Something seemed amiss as Jerrie Mock flew toward runway number five at the Cairo airport on the edge of the desert.
It was only a vague sensation, so she guided her single-engine Cessna 180 – dubbed “Three-Eight Charlie” – down to the tarmac anyway. The wheels touched pavement just as an air traffic controller’s voice crackled over her radio: “Three-Eight Charlie, what is your present position?”
“Three-Eight Charlie’s on the ground,” she replied, anxiety mushrooming inside her. Why didn’t he know where she was? Something was very wrong.
She steered the plane off the airstrip to a taxiway while she and the controller tried to determine her location, which should have been clear to the tower. Then Jerrie saw three truckloads of soldiers barreling toward her, and they braked to a halt inches from the Cessna, blocking her path. She turned off the engine at the behest of a soldier, despite frantic questions from the controller on the radio. It went quiet. Jerrie opened the plane’s door, and an officer stuck his head inside the tiny cockpit.
“Madam, you are not in Cairo,” he said.
He refused to point out their location on a map, instead ordering her to taxi the plane behind the procession of soldiers. After parking the aircraft, she followed the officer on foot toward a former palace of Egypt’s King Farouk and tried to explain that she needed to speak with the Cairo airport. “They will be worried when I don’t arrive. I must phone and tell them where I am,” she said. The officer continued walking toward the stone palace without acknowledging her.
Jerrie remained steadfast; she had to contact Cairo. She wasn’t going to suffer the same fate as Amelia Earhart, she thought to herself. She refused to simply disappear.
Jerrie Mock was born Geraldine Lois Fredritz in Newark on November 22, 1925. According to family lore, her great-grandfather on her mother’s side traced their lineage back to the Wright brothers, though the documentation has been lost. Her father took her on a short flight in a Ford Trimotor plane at age seven, and she announced that she would be a pilot as soon as they landed. Her hero was Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean, who died in an attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world in 1937. Around that time, Jerrie became fascinated by geography lessons in school and wanted to fly to exotic places. She told her classmates she would circle the world one day.
She studied aeronautical engineering at Newark High School, and then majored in it at Ohio State. But she dropped out to marry her husband, advertising executive Russell Mock, and by 1960 they had two sons and a daughter in their Bexley home. Both Russ and Jerrie took flying lessons, eventually purchasing the Cessna for weekend trips. She enjoyed travel, opera, and gourmet cooking. Life was comfortable.
But it was also boring. She loved her family, but the existence of a housewife can be monotonous – cooking three meals a day, every day, over and over; cleaning a dirty home just to watch it get soiled again. “She kept thinking there should be something more exciting,” said her sister, Susan Reid.
One night in December 1962, she was bemoaning the tedium when her husband exclaimed, “Well Jerrie, if you’re so bored with your life, why don’t you just get in the plane and fly around the world!” And she said, “Alright I will!” The two laughed about it, but then it dawned on them that no woman had ever accomplished the feat, including Earhart. So why not Jerrie?
They began planning. The only planes that crossed oceans were commercial or military so they contacted some Air Force friends for help, but the bulk of the work was up to Jerrie. She plotted her route using a Rand McNally globe and then went to Washington D.C. to visit other countries’ embassies to get permission to use their airspace and landing strips. They modified the Cessna, tearing out all the seats except the pilot’s and replacing them with fuel tanks to increase its range over ocean stretches. They installed a new engine and a long-range radio, and they painted the plane red and white to hide its 11 years of use. The Cessna was officially named “Spirit of Columbus,” though Jerrie preferred “Three-Eight Charlie” in reference to the plane’s tail number. Or just Charlie.
On March 19, 1964, surrounded by family, friends, sponsors, politicians, and the press, Jerrie and Charlie posed for photos at Port Columbus International Airport, her figure petite and proper in high heels and a blue knit outfit and the plane gleaming red and white. Together they departed for Bermuda, and the odyssey began.
Trouble hit almost immediately. The high-frequency radio was dead – no signal, no static, nothing. She managed to land safely at Kindley Air Force Base in Bermuda, where she learned that the radio wire had been cut, taped off, and tucked away out of sight. It was the second bizarre occurrence already – the day before the flight, Russ revved the motor and oil began spilling out. He checked the filter and found that the brand new one had been replaced by an old, worn filter that immediately failed.
“If it hadn’t happened on the ground, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Susan said. “So knowing that before she left, and then the first day knowing that somebody had sabotaged the radio, I think it took a lotta guts for her to continue on that flight.”
But she couldn’t continue right away due to storm fronts patrolling the Atlantic. In the interim, she got continual updates and demands from Russ, who wanted daily front-page stories for The Columbus Dispatch, which had financed part of the flight. A second woman, a professional pilot named Joan Smith, was aiming to fly around the world at the same time, adding urgency to Jerrie’s already difficult endeavor. Smith was flying a longer route, the same one attempted by Earhart, but she departed two days before Jerrie using a faster twin-engine plane.
After a week, the weather cleared and Jerrie was off again. First to Santa Maria, a tiny island in the Azores, hundreds of miles from Portugal. She had navigational issues and picked up ice on the wings over the ocean but arrived safely. Then on to Casablanca, where she made another safe landing on the coast of Morocco despite accumulating more ice on the wings. Next was Bône (now Annaba) in Algeria, then Tripoli, and then she departed for Cairo but instead found herself at a secret Egyptian airbase.
So many people were waiting on her arrival in Cairo that officials were already calling the base commander before he and Jerrie walked into the palace. Her private fears of disappearing – discussed with her sister after the fact – never materialized. The officer waited until darkness fell to give her takeoff clearance so that she couldn’t see any restricted operations, and then he gave her instructions to find the correct airport.
