aeronautical engineering students at Ohio State University. In 1957 she commenced formal flight training on a Piper Tri-Pacer and received her private pilot’s licence the following year.

Jerrie became the manager of the Columbus Airport and for the next few years flew whenever she could. Along the way she married a pilot, Russel Mock, and became the mother of three children. She called herself the ‘Flying Housewife’. In 1962, she casually remarked to her husband that she wanted to do something exciting and he perhaps equally idly suggested, “Why don’t you fly around the world?” The idea immediately struck a chord and gradually grew into a detailed plan.

To her amazement she discovered that although Wiley Post had become the first pilot to fly solo around the world as far back as July 1933 and others had repeated the feat, no woman had yet succeeded in doing so. The reason perhaps was that in July 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan went missing, presumed dead, over the Pacific in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe at the equator. Jerrie decided “it was about time a woman did it.” However, she had just 500 hours of flying under her belt, that too only in fair weather. And she had hardly any experience of navigating over the sea. But one thing she did have was confidence that she could do it and determination that she would. So she proceeded to obtain an instrument rating that would permit her to fly in any weather and simultaneously built up her airborne experience. Over the next 18 months she made thorough preparations, studying maps, planning the route, meeting other pilots, poring over flight regulations and obtaining necessary permissions especially from foreign embassies.

Her husband helped her with fundraising as well as modifying and preparing the 1953 Cessna 180 aircraft, which was christened ‘Spirit of Columbus’ and assembling all the associated equipment necessary for the flight. The Cessna was a high-wing plane with conventional tail wheel type landing gear. The aircraft’s range was way too low to cross the Pacific, so it was modified by removing the passenger seats and installing three extra fuel tanks which added 692 litres of fuel and increased its range to over 5,600 km. The task was made simpler because Jerrie herself was of small stature, barely over five feet tall and a little more than 100 pounds. The aircraft could remain airborne as long as 25 hours in case of an emergency. The mechanics also fitted a new 225 hp engine. For navigation, the only equipment the plane had was twin radio direction finders (ADF), dual shortrange VHF NAV/Coms, a long-range HF radio, a compass and an autopilot.

On March 19, 1964, Jerrie took off from Columbus, Ohio, at 9:31 a.m., flying in an easterly direction. She had some anxious moments shortly into her flight when she found the HF radio completely dead. As she set out over the Atlantic she also noticed that the two direction finders did not agree with each other. Somehow she managed to navigate towards Bermuda while in and out of clouds, overflew it, realised her error and turned back. She landed without further incident and got her radio aids rectified. The other stops were at Azores, Casablanca, Bone (Algeria), Tripoli, Cairo, Dhahran, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangkok, Manila, Guam, Wake Island and Honolulu, before she made it to the mainland United States: Oakland, Tucson, El Paso and Bowling Green. At Cairo she mistakenly landed at a secret military airbase. After she convinced the soldiers that she had no hostile intent she was permitted to resume her journey, this time landing at the correct airport. In Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the guards refused to believe that this petite woman had actually piloted the Cessna. But when their diligent search of the plane did not reveal a hidden male pilot they erupted in incredulous cheers of admiration at her pluck and skill. She made it a point to appear in public, especially for interviews by the press, in decidedly feminine attire, neat skirts, elegant jackets, pearls and brooches, with hair immaculately coiffed to drive home the point that a woman could be a woman yet fly.

A wildly enthusiastic crowd of over 5,000 people had assembled at the Columbus airport on the evening of April 17, 1964, when Jerrie Mock finally completed her long and arduous flight. She had flown a distance of 37,180 km in 29 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) recognised her as the first woman to fly solo around the world. It also certified her record for speed around the world (eastbound) of 52.75 kmph for Class C1-c landplanes weighing between 1,000 and 1,750 kg. In 1965, it awarded her the Louis Blériot medal.

The Cessna Company put the ‘Spirit of Columbus’ on public display and gave her another Cessna in exchange. Jerrie continued breaking some less noteworthy records before she finally stopped flying in 1968. In 1970, she wrote a book about her flight around the world called Three-Eight Charlie, a reference to the call sign she had used for the flight. Geraldine Mock died on September 30, 2014.