Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb fell in love with flying the first time she climbed into her father’s 1936 Waco bi-wing airplane at the age of 12. From there, she went on to be a record-setting aviator and the first woman to pass qualifying exams for astronaut training in 1960, but wasn’t allowed to fly in space because of her gender.

Born today, March 5th, in 1931, in Norman, Oklahoma, Jerrie grew up in an aviation-oriented environment. By age 16, she was “barnstorming” around the Great Plains in a Piper J-3 Cub, dropping “the circus is coming” announcements over small towns. On her 18th birthday, she received her Commercial Pilot’s license and began looking for a flying job.

“I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky.”

With the abundance of male pilots available after WWII, no one wanted to hire a “girl” pilot. So Jerrie took the jobs she could get… the tough, less desirable flying jobs like crop-dusting and pipeline patrol.

Undeterred, she went on to earn her Multi-Engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor and Ground Instructor ratings as well as her Airline Transport license. By age 19, Jerrie was teaching men to fly, and by 21, she was delivering sleek military fighters and four-engine bombers to foreign Air Forces around the world, well on her way to becoming one of the world’s top pilots.

Having flown 64 types of aircraft, Jerrie went on to set new World Aviation records for speed, distance and absolute altitude while she was still in her 20s. When she became the first woman to fly in the world’s largest air exposition, the Salon Aeronautique Internacional in Paris, her fellow airmen named her “Pilot of the Year” and awarded her the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement. Life Magazine named her one of the nine women of the “100 most important young people in the United States.”

In 1955, at the start of the Space Race, Jerrie was poised for greatness and had her sights set above the clouds. When America began selecting the first astronauts in 1960 for our first manned venture into space, Jerrie was picked by the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque to be the first woman to undergo the same physical and psychological fitness testing regimen as the male astronauts who later became the Mercury 7 (Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton).

jerrie cobb_rig

Image credit NASA, public domain: Jerrie Cobb tests Gimbal Rig

Jerrie did amazingly well in the first phase of testing, and NASA was astounded by her results. A publicity whirlwind kicked up , and she was asked to recruit other women – top female aviators of their era – to participate in the program. But given that neither the Air Force nor NASA was willing to put up the money to test the women, Jacqueline Cochran, another pilot and businesswoman, decided to privately fund their testing and training in 1961.

The list of women was narrowed down to 25, of which 13 total (a.k.a. the Mercury 13) would make it through the testing (Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk).

While all 13 women passed the first series of tests, the exact same tests that the (male) Mercury 7 astronauts were given, only Jerrie successfully completed all 3 grueling phases, including surviving nine hours in a sensory deprivation tank, far longer than any man.

Jerri Cobb_Mercury Capsule

Image credit: NASA, public domain

Nonetheless, Jerrie was denied her dream and rightful opportunity to be the first woman to fly in space because NASA deemed only men fit for space exploration. Here’s their convenient loophole: NASA required that astronauts have military jet test pilot experience, which automatically eliminated all women since women were not allowed to fly in the military. PS – Just two years later, Russia, our primary Space Race nemesis, sent the first woman to fly in space in 1963 – factory worker Valentina Tereshkova. NASA didn’t open the ranks of its astronaut corps to women until 1978.

So the bone that the good ol’ boys at NASA threw Jerrie in May of 1961 was to become a consultant for the nation’s space program. How large of them.

Setting her incredible disappointment aside, Jerrie decided to use her flying talent to serve the people of the Amazon jungle as a missionary pilot. For 35 years, she flew over the enormous uncharted jungle, bringing hope, seeds and help. For this work, she was honored by the governments of France, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.

Telling her unbelievable story and preserving her legacy here today, is our Happy Birthday to Jerrie Cobb… a pioneering woman we ALL should know and most certainly should have learned about in school.

Jerrie Cobb: Honors, Achievements & Awards

  • National Aviation Hall of Fame (2012)
  • Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement
  • Named Woman of the Year in Aviation
  • Amelia Earhart Memorial Award
  • Named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association
  • Fourth American to be awarded Gold Wings of the Federacion Aeronautique International, Paris, France
  • Named Captain of Achievement by International Academy of Achievement
  • Served 5 years as a Consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration
  • Honored by the government of Ecuador for pioneering new air routes over the Andes Mountains and and Andes jungle
  • Awarded the Harmon International Trophy for “World’s Best Woman Pilot” by President Nixon
  • Inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame as “The Most Outstanding Aviatrix in the US”
  • Received Pioneer Woman Award for her “courageous frontier spirit” flying all over the Amazon jungle serving primitive Indian tribes
  • Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 1981

Lead image:San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive in the commons Flickr Sources: NASA Archives, Oklahoma Historic Society, Mercury 13, The Atlantic, Jerrie Cobb Foundation