NO! IT IS NOT A RACE!
Captain Nancy Aldrich (Ret.)
As a little girl, Joan (Merriam Smith, 1937-1965) was fascinated with flying. Her family had taken a trip in a Lockheed Constellation, and she was invited to the cockpit to meet the pilots. She was captivated. The windows were so big, the ground was so far away, the sights out of the windows were so beautiful. She immediately fell in love with flying, and knew that, one day, she would be able to fly herself! Because she was so taken with flying, her aunt gave her a book about Amelia Earhart. Joan dreamed of completing Amelia’s flight. At 15, Joan learned to fly. She was too young to drive a car, but she took flying lessons and was able to solo with only 9 hours. She could not take a checkride for her license until she reached the minimum age of 17. She passed the check for the Private Pilot license, then worked toward a Commercial Pilot license, which she got at age 23, again the minimum age.
After obtaining her Commercial license, she began to working as a flight instructor, executive and charter pilot, always keeping in mind her dream of completing Amelia Earhart’s flight. In 1958, she married US Navy Lt. Commander M. G. (Jack) Smith who was also a pilot and encouraged her to follow her dream. Finally, in 1963 she had saved enough money to purchase a twin engine Piper Apache, N3251P. A plane suitable for an around the world flight. Buying the plane was only the beginning. It had to be modified, removing the seats to make room for extra fuel tanks along with other modifications, which added about $7,000 to the cost of the airplane. She had to borrow money from friends in order to complete all the modifications that had to be done.
When Jerrie (Geraldine Lois Fredritz, 1925-2014) was 5 years old her parents took her to a local airport for a short airplane ride in a Ford Tri-Motor. She was enthralled and immediately declared that she would be a pilot! Like Joan, she idolized Amelia Earhart, and at 11 announced that she wanted fly around the world. She is quoted as saying, “I did not conform to what girls did. What girls did was boring!” She was the first female to study aeronautical engineering at Ohio State University. She left school before graduating and married Russell Mock, who was also interested in flying.
Flying around the world had not been a life long dream for Jerrie. She was happy being a housewife and mother. However, one day she commented to her husband that she was bored. She wanted to do something, go somewhere. His response was, “Maybe you should get in your plane and just fly around the world!” “All right, I will,” she replied. At the time, she was a private pilot with only 750 logged hours of flying time. Like Joan’s airplane, Jerrie’s 1953, single engine Cessna 180, had to be modified with extra fuel tanks, and updated radio and navigation equipment for the flight.
Until Jerrie filed her plans with the National Aeronautical Association, neither woman had even heard of the other. Joan was very surprised to find that another woman was planning an around the world flight. She had hoped to be the first to make that accomplishment. While both women insisted it was not a race, when Jerrie found that Joan was flying a much faster airplane she decided to move her departure up 2 weeks, still saying she “just wanted to see the world.”
Joan was a much more experienced pilot and was flying a more powerful airplane. She took off from Oakland, California on March 17, 1964 (the 27th anniversary of Amelia’s flight) on her recreation of Amelia’s flight. Two days later, on March 19th, Jerrie took off from Columbus, Ohio for her around the world flight. While both women wanted to be the first to complete an around the world flight they insisted it was not a competition. The routes were much different. Joan planned her flight to follow Amelia’s 27,750 mile equatorial route, while Jerrie was more interested is setting a speed record and flew a more northern 22,858 mile route.
Jerrie immediately had problems. On her first leg to Bermuda she discovered radio problems, making communication impossible, and her navigation radios did not agree. Choosing the one she believed to be correct and dodging storms, she realized she had overflown Bermuda and had to turn back. She landed at Kindley Air Force Base in a strong crosswind and found that her brakes were inadequate during her taxi. She was taxiing in circles. Some line boys came out and grabbed the wings and helped her to safety. It was found that the her radio had not been properly installed! Several days of bad weather delayed her further, during which her husband called her with updates on Joan’s progress. Finally, she departed and flew to the Azores, climbing to 11,000’ to stay out of icing conditions. Then on to Casablanca, Morocco where she found her brakes were still giving her trouble. The new brakes that should have been installed before the flight began, apparently were not.
