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Jerrie Cobb: A Life In The Air

Barnstormer, CFI, ferry pilot and record-setter, she could have been the first U.S. female astronaut.

Jerrie Cobb in a publicity photo shoot with a space capsule.

Geraldyn (Jerrie) Cobb was born on March 5, 1931, in Norman, Oklahoma. Her father was Lieutenant Colonel William H. Cobb, and as is typical for military families, she moved around often, living in places like Washington, D.C., Texas and Colorado before moving back to Oklahoma. 

Some people believe that flying runs in the blood, and it sure seemed true in Cobb’s case. When she was 12, she took the controls of her father’s Waco biplane for the first time. By the age of 16, Cobb had earned her private license and was using a Piper J-3 Cub to barnstorm—dropping pamphlets over small towns announcing the arrival of circuses. By the age of 19, she was flying as a commercial pilot and earned her commercial CFI ticket.

Although Cobb was an accomplished pilot, her big opportunity came out of the blue. In 1952, Cobb was giving flight lessons in Oklahoma when she heard of a start-up commercial airline that was hiring DC-3 co-pilots willing to fly only for experience. She used the last of her savings to drive to Miami to interview but was rejected when they saw that she was a woman. Stranded in Miami, Cobb got a clerical job at Miami International Airport and while there, she overheard the owner of Fleetway International saying that he needed pilots to deliver surplus military planes around the world. Cobb spoke up immediately, but the gentleman laughed at the idea of a “girl wannabe pilot.” She responded by silently handing him her logbook—she had over 3,000 hours of flight time. She ferried her first military plane to Peru the very next day. Cobb continued to ferry surplus planes for Fleetway International for three years, returning to Oklahoma in 1955. 

Since the days of Amelia Earhart, women had excelled at setting aviation records, and making her own mark in the record books seemed like a natural next step for Cobb. In 1957, she earned the world record for non-stop distance flight, and in 1959, she earned the world light-plane speed record. That same year, Cobb became the first woman to perform in the Paris Air Show, and she was subsequently named Pilot of the Year. 

With Cobb’s fame growing, American Airlines asked her to do a highly publicized four-hour test flight in the Lockheed L-188 to prove to female passengers that the aircraft was safe. This was her first flight in a turboprop aircraft.

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At 28, Cobb was chosen to enter astronaut training in a privately funded and secret program in Albuquerque, alongside a dozen other women. The tests were grueling, but Cobb aced them, scoring in the top 2 percent of all candidates, both male and female. She had hoped that she might one of the women for a chance to go to space, but the program was pulled two days before phase three testing was to begin. 

Despite the heartbreaking rejection, Cobb continued her aviation journey, turning to humanitarian work in South America, where she transported supplies to Indigenous tribes in addition to surveying new air routes to remote areas. 

She continued to fly in South America for over 50 years. In 1973, Cobb was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Nixon, who said she was “the top woman pilot in the world.” 

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Cobb never lost her love for space, and in 1998, she heard that astronaut John Glenn, then 78, would again be going to space as part of NASA’s research on aging. In one last attempt to see space herself, Cobb lobbied for the chance,  and NASA entertained the idea of putting Cobb in space but ultimately never called. 

Cobb passed away on March 18, 2019, 13 days past her 88th birthday. She lived one of the most remarkable lives of any woman in the air. Years after her passing, she continues to be an inspiration for young girls who dream of space. 

Learn about another Incredible Pilot: Mira Slovak

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