After Cairo, she continued to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where several hundred white-robed spectators awaited her arrival at the airport terminal. The crowd applauded when they confirmed the pilot was indeed a woman by the sight of her blue skirt – “The figure didn’t hurt either,” Susan interjected. “I always thought she looked like a movie star.”
Next came Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, and Bangkok, and then Jerrie began island-hopping her way across the Pacific, from Manila to Guam to Wake Island to Honolulu. She reached the mainland in Oakland, and then traveled to Tucson, El Paso, and Bowling Green, Kentucky, before finally heading home.
On April 17, 1964, Jerrie guided Charlie back onto the runway at Port Columbus, to the delight of her family, friends, corporate sponsors, Governor Rhodes, and thousands of cheering, wild spectators. She had flown more than 23,000 miles around the world in 29 days, almost a full month faster than Smith completed her trip, forever enshrining her as the first woman to circle the globe by plane.
“We knew that if it was humanly possible, she would do it,” Susan said. “I know I never once thought about her not making it, and I don’t think the rest of the family did either.”
In the afterglow, Jerrie received a medal from President Lyndon Johnson and made appearances on the Today show and To Tell the Truth. The book detailing her quest, Three-Eight Charlie, was published in 1970; she was a celebrity, though a reluctant one. Despite the daredevil image of a flying ace in high heels, she was humble and reserved by nature. So she did exactly what she’d so carefully avoided during her worldwide trip – she all but vanished. She and Russ divorced in 1979, and she moved to Quincy, Florida, with her son Roger in 1992, retreating to a life of anonymity.
Jerrie Mock died at age 88 in her home in Quincy on September 30 of this year, just a few months after the 50th anniversary of her historic flight. The world had gradually forgotten her and her achievements, as Amelia Earhart – her doomed childhood hero – somehow reserved the distinction of America’s preeminent female aviator. And that’s likely how it would have remained if it wasn’t for Jerrie’s sister.
Susan Reid opens the side door to her home in Newark, her smile warm and her figure dainty like Jerrie’s.
Unlike her shy and introverted sister, however, Susan loves telling stories to strangers, at least the one about Jerrie’s illustrious yet forgotten flight. She was born 15 years after Jerrie, and she spent the better part of her young life idolizing her exotic and daring sibling.
“She had a real flair. To me she was like a movie star,” Susan says, at least the fourth time she’s compared her to a Hollywood celebrity. She spreads photos and awards from Jerrie’s flight across her kitchen table until every inch is filled. She recites anecdotes from the adventure like a schoolteacher giving her favorite lesson for the umpteenth time, her voice still proud with awe after five decades.
The schoolteacher demeanor is no coincidence – she taught for years nearby in Heath, which is where she began telling the tale to curious students. Later, she started giving formal presentations to local groups – the Progressive Club, the Kiwanis, the Lions Club, the Newark Business Association, mother-daughter dinners, anyone who would listen and care – so many groups she’s lost count.
Then three years ago a man named Bill Kelley joined the cause. He was at the airport with his family in 1964 when Jerrie landed and felt that someone needed to do something to recognize her. After years of waiting, Bill decided that someone was him. He called Susan and offered to mortgage his house to fund a $48,000 bronze statue of Jerrie at The Works museum in Newark. Susan told him no, they would raise the money. So he began writing letters, and she continued giving her talks, now aimed at fundraising.
Wendy Hollinger and Dale Ratcliff attended one such fundraising event at the local chapter of the Experimental Aviation Association. During her talk, Susan read from Three-Eight Charlie, and Wendy asked where she could get a copy. You can’t, Susan replied. Only 1,000 copies were issued, and they were selling for $350 apiece on eBay. Wendy owns a printing company, Phoenix Graphix Publishing Services, so she and Dale decided to get permission to reprint the book.
“Part of our motivation for doing it was because we were in a group of aviation people from Licking County, and a good portion of them had never heard of her,” Wendy said. They flew to Quincy and spoke with Jerrie, and Dale spent a few days taking more than 800 photos of all her flight documentation. The bronze statue was installed in Newark in September 2013, after more than 400 individuals and groups donated to the cause, and the 50th anniversary edition of Three-Eight Charlie was released back into print. On April 17, 2014, another bronze sculpture was unveiled at Port Columbus; Susan Reid served as the model for both statues.
In her home in Newark, she displays the glass plaque given to her just two days ago at the ceremony inducting Jerrie into the City of Columbus Hall of Fame. Mayor Coleman spoke there, as did Elaine Roberts, the CEO of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority – after 30 years in aviation she had no knowledge of Jerrie until she arrived here. Susan is thrilled that at last people are starting to hear the story.
During their frequent phone conversations, Susan often talked with her sister about her presentations, and Jerrie always checked to make sure she included all the details – “Did you tell them about the airport in Cairo?” And the answer was always yes, never a detail left out, but now Susan can no longer share her work with the one person who matters most.
“And that’s gonna be the hardest thing because it hasn’t really quite sunk in yet,” she says, a touch of sadness creeping into her voice. “I can’t just pick up the phone and talk to her.”
Jerrie’s death is still a fresh wound – it’s only been 15 days. But there has been a whirlwind of renewed media coverage; the world is paying attention again. The New York Times and The Guardian gave her extended obituaries. The BBC is calling later today, and hopefully more writers and reporters will show interest, maybe even a Hollywood screenwriter.
Then it’s clear why she’s retelling the story for the hundredth or thousandth time, still reading from a book she heard firsthand long before it was in print, and out of print, and back in print again. Jerrie remains alive as long as Susan keeps reciting the tale of the movie star aviator, forever soaring in that untouchable space between heaven and earth. She wants to hold her sister aloft so she doesn’t disappear, at least for a little while longer.