It began with the dream of a little girl taking her first airplane ride. In 1932, in Newark, Ohio, that little girl understood what her destiny held, even if not the details. “I will fly around the world.”
In grade school, she studied the atlases of the world and found two more dreams for her life: to ride a camel in the Sahara and to ride an elephant. In college, she was the only female in a class of 100 studying aeronautical engineering.
As the years passed, she pursued her dreams as best she could, but Jerrie Fredritz was from a small town, and a girl in the 1940s. When you’re a girl, you drop out of college – if you were lucky enough to start college – to get married. Two years later, you give birth because this is what you do.
The first time I heard these things, I was confused. My grandmother didn’t strike me as the kind of woman who would have done anything conventional and certainly didn’t seem like the sort of woman who’d drop out of college for a man, even if it was the 40s. Of course, that’s because I knew her not as Jerrie (Fredritz) Mock, small town girl from Ohio, but as Grandma Jerrie, the first woman to fly around the world.
To me, she had always been the strong, tiny woman who’d piloted her way around the globe in a single-engine Cessna 180 in 1964. To me, she had always been the storyteller with adventures of engine troubles and sandstorms and the amusing fascination with the King’s red silk pajamas in Morocco.
This woman who stood five-feet-and-no-inches-tall was the author, pilot, entrepreneur, explorer, and photographer I had always known. Yet my teachers knew nothing about her when our aviation history units came up.
“Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly around the world.”
My little hand shot up. “No, she didn’t.”
“I beg your pardon?” My fifth grade teacher expected anyone in her class to speak against her on any issue, except me.
“My grandma was the first, not Amelia. I can show you.”
The next day, I brought in newspaper clippings, a copy of my grandmother’s book, Three-Eight-Charlie, and a photo of her and Charlie, the little Cessna who took her around the world. I brought Jerrie in for show-and-tell a few weeks later.
She left from Columbus, Ohio, on March 19, 1964, heading to Bermuda for her first stopover on the way. She piloted her way from the mainland, over the ocean for her first time and into the Bermuda Triangle that day, after least hearing from the tower, “Well, I guess that’s the last we’ll hear of her!”
Jerrie made it, though, and spent a week grounded in Bermuda thanks to foul weather over the Atlantic. My grandfather wasn’t too happy with her and kept urging her to take risks. After all, the sponsors were counting on her beating out the other woman – Joan Merriam Smith – in the race around the world.
Jerrie didn’t care about the race. In fact, she would have far preferred there were no sanctions and officials involved at all. She was taking this adventure to see the world, not make headlines or earn herself a title.
From Bermuda, she headed to Santa Maria in the Azores. Her second leg of the trip almost became her last as ice built up on the wings and the Santa Maria tower took ages to give clearance to adjust her flight level, after which he told her, “Don’t hit the mountains.”
“I might be awfully dumb,” Jerrie thought, “but I wasn’t going to fly into the mountains intentionally. Who’d want to do that?”
While in Santa Maria, she visited the church where Christopher Columbus and his shipmates once attended. The colonial feel of the island fascinated her – with pastoral views and pack animals instead of cars. “Almost as Alice dropped into Wonderland, I stepped into the past. The people, their clothing, their tools, their houses, all belonged in a history book.”
From the Azores, Jerrie headed to one of the places I grew up hearing the most about in all of her journeys: Casablanca. Upon her arrival, she and those who greeted her celebrated with French champagne and dinner out at a Moroccan restaurant that had once been an officer’s club before the French were asked to leave. “Outside, it was a drab building on an almost-deserted street. No neon signs or bright lights. No tourist would ever have found it. Step inside, and the Arabian Nights come to mind.”
After dinner, Jerrie and her hosts joined friends for tea. They all spoke French but somehow managed to explain to Jerrie what the beautiful building across the way was. The King’s Palace. They went to the palace grounds – the friends had received special permission to bring her by since more friends lived on the grounds. The friend was an Advisor to the King. The grounds were filled with exquisite flowers and stunning buildings.
She took a lot of pictures at the palace in Morocco – which were also later confiscated by the American government upon her return and never seen by the family. These pictures, and those of her riding a camel in Egypt fulfilling that second lifelong dream are the only pictures of which she spoke to me.
Jerrie fought sandstorms flying across Egypt and landed at a secret military base near Cairo. She gawked at the pyramids from the back of a camel and dined on delicious local foods.
There was trouble over the South China Sea when dirt blown into the engine during the sandstorms crept out and tried to cause issues, and as she flew over Wake Island, she thought she was being shot down for exiting safe air space. I could share dozens – maybe hundreds – of stories from her 21 stops over those 21 ½ days around the world.
Jerrie’s stops included
- Santa Maria, Azores
- Casablanca, Morocco
- Bone, Algeria
- Tripoli, Lybia
- Inshas, Egypt (that secret military base!)
- Cairo, Egypt
- Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
- Karachi, Pakistan
- Delhi, India
- Calcutta, India
- Bangkok, Thailand
- Manila, Philippines
- Wake Island
- Honolulu, Hawaii
- Oakland, California
- Tucson, Arizona
- El Paso, Texas
- Bowling Green, Kentucky
- Columbus, Ohio
On April 17, 1964, she landed at Port Columbus in Ohio, officially making her the first woman to fly around the world. Joan Merriam Smith landed some 26 days later.
Jerrie received keys to cities, many awards, including a presidential medal which she received from Lyndon B. Johnson on May, 4, 1964 on her daughter’s fourth birthday, and the Louis Bleriot medal from the FAI. I have a few of these medals and awards on my walls for now as we wait out the pandemic. Once it’s safe to travel again, I’ll be bringing them with me on lectures and presentations to share her incredible achievements with the world.
Jerrie continued her flying career in other ways after her plane, Charlie, was purchased by the Smithsonian Institute, where he hangs to this day. She was gifted a Cessna P206, which she loved flying for a time – but the taxes because too overwhelming for her to keep the plane.
She made her final flight as a pilot in October 1969, when she flew that plane to Papua New Guinea, where the plane was donated to the Flying Padres, a missionary group of the Sacred Hearts. On the flight, she took more world records for longest no-stop flight and others, though these titles have all passed on to others since.
Last year Jerrie was inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame – and this medal is perhaps the one I am most proud of and honored by. In her stead, I attended the ceremony and gave a brief speech on her impact on women the world over. I think, perhaps, I am most proud of this achievement because not only did she not set out to make a name for herself, but in simply following her dreams, she impacted women I’ve been meeting my entire life, most of whom never themselves met her.
Pilot friends serving as missionaries around the globe know her name. Girls who did school projects on her or dressed up as her for presentations on local heroes have set their eyes on loftier goals because Jerrie did accomplished her own dreams. These women have been impacted because of my grandmother’s bravery and adventurous spirit that defied the times. The media may have dubbed her ‘the flying housewife,’ but she showed the world what a woman could do.
To learn more about Jerrie and her amazing accomplishments, please contact Rita via her website and be on the lookout for updates on Rita’s full-cast audio adaptation of The Flying Housewife, A True Story, coming soon!