Jerrie Cobb: Paving the Way for Female Astronauts

Born in 1931 in Oklahoma, Jerrie was first introduced to aviation by her father, Lt. Col. William H. Cobb, who was a pilot. She rode in an airplane for the first time at the age of 12, in her father’s 1936 Waco biplane. By age 16, she was stunt flying around the Great Plains dropping leaflets to advertise circuses. She earned money to pay for fuel by giving rides to spectators. Jerrie earned her private pilot’s license at 17 and her commercial pilot’s license on her 18th birthday. She then took any job that allowed her to fly, including crop dusting, patrolling pipelines, and flight instructing. She traveled to Florida at her own expense to apply for a job as a DC-3 co-pilot but was rejected when the company discovered she was a woman. Without money left to return home, she took a clerical job at Miami International Airport.

While working as a clerk, Jerrie met Jack Ford, the president of Fleetway International, an aircraft ferry service. He was looking for a pilot to deliver two AT-6’s to Peru. 21-year-old Jerrie volunteered. When Ford expressed uncertainty due to her gender, she handed him her log book with over 3,000 hours of flying time. Jerrie spent the next three years delivering aircraft from fighters to flying boats worldwide. She returned to Oklahoma in 1955 and continued working for aviation companies. In 1959, she set the world records for nonstop long-distance flight and light plane speed. She also set the world altitude record for lightweight aircraft (37,010 ft) in 1960. Jerrie became one of the few female executives in aviation while working for Aero Design and Engineering Company in the late 1950s.

In 1959, Jerrie was selected as one of thirteen women to undergo the Mercury astronaut selection process, becoming one of the Mercury 13. Jerrie completed all three phases of physical and psychological testing, scoring in the top 2% of everyone tested – including the male Mercury Seven astronauts. Jerrie was the first female to complete the third phase of testing. Days before the rest of the women began phase three, the program was terminated. Jerrie and her fellow Mercury 13 participants lobbied to be trained alongside the male astronauts. NASA required jet test pilot experience to be an astronaut trainee, and women were not permitted to be military pilots. Although she never achieved her goal of space flight, Jerrie helped pave the way for future female astronauts in the United States.

After losing her battle with NASA, Jerrie began flying humanitarian missions in South America, delivering supplies to indigenous tribes and surveying new air routes to remote areas. She used self-drawn maps to make her way across the Andes Mountains and Amazon rain forests. Jerrie flew these missions for over 30 years and was honored by the governments of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, and Peru. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 for this humanitarian work.