Jerrie Mock was a 38-year-old housewife from Columbus, Ohio, when, 50 years ago this week, she accomplished what Amelia Earhart is famous for having failed to do. But in the decades since, as Mock’s life began to unravel, history all but forgot the pilot who made it.
Just before the coast disappeared into sea and sky, Jerrie Mock switched on her airplane’s long-range radio and found only silence. She tried again and again, leaning her ear to the speaker, and still heard nothing, not even static.
When Mock departed from Columbus that morning, she had heard the tower controller’s voice on a loudspeaker. “Well, I guess that’s the last we’ll hear from her,” he told the crowd gathered to see her off to Bermuda. He was joking, but suddenly his words had the ring of truth. In an aircraft not much larger than a cargo van, surrounded by gasoline tanks, Mock was completely alone, navigating to a speck of an island with a compass and paper charts. Unable to report her positions or call for help, she could have become another Amelia Earhart: a woman trying to circle the world, lost at sea, never to be found.
Yet Earhart was a full-time aviator with a passenger who served as navigator; Mock was a full-time mother of three flying solo. Earhart had crossed both oceans; Mock, a licensed pilot for only seven years, had never flown farther than the Bahamas. Compared with Earhart’s brand-new, twin-engine air plane, Mock’s single-engine Cessna was 11 years old, with fresh paint covering the cracks and corrosion. Suddenly — and suspiciously — cut off from communications, Mock considered turning back. She wasn’t flying around the world to become rich or famous. Initially, she hadn’t even realised she could set a record.
Her original impetus for making the trip: She was bored.
But in the months before her take off, the flight had become much larger than a housewife with a dream. As Mock’s ambitious husband secured her sponsorships and media coverage, another woman — more experienced, with a faster plane — announced that she’d attempt the same flight. As she headed toward the Bermuda Triangle, Mock had to ignore the danger and keep flying, feeling pressured to win a race she had never intended to enter. Twenty-nine days later, when she finished the flight on April 17, 1964, Mock could have been America’s sweetheart, a household name. On stops from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Guam, the barely 5-foot brunette had stepped out of her plane in a blue skirt and sweater set and said demurely, as she still does now,
“I just wanted to have a little fun in my air plane.”
“She has kind of pretty, all-American looks, and I think when they make the film, Doris Day will play her part,” panelist Orson Bean declared when Mock appeared on the game show To Tell the Truth shortly after the flight.
But the last 50 years have produced no Hollywood movie, no legend, and, until recently, not so much as a statue of Mock in her small hometown. Elsewhere in Ohio — the so-called birthplace of aviation — the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton doesn’t include her. Committee members who vote for inductees, according to one who added Mock to the ballot in 2003, don’t recognise her name. While history has largely forgotten Jerrie Mock, she never wanted much attention, not even 50 years ago. And not now, at 88, when she’d prefer that her life be remembered for what it was then and not for what it’s become.
Quincy, Fla., doesn’t seem a place big enough in which to easily disappear — there are only so many places to go, people to see. The town of 8,000 between Tallahassee and the Georgia border used to be known as a haven of Coca-Cola millionaires, early investors who struck it rich. But now that Quincy’s poverty level exceeds 28%, the mansions are deteriorating, and the once-charming courthouse square is lined with empty storefronts.
About six years ago, a man seeking an autograph had to wander from door to door before finally encountering someone who knew a Jerrie Mock. The owner of a bed-and-breakfast recognised the name; she lived a block away. Yet after 13 years in Quincy, he’d never heard about his neighbour being a pilot, let alone her circling the world.
Mock, along with her son, Roger, and his family, left the Midwest for Quincy in 1992. At that point, there wasn’t much reason for her to stay behind; her husband had left her more than a decade earlier. With much of her remaining money, she paid $68,500 for a four-bedroom home that hadn’t, and still hasn’t, been updated in years.
“I’ve been here ever since and not done a darn thing,” she says now, chuckling only slightly.