At the same time, Joan was also experiencing difficulties. She was delayed 7 days while having a leaking fuel tank repaired. Flying the equatorial route put her in the Tropical Convergence Zone, which was almost a guarantee of bad weather. Flying to Belem, in North Brazil she was forced to fly low over the Amazonian jungle to avoid thunderstorms. When she landed in Natal, Brazil, she discovered there was a political revolution taking place. Unable to communicate, due to the political situation, she was not able to receive any weather information. With the situation becoming more uncertain, she decided to take off anyway, en route to Dakar, Senegal. Again, she encountered severe thunderstorms, forcing her as low as 500’. Once she flew out of the storms, she was out of range of communications with Natal and not yet able to receive Dakar. When she began to receive transmissions from Dakar, she found her radio could receive, but not transmit. She landed in Dakar after 16 hours of flight, totally exhausted, and hours after her flight plan had expired. However, she had completed a major milestone on her quest; she had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and was on another continent. That was worth celebrating, so she relaxed and went sightseeing!
On Jerrie’s next leg Cairo was not available due to sand storms so she diverted to Tripoli which she found by flying along the Mediterranean coast. The next day she continued to Cairo and became confused on the approach. She mistakenly landed at Inchas Air Force Base and was met by armed soldiers. After clearing up the confusion, they allowed her to take off and fly to the nearby international airport. She had wanted to see the world, and she was getting a good dose! She was amazed at the red tape necessary for her flight, when in America you can just take off and fly when you want to. On her next leg, to Khartoum she suffered from the extreme heat and became dehydrated. In addition, the heat cause severe turbulence making the airplane difficult to control.
While she enjoyed experiencing the cultural differences, she was surprised that women were completely controlled and could not even drive a car. In Dharan, Saudi Arabia she stepped out on her airplane in her white blouse and blue skirt and high heels. The men ran to look in the plane to see who had been flying. Finding no man, they were incredulous!
She then flew on to Karachi, then Ahmedabad, India. She was very concerned about getting sick so would only eat overcooked food, and the packaged food she had brought along.
Every time she and her husband spoke, he would urge her to hurry to stay ahead of Joan. Being an advertising executive, he understood the marketing possibilities of Jerrie being the first woman to fly around the world. However, she was exhausted and not the least interested in marketing and speaking engagements. Finally, she said to him, “If you call me again to talk about Joan, I’ll come home on an airliner!”
Jerrie continued on her way to Bangkok then Manila. Along that route she flew over Vietnam. Realizing there was a war raging beneath her, she later commented, “somewhere not far away a war was being fought, but from the sky above, all looked peaceful.” Her engine began to run rough and she happy to be across the South China Sea. In Manila, she put the airplane in a Cessna maintenance shop. They fixed the brakes, a radio antenna, and gave the airplane a 100 hour inspection before she continued on her long leg crossing the Pacific.
With a fresh 100 hour inspection on her airplane, Jerrie set off on the 11 hour flight to Guam, and was happy to be back in U. S. airspace. Russell told her that Joan was only as far as Calcutta, and continued to urge her to keep pushing to stay ahead. He wanted her to immediately fly to Wake Island, another 12.5 hour flight. After Wake, she flew 15 hours and 46 minutes to Honolulu. She was looking forward to some sightseeing, a relaxing evening at a luau. However, Russell thought she would be too exhausted, so he had cancelled the party so she could sleep!
On April 14, Jerrie she off for the final ocean leg of 2,409 miles to Oakland, California and was anxious to be back on American soil. She had an uneventful, 17 hour and 38 minute flight. However, if she flew directly from Oakland to Columbus, she would be short of the 22,858.8 miles necessary to qualify for an ‘around the world’ flight. After a short rest, she flew to Tucson, then through Texas and on to Columbus. That would give her a total of 23,103 miles. When she stopped in Bowling Green, Kentucky to fuel for the final leg, her husband asked for her estimated time of arrival as the Governor, FAA Administrator, and several thousand spectators were waiting for her arrival. After 29 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes, Jerrie Mock touched down at Port Columbus Airport at 9:36 pm on April 17. She was the first woman to complete an around the world flight! During her adventure, she set 7 records, including the first woman to fly across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Quite an accomplishment for a housewife! Joan Smith was still in Australia at that time.
