The “Spirit of Columbus”: The First Woman to Fly Around the World

Everyone knows that Amelia Earhart (and her navigator Fred Noonan) disappeared over the Pacific in 1937, while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world. But few know who actually WAS the first woman to fly around the world (and she did it solo) . . .

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The Spirit of Columbus, on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center

When Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock was 12 years old, in 1937, she got the chance to fly in the cockpit of a Ford Tri-Motor airplane.  It set the course for the rest of her life. Always a tomboy, Mock now took an interest in all things mechanical. In high school, in Newark, Ohio, she was the only female in the engineering class, then went on to Ohio State University to study engineering. After marrying in 1945, Mock learned to fly and obtained her pilot license in 1956. Within a short time, she was working as the manager of the Price Field Airport in Columbus. She piloted herself on flights to Mexico, Canada and the Bahamas.

In 1962, Mock jokingly remarked to her husband that she had nothing interesting left  to fly to, and he equally-offhandedly told her she should just fly around the world. The idea intrigued her, and when she discovered that, after Amelia Earhart’s unsuccessful attempt to fly around the world 25 years earlier, no woman had actually done it yet, Geraldine Mock set out on a mission. With a grand total of 500 hours flying experience, Mock began to plan an around-the-world trip–solo. The local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, put up most of the financing. Mock obtained a pre-owned 1953 Cessna 180 airplane with about 1,000 flying hours on it, named it “The Spirit of Columbus”, and modified it by adding a high-frequency radio, a specially-built engine, and by taking out the passenger seats and fitting it with extra gas tanks, including one under the pilot’s seat. The plane could fly for about 25 hours before refueling. She also crammed in an additional 300 hours of flight training to obtain an Instrument Rating, allowing her to fly in any weather.

On March 19, 1964, at 9:30 am, the Spirit of Columbus took off for Bermuda. From there, Mock crossed the Atlantic to the Azores, then did hops to Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Hawaii, California, and then across the US back to Columbus. During the flight, she radioed regular updates to the Columbus Dispatch for publication. Some press stories dubbed her “Ohio’s Golden Eagle”; others dubbed her “The Flying Housewife”. In one dispatch, Mock told readers, “I was never going to abide by man-made laws that said women couldn’t do something.”

Along the way, Mock had technical problems with her radio, developed some mechanical problems with her tail wheel and wheel brakes, and was temporarily detained and interrogated by Egyptian officials after she mistakenly landed at a military airfield near Cairo. When she finally reached Cairo Airport, customs officials there refused to believe that she was a pilot and not a passenger, and initially wouldn’t stamp her passport unless she produced an airline ticket.

The Spirit of Columbus landed back in Ohio on April 17, having covered 23,103 miles in 29 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes, with 158 hours of flying time. Although she had broken a number of records and was given several international medals and awards (including a medal from President Johnson), and wrote a book about her flight (titled “Three Eight Charlie” after her radio callsign), Mock’s achievement has been largely forgotten, and even today she remains virtually unknown, living as an unassuming grandmother and retiree in Florida.

She never flew the Spirit of Columbus again. The Cessna company traded her a newer model P206 airplane for it, and Mock used the new plane to set a series of distance and speed records with flights to Puerto Rico and the Pacific. The Cessna company displayed the Spirit of Columbus at its factory in Wichita, Kansas, until 1975, when the plane was donated to the Smithsonian. After being displayed in the General Aviation Gallery at the Air and Space Museum for some years, followed by restoration at the Paul Garber facility, the Spirit of Columbus was finally placed on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, where it remains today.

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