Roger’s gone now, as is Mock’s other son, while her daughter and only surviving sister remain in Columbus. A grandson recently moved in but spends most of Mock’s waking hours at work. So Mock is usually alone, sunken into a worn green recliner in the living room. Christmas decorations hang over the windows two months too late; dead plants fill the corners. She reads mystery books, watches CNN, and passes the days, claiming not to mind the quiet. But the flight gets her talking for hours. Though her memory has started to fade, she brightly recalls flying situations, names of ambassadors, the couscous she ate in Casablanca — “anyway, it was lots of fun,” she’ll say in conclusion. She likes to bring up how the world has changed in 50 years, which countries have improved and which have deteriorated. Highlights of the half-century since her trip, though, she struggles to identify.
“I’ve had good years and bad years, good things and not-so-good things,” she says, following a long pause. “It’s been a different life.”
Growing up in rural Newark, Ohio, Geraldine “Jerrie” Fredritz wanted different. “I did not conform to what girls did,” she says, matter-of-fact, as usual. “What the girls did was boring.”
After her family took a short air plane ride at the local airport, 7-year-old Jerrie announced that she wanted to be a pilot. A few years later, as she listened to after-school radio broadcasts about the adventures of her heroine Amelia Earhart, she expanded her goal from flying across Ohio.
“I wanted to see the world,” she says. “I wanted to see the oceans and the jungles and the deserts and the people.” Fascinated by geography books, she imagined riding a camel across the desert.
The only girl playing Cowboys and Indians grew up to be the only female aeronautical engineering major at Ohio State University. The men didn’t bother her after she got the lone perfect score on a chemistry exam. (“If I’d been stupid, they might not have liked me. But as long as I got the 100s, they couldn’t very well protest.”)
But it was 1945, and for a woman, a career in aviation wasn’t realistic. At 20, she dropped out of college to marry Russell Mock, an intelligent, confident young man who caught her attention in high school by arguing with her about algebra and saying he had soloed a plane. Within three years, they had two sons, Roger and Gary, and added Valerie in 1960.
Still, while the Mocks settled in Bexley, a quintessential suburb, life was hardly conventional. Their personalities contrasted — with Russ, the showman extrovert to Jerrie’s introvert — but the couple shared a curiosity about the world and a set of refined tastes: gourmet cooking, classical music, travel.
Russ, an advertising executive, once travelled the country to promote Elsie the cow, the Borden mascot. Jerrie spent time producing a radio program featuring the Metropolitan Opera and a local TV show on which teenagers debated global politics. In their home, the Mocks served three-course dinners by candlelight and hosted foreign college students, who taught them their recipes and inspired Jerrie to read the Qur’an.
Eventually, Jerrie began taking flying lessons while the boys were at school. After she and Russ each earned pilot licenses, they became half owners of a four-seat Cessna 180 and alternated piloting the plane for weekend and business trips.
Yet Jerrie Mock always felt she was supposed to do more. Something special. In 1962, she entered a women’s air race, for which she was insured throughout the Western Hemisphere. To take advantage of the insurance, she and Russ flew to an island off the Canadian coast, where from the hotel radio room she could hear pilots communicating their positions over the Atlantic. “I thought, My goodness, I want to do this,” she says. “It was exciting.”
One night at the dinner table, not long after the trip, Mock complained to her husband that she was bored of staying at home all day. She wanted to go somewhere. “Maybe you should get in your plane and just fly around the world,” Mock’s husband said jokingly, dismissively. “All right,” she responded, entirely serious. “I will.”
With her family’s encouragement, Mock called the National Aeronautic Association, just hoping to obtain maps for an around-the-world trip, and learnt no other woman had completed the flight. (Wiley Post set the men’s record in 1933, four years before Earhart’s attempt.) Mock devoted more than a year to preparation, meeting with Air Force officers who secretly thought she was crazy but helped her chart 19 stops. To acquire permission for landings, she sorted through regulations and contacted foreign embassies to ensure she wouldn’t be mistaken for a spy. Her plane, which she named the Spirit of Columbus, was outfitted with an overhauled engine, a long-range radio, and, in place of the other three seats, tanks that could hold enough gasoline to fly over the ocean. And Mock’s mother-in-law agreed to watch Roger and Gary, teenagers at the time, and their 3-year-old sister Valerie. Mock’s husband persuaded the Columbus Dispatch to pay $10,000 toward the flight (the equivalent of over $75,000 today) in exchange for exclusive news about “the flying housewife.” The front-page stories quoted Mock downplaying her flying skills — “Except for not wearing high heels, really, it’s just like driving a car.” — and explained with disbelief how little clothing she planned to pack. “Housewife Calm as Take off Time Nears,” one headline read. “VISITS BEAUTY PARLOUR.”
