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Jerrie Cobb: A heroine of aviation, blocked by the zeitgeist from the Astronaut Corps….

Jerrie Cobb – A Love Affair With the Sky

After a lifetime in aviation, a good deal of it spent flying humanitarian missions in South America, she was also nominated in 1981 for the Nobel Peace Prize.*

… As America began selecting the first astronauts in 1959, Jerrie was picked by the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque to be the first woman to undergo the same physical and psychological fitness testing regimen as the Mercury Astronaut Selection Tests. After passing the tests with flying colors, Jerrie was asked to recruit 25 other qualified women pilots. Twelve passed the first series of tests.

After promising her an early space flight, NASA appointed her the agency’s consultant for the future use of women as astronauts. However, NASA’s requirement that astronauts have military jet test pilot experience eliminated all women since women were not allowed to fly in the military. … She was staggered when John Glenn testified that “men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes,” and women are not astronauts because of our social order. Finally, her hopes were deflated. (See Mercury 13.)

A year later, Russia sent the first woman to fly in space, Valentina Tereshkova, a factory worker. The American space program did not open the ranks of its astronaut corps to women until 1978.

The quotes above are only a part of the interesting biographical sketch, “Jerrie Cobb – A Love Affair With the Sky” by Nick Greene, at

I have to make one observation: I have no idea of the full context of the quote from John Glenn’s remarks, but lacking context, on the face of it his comment is correct: It really was the “social order” of that time that prevented women from going into combat and so forth. One cannot fault even a Democrat for speaking the truth; and from the quote itself, alone, we can’t tell whether he approved, disapproved, or was indifferent.

And thanks, RAB, for prompting me (in your comment about Hannah Reitsch) to go look around.

*See also her Wikipedia article, which gives more information on her accomplishments and awards, at


  1. Lynne says:

    I’ve never heard of Jerrie Cobb – more’s the pity. She was born in the wrong era otherwise I suspect her name would be up there with the best.

  2. Julie near Chicago says:

    I hadn’t heard of her either. And I’m sure you’re right. In fact, Wikipedia lists (some of?) her awards:


    Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement
    Named Woman of the Year in Aviation
    Amelia Earhart Memorial Award {cn}
    Named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association
    Fourth American to be awarded Gold Wings of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, Paris, France
    Named Captain of Achievement by International Academy of Achievement
    Served five years as a consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration
    Honored by the government of Ecuador for pioneering new air routes over the Andes Mountains and Andes jungle
    1973 Awarded Harmon International Trophy[9][10] for “The Worlds Best Woman Pilot” by President Richard Nixon at a White House ceremony.
    Inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame as “the Most Outstanding Aviatrix in the US
    Received Pioneer Woman Award for her “courageous frontier spirit” flying all over the Amazon jungle serving primitive Indian tribes
    1979 Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for her “humanitarian contributions to modern aviation”.[11]
    2000 Inducted into “Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame”.[12]
    2007 Honorary Doctor of Science degree from University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.[13]

  3. Lynne says:

    The first female jet fighter pilot in the UK was Jo Salter. Shamefully, women were not allowed to fly operational RAF jets until 1992.

    During WWII civilian female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary flew all sorts of RAF aircraft, from single engined fighters like Spitfires and Hurricanes, through to the double engined fighter-bomber Mosquitos and heavy, multi-engined bombers like the Lancaster. But only to deliver them to airfields from the factory production lines. They weren’t armed so, if they encountered any enemy aircraft during a flight, had only their wits and skill to get them through. Some of them, including Amy Johnson the famous British aviatrix, died while flying aircraft for the ATA. There is a mystery surrounding her death.

  4. Julie near Chicago says:

    Our women did that too. And now, I must follow your link. :)

  5. Julie near Chicago says:

    Very interesting, Lynne, thank you. I haven’t heard of her before. :( But I see she also won a Harmon Trophy.

    And now I can’t help speculating about the mystery.

    She certainly was good-looking. And I must say Mr. Mollison was a little quicker off the mark than most!

    Oh–the Frenchwoman I was thinking of was Jacqueline Auriol. (She was also in the list of Harmon Trophy winners.) I read her book “I Live to Fly” over 40 years ago. In those days I read all the aviation autobiographies and novels I could get my hands on.

  6. NickM says:

    The role of women in aviation/space history is something poorly studied. Someone needs to write a book…

    Oh, I mean there are numerous biographies of the great aviatrixes of yore etc. but no unified history. There are some interesting potential social issues here such as the acceptability of wearing “men’s” clothes because perhaps before that it would have been seen as deviant. Perhaps these women did as much as suffragettes for a re-evaluation of the role of the sexes. At least in the West. How many aircraft designs can you think of originating from the Islamic World? And for me I’d much rather hang-out with a woman in greasy chinos and a battered flying jacket who knew where the spark-plugs went in a Lockheed Electra than some giggling deb who’d say, “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!”