Joan flew on through Thailand, Indonesia, and Darwin, Australia, then on to New Guinea which was Amelia Earhart’s last departure. There she met 6 people who remembered seeing Amelia. All along the way, she handed out felt tip pens and asked people to sign her airplane. She collected about 800 signatures altogether. She certainly wanted those who had met Amelia to add their names to her plane.
On the 22nd of April, (5 days after Jerrie had completed her flight) Joan took off for Guam, then on to Saipan, where some believe Amelia was captured by the Japanese and held prisoner. Unfortunately, we will probably never know what really happened to Amelia. After departing Saipan back to Guam, Joan found that her landing gear would not stay up. It had to be hand cranked up, and then would slowly drift back down. This created a lot of drag, slowing her down and burning extra fuel, two very bad things when she still had the long Pacific crossing ahead of her.
Joan departed Guam for Wake Island on May 1st. About 300 miles into her flight she lost all electric power, which included her radios. She had no choice but to turn back for repairs, which cost her another 2 days. On the 1st, the winds were favorable, but when she departed on the 3rd they had become headwinds. There were times when she was sure she was jinxed! Again, the landing gear was giving her problems and she would have to hand crank it back into position periodically. Her problems just seemed to compound. After leaving Wake, her left engine began to overheat, again she had to turn back for repairs. It was found that dead insects had blocked the oil cooler. Four hours after leaving Wake for the 2nd time, she plotted her position with her sextant and discovered the wind was much stronger than she had anticipated and she would have to divert to Midway Island and refuel. She finally made it to Honolulu on May 8th, were she was well received.
The next leg was at least 17 hours of flying time. Her airplane carried only 20 hours of fuel. The flight could only take place with favorable wind and weather conditions. Joan had to lose 2 more days waiting for good weather. That did give her a little time to enjoy Waikiki, rest a bit, and even do a little shopping. She was able to leave Honolulu on may 10th. Again her engine overheated and she had to turn back. On the 11th, she took off again. After passing the point of no return she began to have more problems. The gear continued creeping down, and her right engine was burning too much fuel. She decided it had to be shut down and fly on one engine. Then she had to do something she had never done before. She called for help. A Coast Guard airplane came out and escorted her to Oakland. Before landing she restarted the bad engine. After flying 18 hours, she made a perfect landing. Amelia’s sister had been aware of her flight and sent a congratulatory telegram. Joan’s flight around the world had taken 56 days. She had flown 170 hours, completed 34 legs, and covered 27,750 miles. She had dreamed of completing Amelia Earhart’s trip, and she had accomplished her goal. She was presented with a bouquet which she accepted as a tribute to Amelia. Her dream ended with much joy!
These 2 women were remarkable in their accomplishments. While they both had wanted to be the first to fly solo around the world only one could claim that title. The housewife from Columbus, Ohio set her speed records, and could claim that title.
Joan Smith had been the first woman to fly around the world in a twin engine airplane
made the first solo flight along the Equator
the first woman to fly solo from Africa to Australia
and set a record for the longest flight time.
Joan Merriam Smith received the prestigious Trophee de la Ligue Internationale des Aviateurs, the Trophee des Aviatrices, and the prestigious Harmon Trophy. Unfortunately she died the next year in an airplane accident in Wrightwood California, on February 17, 1965.
Jerrie Mock had flown around the world in 30 days, with 158 flying hours. She set 2 official records: speed around the world in a Class C1-c aircraft, and female speed around the world. She also set 5 “unofficial” records:
first woman to fly solo entirely around the world
first woman to fly from the U. S. A. to Africa via the North Atlantic
first woman to fly cross the Pacific in a single engine airplane
first woman to fly the Pacific from west to east
first woman to fly both the Atlantic and Pacific.
On May 4, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson awarded the Federal Aviation Administration’s Exception Service Decoration to “the flying housewife,” Jerrie Mock. She also became the first American and the first woman to receive the FAI’s Louis Bleriot Silver Medal.
Captain Nancy Aldrich (Ret.)