Mock’s departure in April was less than three months away when an NAA official called from Washington with a tip. Since Earhart in 1937, no woman had seriously attempted flying around the globe, especially not when World War II made gasoline limited and airspace dangerous. Although female aviators were still rare — even today, less than 7% of pilots are women — far more were flying for recreation and competition in the 1960s than in Earhart’s day. Mock had kept quiet about her plans, not wanting to inspire other women who didn’t know the record was up for taking. Yet somehow, the NAA official said, another woman had decided to fly around the world at the exact same time.
Joan Merriam Smith was a pro, a pilot who flew charter planes and had learnt to fly before she could drive. Like Mock, the Californian grew up a tomboy who idolised Amelia Earhart. The 27-year-old claimed not to know about Mock’s plans, having dreamt for years of retracing Earhart’s journey and seeing what she had seen. Starting on March 17, the day of Earhart’s take off, she would fly a route 4,000 miles longer than Mock’s, but in a faster twin-engine air plane.Mock scrambled to depart two weeks earlier than planned, feeling the pressure of what was now a race. If Smith gained a considerable lead, Mock and her husband worried that the Dispatch would pull its sponsorship, effectively cancelling the flight. Both women denied the existence of a contest, with each flying a different plane on a different route. The Dispatch, too, downplayed the situation, relegating the whereabouts of the “second aviatrix” to two-paragraph sidebars. On one of her stops, Mock told reporters, “I am not in any race with that woman.”
But she went on to criticise Smith’s route. While Smith intended to follow Earhart’s path along the equator, Mock said she was avoiding some of the toughest terrain: “She is going just enough of the way to uphold her claim.” Meanwhile, Smith didn’t even mention Mock in her July 1964 Saturday Evening Post essay, “I Flew Around the World Alone.”
Technically, the women weren’t in direct competition: If Smith had circled the world first, her flight wouldn’t have been eligible for the record books. For verification, the world-record attempt required the hiring of official landing observers and awarding of sanctions, which were granted to only one pilot at a time: Mock.
But a victory by Smith could have counted among the public and especially among pilots. A member of a leading women’s flying club, she was better respected in aviation circles: In the year Mock became the first woman to fly around the world, the prestigious Harmon Trophy for aviation achievement went to her rival.
Mock began her flight on March 19, two days after Smith’s departure, despite knowing of the storms ahead. Weather conditions over the ocean were so poor that she ended up stranded in Bermuda for a week. The earlier take off time also rushed plane maintenance: Without Mock’s knowledge, her husband instructed mechanics to skip replacing her unreliable brakes. When she landed in Bermuda, she had to stand on one brake to keep the plane from spinning in the wind.
But the nonfunctional radio, she thinks, wasn’t a symptom of the hurry. The mechanics who repaired it in Bermuda found it disconnected, the ends of the wire taped neatly. After 50 years, Mock figures she can say now what she couldn’t then: sabotage. “It definitely was not accidental,” she says. Someone, she thinks, wanted Smith to win the race.
It was the middle of the night in a country where she hadn’t planned to be, and still, Mock woke to a ringing phone. Russ Mock had tracked down his wife at a hotel in Algeria to tell her to fly faster, asking why she wasn’t in Tunisia as planned.
“Give me some stuff for a story,” he said. “The papers say that Joan’s covering 2,000 miles a day. You have to go further.”