    As to the role of the ATA (and their counterparts) whilst the risk of being shot-down by enemy action was low they tended to face (as Lynne says) the enormous danger and difficulty of flying many different aircraft and usually alone, even on normally multi-crewed aircraft. A typial Lanc bomber would be delivered by a single female pilot who would not only have to pilot the aircraft but do this without the help of a flight-engineer who (in the case of the Lanc) was very much a copilot and had the tricky job of keeping all four engines in sync. Also these were usually brand-spanky new ‘planes or rebuilds and they’d be taking them up for the first time and the conditions of WWII did not allow for the long de-snagging which is now the norm.

    As to active combat… Many arguments revolve around the assertion that women and men think differently so Men are better overall at techy things and women at empathy and stuff. Well, I dunno – I am well tempted to believe that is a self-fulling socio-media construct. But it is largely irrelevant in the context anyway because of the utterly rigour of selection and training. Even if fewer women than men can make the grade (a big “if”) so few other of either will do you are dealing with exceptional individuals.

    A final point which Julie hinted strongly at. My understanding from a TV show, quite long ago was that initial NASA testing favoured female astronauts on physiological and psychological grounds but was buried by officialdom for socio-political reasons. Or something. Anyway the first woman NASA deemed to put up was Sally Ride in 1983 (20 years after the Russians!).

    “Prior to her first space flight, she was subject to media attention due to her gender. During a press conference, she was asked questions like “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?””

    -wikipedia, “Sally Ride” – (I’ve heard much the same elsewhere) What things to ask of a Astrophysics PhD who was instrumental in the Shuttle program.

    Sally Ride died last year of cancer. We also lost Neil Armstrong and Sir Patrick Moore. A rough year for us space-fans!

  7. RAB says:

    I am well tempted to believe that is a self-fulling socio-media construct.

    Yep me too Nick. I remember some former anti terrorist expert, who dealt with the Baader Mienhof and the Plo writing a book entitled…

    Shoot the women first.

    Because the female is much deadlier than the male in combat circumstances.

    The ladies of the ATA were something else. They came from all over the world, often at their own expense (the ones from the States and S Africa certainly did) just to do their bit.

    There is a documentary that periodically turns up on the Yesterday Channel about them, and these now old but sparkling ladies just shine!

    One had just landed a Wellington Bomber single handed and was looking for someone in authority to sign her delivery chitty. “Where’s the pilot love, and what are you doing on board?” said the ground crew. “I am the pilot, and there is no-one else on board” she said. They searched the aircraft in vain for the supposed crew who were hiding and having a laugh with them.

    Another of these magical ladies described the first time she got to fly a Spitfire…

    Oh it was gorgeous, a true ladies plane. You didn’t have to wrestle with the stick, it did whatever you wanted it to do instantly. We wern’t supposed to, but if there was enough cloud cover and we were out of sight of the tower, we would take them up above the clouds and do loops and rolls… Oh yes the best plane I ever flew….

    And these ladies were expected, when they had reached a certain level of competency, to climb into a completely unfamilar aircraft and fly it with only the operational manual open on their knee. My hat is off to those incredible gels, because many were upper crust types who had learnt to fly on daddy’s Tiger Moth in the 30s. One of these gels used to make detours to have lunch with friends, hundreds of miles off route, and still deliver the plane on time. One of the American ladies had the stated intention of not only doing a good job, but sleeping with every Officer in the RAF. She made a decent stab at it too apparently.

    Britain was the first country to let women fly military planes because in 1940 our backs were to the wall. Like that scene in the movie the Battle of Britain, when the Olivier character says… make them all operational, the Poles and yes the Czechs too, we need every man we can get.

    Had they made the women operational too, I’m sure they would have been lethal.

  8. Julie near Chicago says:

    Nick, yes, when Sally Ride became the first American woman NASA sent into space, and at least up to the Challenger disaster I think, it was de rigueur for the girls to have a poster of her in their rooms. And, yes–the women ferry pilots were awesome.

    RAB, another of your wonderful comments. The Encyclopedia Britannica just doesn’t have the same…vividness. And I love the anecdotes!

  9. RAB says:

    You are too kind dear lady. And another thing about the ATA, it was the first organisation that had equal pay for men and women. Fair a bloody nough I’d say!

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