Jerrie, Queen of the Clouds

All right, I will.

— Jerrie Mock

We’ve noted many times the power of role models during our examinations of exemplary humans, most recently during the biography of Mae Jemison. Trailblazers open the minds of young people and expand their palette for what is possible.

In the World War interregnum, Amelia Earhart was likely the most famous woman on the planet; one could make a case she was the most famous person on the globe. Her daring, prowess, and striking persona propelled her to the forefront of the American consciousness. Earhart nabbed record after record in the skies. When she disappeared in an attempt to become the first female to circumnavigate Earth in an airplane, her notoriety only deepened.

Thousands of young women watched Earhart excel in a realm dominated by men. That sort of example tends to leave an impression. As World War II arrived, thousands of women joined the military as Women Service Airforce Pilots.

Amelia Earhart in flying get-up - photographer unknown

One girl enthralled with Earhart’s endeavors was born in my hometown, Newark, Ohio. Geraldine Fredritz was 11 when Earheart disappeared on the way to Howland Island in July 1937. Jerrie, as she was known colloquially, followed Earhart’s flight around the world via radio broadcast. When her role model vanished, she listened in vain for updates every day after school. Jerrie had become infected with flying fever when her father took her for a ride in a small plane at age seven. She thought it would be a great way to see the entirety of Ohio, a wide frontier for a child. When Amelia decided to shoot around the globe, Jerrie expanded her goal: Ohio would no longer do; Jerrie needed to see the entire planet.

Growing up more than six decades later in Newark, the name of Jerrie Mock – the name Fredritz took after marrying in 1945 – never arose in history classes. No statues depicted Mock on the downtown square. I had never heard the name and I would likely have been hard-pressed to find someone who had.

This anonymity is curious, as Newark had become the birthplace of the first woman to fly solo around the planet! Jerrie Mock achieved something Amelia Earhart could not, and without a navigator to boot! Yet, this pioneer remained largely unknown. How did we get from pioneer to forgotten?

Mock receives the Federal Aviation Agency Gold Medal from President Johnson in 1964 - photographer unknown

After high school, Jerrie continued education at the Ohio State University. She excelled in engineering, where she was the only woman in the classes. Before finishing her degree, she decided to leave the school to marry Russell Mock, a highly common move of the era. The couple had three children but Mock found herself bored in the role of housewife. By the late 1950s, Jerrie and Russell had both attained licenses to fly planes. They purchased a Cessna 180, which they dubbed the Spirit of Columbus, after the city in which they lived. Jerrie took to calling the plane Charlie, after the last letter of the plane’s registration number.

Still, flying around the area did not seem to be enough to quell Mock’s wanderlust. One evening in 1962, Jerrie expressed ennui to Richard, so he jokingly asked her: “Why don’t you just get on the plane and fly around the world?”

Jerrie’s nondescript response was, “All right, I will.”

Spirit of Columbus in the National Air and Space Museum - photo by Pi.1415926535

While researching such a trek, the Mocks discovered that no woman had yet traveled solo around Earth. World War II had squashed the excitement for such non-essential records. That the initial trip for a woman remained open for the taking turned the jestful proposition from Richard into serious consideration.

Jerrie spent the next two years researching possible routes and asking for permission to fly into obscure airports from nations around the world. The Mocks received a sponsorship from The Columbus Dispatch, in exchange for exclusive stories about the excursion. Charlie needed some modifications, including extra fuel tanks, but was otherwise ready to tackle the mission, no matter how small it might seem to modern sensibilities.

After navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth and taking as many precautions as possible, the trip seemed a real possibility. The least prepared aspect of the project was the pilot. Jerrie only had 750 hours of flying time, of which just 250 hours were solo. She would have been considered a novice in the extreme. Further, she had never flown farther than the Bahamas, a far cry from the ocean-wide and continent-wide legs that would populate her journey. Still, Jerrie seemed ready to fly into the history books.

Enter Joan Merriam Smith.

Joan Merriam Smith in 1964 - photo by Los Angeles Times

Three months before Mock’s departure date, they learned that Smith planned to fly solo around the world, too. This proposition was particularly frightening because, unlike Mock, Smith was a renowned pilot. Concerned that the Columbus newspaper might rescind funding, the Mocks moved up the start two weeks, though it would still be two days after Smith’s intended departure. They banked on Jerrie’s meticulous planning to give them the advantage. Jerrie had hoped to leisurely explore the world while becoming the first woman to circle the globe alone, and she had little desire for a race, but it seemed she had no choice.

Mock took off from Columbus on 19 March 1964. In a plane like Charile, in a time like 1964, the solo flight around the world was always going to be arduous, but Mock encountered some incredible obstacles. On the first leg across the ocean, she found her long-range radio non-functioning. As it turns out, this issue was likely sabotage, orchestrated by someone who did not want her to succeed. Fortunately, she reached Bermuda safely, where the radio could be repaired. Storms almost forced her into the water near Casablanca. Over the Sahara, the motor attached to the radio antenna began to smoke, threatening to turn into a full-fledged fire next to the fuel tanks. She lost her radio abilities for nine days. Later, a navigational error landed her in a restricted, military airport in Egypt, prompting a close call with armed soldiers. Mock persisted.

Her husband kept tabs on Smith, always pushing Jerrie to make up time. What she had envisioned as a way to see the world, turned into a slog. She would sleep for five hours, sometimes fly for up to 17, and enjoy very little downtime in the exotic places she landed.

On April 17, Jerrie learned that if you go straight long enough you end up where you were. She exited Charlie in Columbus to ovations. Jerrie had not only beaten Smith, but she had nearly a month’s lead on her rival at the finish line.

Jerrie Mock had become the first woman to fly solo around the world.

Mock with her father a day after her flight concluded - unknown photographer

A meeting with the President and an appearance on To Tell the Truth ensued. But Mock was never comfortable with fame. She once said, “The kind of person who can sit in an airplane alone is not the type of person who likes to be continually with other people.” Jerrie was never going to be the media-savvy reincarnation of Amelia Earhart.

Mock never successfully “monetized” her record-setting excursion. She managed an airport in the aftermath and penned a book, called “Three-Eight Charlie,” but she fell into financial problems. Mock tended to eschew the media after a certain point. Her achievement began to fall into obscurity.

In the decades after her historic flight, most people in her hometown had never heard of Jerrie Mock. Though her lack of self-publicity certainly didn’t help, this lack of recognition seems like a terrible oversight. 

Thankfully, things have begun to change. In 2013, a museum in Newark, named The Works, erected a life-sized statue of Jerrie. To celebrate the 60th anniversary in 2024, The Works created an immersive exhibit on Mock’s life and flight. In 2022, the National Aviation Hall of Fame finally inducted her into its hallowed halls. The U.S. Air Force named a street in her honor at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base. In 2023, a book profiling the flights of Mock and Smith – Queen of the Clouds: Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock’s Epic Quest to Become the First Woman to Fly Solo Around the World –  hit bookstores.

Unfortunately, these accolades arrived a little too late. Jerrie Mock died on 30 September 2014.

Incredibly, one can grow up in a town with a historic daughter and never hear about her. Such is the road for women in science and exploration. Jerrie Mock’s incredible first might not reach the masses in the way it should, especially in her hometown, but she easily earns a spot in TMAC‘s Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame.

Jerrie, Queen of the Clouds, can have the window seat next to her beloved idol, Amelia, Queen of the Sky.

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