Mock had just flown six hours from Casablanca through storms so severe that she considered an emergency water landing. When she arrived in Bône, Algeria (now Annaba), after dark, having eaten little in the air, she dealt with currency and language confusion before getting lost looking for an open restaurant. Smith was hardly a concern, especially when she’d been asleep. “She can be all the way back home for all I care,” Mock told her husband. “If you call me again to talk about Joan, I’ll come home on an airliner.” She slammed down the phone in what was neither the first nor last time.
The pressure from Smith turned Mock’s sightseeing adventure into overnight stays in all but five locations. Unless she was waiting on weather or repairs, which allowed her time to explore, her main views were of airports and hotel rooms. She flew nonstop for as long as 17 hours and slept a nightly average of five — the same number of hours often required to clear the airport red tape. At each landing, she dealt with fuelling and repairs, weather reports, paperwork, and customs and law enforcement in airports not used to private pilots, let alone American housewives.
Reporters wanted photos and quotes about Earhart
(“Do you think you’ll disappear over the ocean?”).
On top of her exhausting itinerary, Mock was supposed to wire stories to the Dispatch soon after her arrivals. But the offices where she could send cables were often closed or non-operational, leaving Russ, a former newspaper reporter, to write pieces under his wife’s name. “I heard the most welcome news of my life Thursday when the hotel switchboard called me and said: ‘Columbus in the United States wants to talk to you,’” began a story from the Philippines. “It was my husband … and it was a tremendous experience to hear his voice again.”
Mock’s memoir, published six years later, recalled the phone conversation differently. On her third night of rest and repairs in Manila, Russ pushed her to head halfway across the Pacific. “If you take off now, you can be in Guam in the morning, and be ready to leave tomorrow night for Wake [Island],” he said, describing 3,000 miles of travel. Smith had lost several days to mechanical trouble — but, Russ argued, she could still catch up. Mock stomped her foot in anger and hung up the phone.
“He just wanted a ‘first,’” she wrote. “Not me.”
Around the world, Mock had calmly handled dangerous scenarios like a pilot with far more flying hours. She says now that she simply recalled instructions from her training (“You know if this happens, you do that. Your engine quits out over the ocean; what do you do? You land in the water and that’s that.”) But the situations could have cost her life. Over the Atlantic, she manoeuvred through icy conditions that could have downed the plane into the ocean. While flying across Libya, she handled a near-fire over the desert: The motor attached to her radio antenna began smoking, leading to another radio outage — this time for nine days. And she had experienced indescribable peace, the beauty of clouds glowing gold at sunrise. As she crossed the Atlantic one night, the starry sky perfectly clear, she actually pinched herself to see if she was dreaming. Yet in phone calls placed around the world, what her husband wanted to discuss first were the newspaper stories, the race.
Even after her six-day weather delay in Bermuda, Mock ultimately returned home more than three weeks ahead of her rival. Smith, credited with making history’s longest solo flight at the time, sent a congratulatory cablegram: Hoping the clear skies and tailwinds of your trip will always be with you. Otherwise, the pilots never conversed. At an aviation conference soon after their flights, they faked smiles for a photo and then parted ways. Less than a year later, on Feb. 17, 1965, Smith was flying a small plane that crashed into California’s San Gabriel Mountains — killing both the 28-year-old and her passenger, who was writing her biography.
When the race between them was on, Mock visited Bangkok, but only in the dark, and Honolulu, without a glimpse of the beach. In Cairo, Mock realised another dream she’d had for 30 years. But because she was so rushed, she only rode the camel for five minutes — an opportunity for a photo that never even made it home in the mail. She was flying around the world, but not always seeing it.
More than 5,000 people greeted Mock at the Columbus airport on the night of April 17, 1964, cheering and waving signs like they were at a football game. Exhausted and teary-eyed, Mock hugged her family members before facing the barrage of flashbulbs and questions about what the flight had been like. Where to begin? Over the past 29 days, she had endured mechanical issues, storms, and communication breakdowns. She had landed accidentally at a restricted air force base in Egypt and was detained until darkness fell. In Saudi Arabia, where women even today aren’t allowed to drive, a crowd at the airport erupted in cheers, as she recalled in her book, for some reason appreciating the oddity that no man was aboard Mock’s plane.
