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The foremost woman flyer in America is a soft-spoken, dimpled, pony-tailed blonde from Oklahoma named Jerrie Cobb. Now 29, she has been flying for 17 years, both for fun and for money, and she holds three world records. She has made innumerable transoceanic flights, at the controls of everything from single-engine trainers to Flying Fortresses. She may be the best woman flyer in the world; in any case, she qualified last week to be the first woman to get out of it. Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that Miss Cobb had passed rigorous tests given the seven male astronauts.
Jerrie might be described as the "can do" girl. She has ridden in rodeos, been a tennis instructor and played first base for a girls' softball team in the National Softball League. She took her first airplane ride in 1940 when she was 9 years old and soon after started trying to persuade her father, who was then an Air Corps captain, to teach her to fly. She was still so small that her mother promised her a new bicycle if she would stay out of airplanes, but when she was 12 her dad rigged blocks on the rudder pedals of his Waco biplane, put pillows on the seat and began teaching an astonishingly apt pupil.
Like a lot of other enthusiastic amateur flyers, however, Jerrie soon learned that you have to stay on the ground to earn money to put you back in the air. A year after she took her first flying lesson she started earning her own flying money. "My first job was working for a horse ranch in Colorado for $5 a week, which I thought was a fortune," she says. At Downtown Airpark in Oklahoma City, during high school, she waxed all-metal Cessnas. Her pay was one hour's flying time per waxed plane. "I thought I had a good deal," she says. "Sometimes it would only take three days to wax a plane, and I'd come up with a whole hour's flying time."
Age of ascent
When she reached her legal licensing age of 17, Jerrie already had 200 hours logged. On her 18th birthday she passed her CAA flight examinations for commercial and flight instructor's ratings. That same day she flew to an approved VA flying school in Duncan, Okla. and began teaching Korean and World War II veterans. "I earned $2 an hour," Jerrie says. "I worked seven days a week, sunup to sundown, with night ground school, too, teaching navigation, meteorology, aircraft and engines, civil air regulations and radio."
Jerrie also put in a year at Oklahoma College for Women. A natural athlete (she has also been runner-up in a state open golf tournament for women) Jerrie played first base for three seasons with a semipro team, known as the Sooner Queens, in the National Softball League. In fact, softball helped buy her first plane, a war-surplus Fairchild PT-23 trainer, which she heard was for sale at Sky Ranch Airport in Denver. She hurried out to the field and $500 changed hands. "Then I took my little bill of sale," Jerrie says, "and walked away from my airplane for a month, to go play ball in Chicago."
When the softball season was over she returned to Denver, picked up her PT-23, and flew it to Ponca City, Okla., where her family lived. She wanted a baby-blue instrument panel, so she pulled out all the instruments and redid the entire cockpit.
To support the PT-23, Jerrie flew pipeline patrol in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. "You get right down on the deck," she says, "and if there's a leak you can tell by the foliage or the discolored earth. Or you can smell it as you fly along. The neatest trick in pipeline patrolling is to find the pipeline; it's underground." She also put in six months crop-dusting.
From dusting she went to a desk job for an aircraft firm in Miami. There she met Jack Ford, president of a California international ferrying service. Ford's firm, Fleetway, Inc., was trying to deliver a fleet of small, single-engine T-6s to the Peruvian air force. The route led from Miami to Barranquilla on the coast of Colombia. "In a T-6G," Jerrie explains, "you had no gas left if you didn't hit the coast right at first." The experienced pilots of Fleetway were restive about flying small, single-engine craft over those watery and mountainous distances, deliveries were far behind, penalty charges were mounting, two T-6Gs were ready to leave Miami and, as Jerrie puts it, "Jack had already fired some of his best pilots for refusing to fly the route."
Ford didn't like women pilots, but in the emergency Jerrie persuaded him to let her have a chance at ferrying. She quit her desk job overnight and reported on the flight line. She was to follow Ford in the other T-6G. Her first ferry job did not begin very auspiciously. As she says simply: "I couldn't start the airplane." But once started, she made it without incident as far as Ecuador, where she landed—in jail. The T-6G had Peruvian air force markings, and she was arrested as a Peruvian spy. She spent 12 days behind bars, while the U.S. consul and authorities in the States wrestled with red tape. By the time she got out Jerrie had learned more Spanish than she would in another three and a half years of South American flying. She made it to Lima too; but her new boss didn't. He had ground-looped his plane at a stop on the way, and, as Jerrie says, "We were friends after that."