The flying housewife
The first woman to fly solo around the world
American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, once told us that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. In the late 1960s, my grandmother, Geraldine ‘Jerrie’ Mock, discovered the second to be true.
You see, in 1964, she was dubbed the ‘ flying housewife’ by the media as she set out to claim the title of first woman to fly around the world. Twenty-nine days later – after surviving sandstorms, iced-over wings and engine troubles – she landed back in Ohio on April 17 and claimed that title along with several others.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) awarded her the Gold Medal for Exceptional Service. The Smithsonian Institution honoured her with the placement of her plane on display in the Air and Space Museum. Cessna replaced her plane, ‘Charlie’, with a brand-new P-206 plane. The Internal Revenue Service, however, found it more suiting to reward her eight world records and massive achievements by taxing $US6000 on the new plane.
The Cessna P-206 is a gorgeous little single-engine, fixed landing gear aircraft often referred to as the SUV of the air. These sporty little planes seat up to five passengers, plus the pilot. The P-206 was the perfect choice for the other flight records grandma took in both distance and speed after her circumnavigational flight.
But the taxes and the fees were killing her dreams. “We couldn’t afford to keep the plane.” Goodbye P-206.
Grandma rarely spoke about the loss of the plane – I think it was a little too painful for her to think about – but I have many memories of
President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) awarded her the Gold Medal for Exceptional Service.
sitting with her in the den, hearing her stories of Papua New Guinea and the flying padres.
My grandma wanted the plane to go to something worthy since she’d no longer be setting records in it. So, when she heard about a former World War 2 pilot turned Sacred Heart missionary serving in PNG, she knew she’d found the perfect new home for it.
Russell Mock, a career adman – my grandfather and Jerrie’s husband – partnered with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to raise the funds necessary for the plane. This partnership meant the plane could be donated to the missionary pilot working with remote communities in PNG.
Russell also got the FAA involved, and grandma was back to taking world records. This time, she sought several speed records as she delivered the plane to Father Tony Gendusa.
There’s little on record about grandma’s flight to PNG, and she cared nothing for fame, so rarely spoke to me about those records.
The newspapers from 1969 reveal only the full name of Father Tony and the dates for each leg of her journey to the other side of the Pacific. The various publications around the country couldn’t keep the facts straight. They suggest that Jerrie took anywhere from two to nine world records on that series of flights to New Ireland.
The P-206 was outfitted with special fuel tanks designed to out-pace her previous records by several hours. The fuel system took up nearly the entire interior of the plane. During the flight, Jerrie used a thick custom-made gel cushion to help ease the impact of the unforgiving metal fuel tanks serving as her seat.
Oakland to Honolulu was the first leg. The flu struck, though, and she was delayed for several days. When she was able to depart on October 20, 1969, the straight flight took her nearly 16 hours.
She earned two speed records for the journey. Bad weather grounded her in Honolulu for a few days before her next take-off, to Tarawa, Kiribati. When she did find the air, more speed and distance records were taken.
From Tarawa, she flew toward her final destination of PNG. More bad weather over the Pacific detoured her to Guadalcanal, but she took more records along the way, even going off-course.
Altogether, Jerrie took nine world records in the 206, flying from Oakland to Rabaul. There she met Father Tony, the flying priest who would take the P-206 into his missions work around the country.
Grandma revealed in thinking of her plane helping missionaries
working with remote communities in the heart of PNG. She loved the imagery so much that most of her stories for me growing up were about PNG, not the world-record flight.
In the past, Father Tony visited the villages as he was able. The 206 now afforded him a flying ambulance he could use whenever needed to fly in medical supplies or transport patients for medical treatment on the mainland.
Grandma and Father Tony instantly connected as friends. She longed to stay and fly around with him for much longer than her home duties would allow. She dined on papaya and other tropical fruit he introduced her to and visited with children in the jungle. Sadly, however, her time there lasted only a few days. She had to head back to her own life – via commercial airliner – and get back to her children and granddaughter.
Years later, Jerrie had memorabilia from her flights scattered about her Florida home. One of her favourites was a hand-painted seashell from PNG. The shell holds the scene of a quiet, sunkissed beach. Grandma fondly spoke of beachcombing while there, and the unique seashells she found on her own, as well: “Did you know seashells used to be their currency?”
She showed me slideshows with hundreds of photos she snapped of the tribal dances she watched. Exotic birds of paradise roosted in trees and faces of children from the villages she visited shone with excitement at the sight of the flying lady.
“New Guinea was fun,” she often said. “I wish I could go back. You should go some time.”
When I was 12 or 13, we disposed of the gel cushion she used as her seat on the way to PNG. It was stained from years of neglect, smelled kind of funky, and definitely had passed its prime long before I was ever thought of.
Grandma was not prone to crying, but there was a glint of tears in her eyes as I heaved the last piece of her flying career into the rubbish bin.
“It smells funny, Grandma,” I insisted. “I know, dear.”
Grandma’s sciatic nerve was damaged during that 24-hour leg of the flight to PNG. Age unkindly added some pain as well and, eventually, she had to have both of her hips replaced. Since I lived only 10 miles away and was homeschooled, I stayed with her while she recovered. Many hours of watching Matlock, I Dream of Jeannie and
Gilligan’s Island passed, accompanied by that faraway look in her eyes when she’d notice a trinket from somewhere along her journey.
Looking back, I now realise that the gel cushion I casually tossed was the last symbol of her life as a pilot. She had the knick
knacks from her travels, but her planes were gone. That flight with the P-206 to PNG was it for her.
“I’m glad people can see ‘Charlie’ at the Smithsonian,” she told me,
“and I’m glad the 206 helped save some lives in New Guinea.”
Her legacy may be quiet – after all, you likely didn’t know her name before reading this story – but her impact has been great.
“Nobody expected I’d make it,” she chuckled, thinking back to taking off for her first world record flight. But by the time Jerrie flew to PNG, she’d already taken so many records that they no longer thought of her as a flying housewife. Of course, the title ‘ flying grandmother’ was hardly an improvement.
But, in the end, that is sort of how I see her. Jerrie Mock, my flying grandmother. She was a tiny woman from small-town USA, but she rode a camel in the Sahara, flew into sandstorms, waited out bad weather in the Pacific and trod the path of explorers into the jungles of PNG. And she lived to tell me all about it in her sunny Florida home 50 years later.
A gold-medal moment ... President Lyndon B. Johnson awards Jerrie Mock the Gold Medal for Exceptional Service (this page); Mock with the plane she flew around the world (opposite page).
Jerrie Mock ... donated her new plane to a missionary pilot working in Papua New Guinea.
Cockpit fashion ... (from left) a flying outfit worn by Jerrie Mock; the pilot with an air of confidence; the Mock statue; her passport.