On the night she returned home, a blur then and now, Mock was too overwhelmed to describe any of it. In a short, flustered statement, she told the crowd that the flight was easy enough, but that she wished she could put her speeches on autopilot.
“I don’t know what to say. This is just wonderful,” she said, and that was all.
Within days, Mock was whisked off to New York for the Today show and to Washington to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had a medal for Mock and a birthday cake for Valerie, who turned 4 that day.
At home, the phone rang incessantly with invitations Mock had no choice but to accept: She needed speaking fees to repay her so-called sponsorship, really more of a loan. Mock quickly tired of sending money to the Dispatch while spending her own on babysitters for Valerie. Audiences probably didn’t realise that Mock, with her upbeat tone and modest smile, dreaded talking to them. Thinking of the time recently, she frowns and sticks out her tongue like she’s tasted something bitter.
“The kind of person who can sit in an air plane alone,” Mock says, “is not the type of person who likes to be continually with other people.”
In the 1930s, while the public was fascinated by the novelty of flight, Amelia Earhart had embraced her fame. She endorsed cigarettes and a clothing line, wrote columns for Cosmopolitan and posed for photos with Cary Grant, all with the help of her publicist husband.
Russ Mock, too, wanted to promote his wife, imagining her legacy and an estate built from her story. When they flew commercially, he would proudly ask the flight crew to make a special announcement about the celebrity on board — not comprehending why she wouldn’t enjoy the fame. Valerie Armentrout, now 53, says her father, while materialistic, believed his wife deserved to be a hero. “He did not want it to be the 50th anniversary,” she says, “and have no one know who the heck she is.”
But at the time, Jerrie compared the spotlight to being an animal in a zoo and profiting from her dream to selling her soul. She just wanted to return to normal life, to fly her plane. To be left alone. “I’d rather go to an island where there are no phones or TV,” she said over and over in those years, “and never talk to anyone again.”
And in an especially newsworthy era — with front pages covering the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and Beatle mania, and with the space race occupying the part of the American imagination once consumed with now-mundane air travel — Mock ultimately got what she wished for. “It’s an unknown story,” says Dorothy Cochran, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which for years kept Mock’s plane in storage before installing it at a satellite facility at Dulles International Airport a decade ago. “She deserves far more recognition than she’s ever gotten; there’s no doubt about that.”
In the years after Mock circled the globe, her world began to shrink. She had been flying for additional records, securing several speed and distance titles, when in 1969, the IRS informed her that she owed $6,000 on her new plane. The Cessna 206 had been a gift from the manufacturer in exchange for displaying her plane at its factory. Mock hired a lawyer to defend her case and won — only to be charged the same amount in legal fees. After one last adventure, during which Mock sold and delivered the aircraft to missionaries in Papua New Guinea, she could never again afford to fly an airplane.
For Jerrie and Russ Mock, the jet-setting and dinner parties dissolved into the ordinary. They argued over finances; she threatened so repeatedly to make the island escape when her daughter turned 18 that Valerie tended to believe her.
Eventually, Russ met another woman, whose newly acquired inheritance would afford them trips to Morocco and China. “So he fell in love with her money,” she explains flatly, not mentioning how she felt about it. “He got rid of me so he could go with her.”
The divorce in 1979 left Mock to drift between an apartment in Columbus and the homes of her parents in Newark and her sons in Columbus and Michigan. She looked for work, but by then, times had changed. Without a college degree, she could find only a part-time job at a bank, where she was hired to greet incoming customers.
Even after he remarried, though, Russ still spent weekend time with his ex-wife, helping her with cooking and household tasks, like a husband would. Mock’s daughter and sister struggle to explain why they divorced, both saying they were soul mates.
“Whatever they shared between the two of them did not dissipate,” Armentrout says. “I think that my mother and father had always planned on reconciling, quite honestly.”
In 1991, Russ mailed Jerrie a check — a sign, in her mind, that he wanted her back. But even before she could cash it, he was gone, the heart attack triggered by his severe, lifelong asthma. She mourned for the second time in five months, with her son Gary dying from cirrhosis of the liver at age 42.
Mock didn’t imagine she would lose a second child too soon. Of her family members, she saw Roger the most, with Valerie, a single mother of five, not often able to visit. Though Roger hadn’t been ill, he died suddenly from diabetes complications on Thanksgiving 2007 — her birthday.
Mock doesn’t discuss these chapters much, not even with family. Susan Reid had called her sister that Thanksgiving but didn’t learn of Roger’s death until she opened her Christmas card. “While you and I were talking on the phone,” Mock had written inside, “my son was dying.” Armentrout thinks her mom stays positive by trying to forget her hardships, focusing on her travel memories and the worlds in her books. “She’s such an isolated person; she can live so comfortably in her own mind with nothing else,” she says. When the conversation becomes difficult, Mock changes the subject. “So anyway, no more of that,” she’ll say after a couple minutes. “We go to more pleasant things.”
As the flight’s 50th anniversary approaches, Mock’s quiet has been getting interrupted. Wendy Hollinger and Dale Ratcliff, pilots and publishers in Ohio, reprinted 1,000 copies of Three-Eight Charlie, the memoir Mock named for her plane’s tail number. Only 1,000 copies were printed during the book’s initial release in 1970, making it a rare find. With the re-released book reviving some interest from the flying community, Mock has fielded interviews from aviation writers and visited with pilots who have flown to Quincy. “When I was a little girl,” she tells them, reciting her favourite stories, “I told my parents I was going to fly my plane around the world…”
Meanwhile, Bill Kelley, an 85-year-old Newark native and long time admirer of Mock, realized that if he didn’t do something to recognize her in their hometown, maybe no one would. Although he’s never met Mock, he offered to mortgage his house if it meant paying for a statue to honour her. It upsets him that children don’t learn about Mock in school, not even in Newark. “Any place that mentions Amelia Earhart,” he says, “she should be there.”
Mock’s sister took on the cause, helping to raise $48,000 for a bronze statue that in September was dedicated at a Newark museum. A similar statue will be unveiled April 17 at the Columbus airport, where a female pilot will land a Cessna 180 at the same time and place Mock did 50 years ago.
Mock won’t admit if she considers any of this exciting. “Confusing is more the word,” she says, having found it difficult to remember what’s happening when. “When you get to be my age, you worry about how you’re going to manage everything.”
Lately, the added attention has been wearing her out. When she mentions the anniversary, she talks — perhaps somewhat jokingly and somewhat seriously — of wanting it to pass.
“I hope I’m still alive,” she says, chuckling. “I just hope I survive, that’s all.”
“There were dozens of women who could have done what I did,” Mock will say, insisting that she doesn’t deserve any more recognition. “All I did was have some fun. Statues are for generals, or Lincoln.” Mock will allow that she’d like to see her story made into a movie. But the anniversary, her daughter says, means more than she’ll ever express. Mock would rather not acknowledge her birthday, but she always notes who calls on April 17. The true day that celebrates her life.
“That is what’s inside of her, the flight,” Armentrout says. “That’s who and what she is.”
She declined to attend the statue dedication, even when offered a ride to Ohio in a private jet. She hasn’t allowed for her picture to be taken in years. A car accident decades ago left what she calls a “bruise” on her temple — now an unsightly wound that she refuses to have examined, even though it’s been spreading.
In September, three of Mock’s grandchildren took her to the nearby bed-and-breakfast in Quincy, where they crowded around a laptop to watch the statue dedication via Skype.
On the screen, Mock saw a crowd of more than 400 people, from local pilots to high school classmates, who had devoted a sunny Saturday to celebrating her achievement. She heard her sister’s voice break as she expressed gratitude for the donations. She saw the stranger who offered to mortgage his home on her behalf, the pilots who republished her book not for profit but because they believe her story deserves to be told. She listened as two professional pilots, both young women, spoke of how her flight helped make their careers possible.
“To me, Jerrie Mock represents what America is all about,” one said, “an ordinary person who has extraordinary dreams and turns them into reality.”
Mock didn’t say anything during the event and wouldn’t say much after, except, as usual, that she didn’t understand all the fuss. But twice during the ceremony, her grandchildren noticed her wiping away the tears.