A livid loneliness
by Dorothy M. Ashe
Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb wants to be an astronaut.
At 67, the first female astronaut candidate--who was kept on the ground while the seven Mercury astronauts were bound for glory--is still waiting for a berth. She'd like to have had the one that 77-year-old John Glenn won as a working member of the shuttle Discovery. Ironically, Glenn was one of what Newsweek has called "the fighter jocks, the military studs" (Carroll et al. 35), the original astronauts who did not approve of women in the space program.
Cobb left the program to return to flying small planes on hazardous assignments in South America when she was shuttled off into a non-demanding consultant's job with NASA. She had been a crop duster, pipeline patrol pilot, and ferry pilot delivering single-engine aircraft. In the early 1960's she became an aerial mapper over the Andes and a carrier of medical supplies and food to isolated jungle and mountain areas of the Amazon. She earned a nomination for the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian efforts.
She was a pioneer, preparing the way for the spectacular women who followed her into the astronaut program, among them Sally Ride, first American woman in space; Kathryn Sullivan, first American woman to walk in space; Shannon Lucid, who, before she spent more days in space than any other American, had logged four shuttle flights; and Eileen Collins, who will be the first woman shuttle commander.
Although pioneers in their own right, none of the women astronauts has had to experience that awesome solitude known to the first women pilots. Amelia Earhart, the best known of the early fliers, called it "the livid loneliness of fear" (Earhart 17).
Harriet Quimby felt it. In 1912, the San Francisco journalist flew her fragile Bleriot monoplane across the English Channel from Dover, England, to the French fishing village of Hardelot. It was April 14, just nine years after the Wright brothers' first powered flight. It was the morning the Titanic sank, and no one cared what went on above the ocean.
Quimby had been the first American woman to earn a pilot's license and made the channel flight with barely a year's flying experience. Exposed in the cold, open cockpit, she flew at 70 miles per hour through thick fog, wearing a long woolen coat, a raincoat, a sealskin stole, and a huge hot-water bottle tied to her waist. She wrote of the short, dangerous flight:
" . . .my face was so covered with dampness that I had to push my goggles up on my forehead. I could not see through them.. . .
I knew that land must be in sight if I could only get below the fog and see it. So I dropped from an altitude of about two thousand feet until I was half that height. The sunlight struck upon my face and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France." (Gwynn-Jones 121)
Quimby's flying career was shortened two months later by her death, at the Harvard Boston Aviation Meet.
In contrast, Elinor Smith, born the year Quimby won her license, still flies. Smith soloed in her father's Waco 9 biplane in May 1927, the month Lindbergh made his daring flight from New York to Paris. Within three months--when most newly-soloed pilots are hesitant to venture away from home fields--the five-foot, three-inch fifteen-year-old set an unofficial women's altitude record of 11,874 feet.
At age seventeen, Smith won pilot certification in August 1928. In late October she risked her new license by flying under all four of New York's East River bridges, a feat never before--and never since--attempted. In her autobiography, Aviatrix, Smith recalled her lonely disappointment when none of the newsmen who had dared her showed up to see her off. Then suddenly someone pounded on her shoulder.
"I found myself staring into the handsome face of the world's hero, Charles Lindbergh. He was grinning warmly and saying something about keeping my nose down in the turns. . . . The thoughtfulness of his gesture was so heartwarming that the Waco and I soared aloft like a couple of dry leaves in a high wind." (12)
Eight days later, she stood in the offices of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, ready to be chastised or, even worse, to lose her certification. It was the mayor's prerogative in those days. Walker was so overcome with her youth and small size he gave her a ten-day suspension, retroactive to the day of the flight. (Smith 19)
The following January, Smith flew an open cockpit, cloth-covered Bird biplane non-stop for more than thirteen hours to set a women's endurance record. The dangers of such a flight were tremendous: taking off in a plane heavy with high-test fuel; fuel tank switching problems; possible forced night landing; unexpected fog and wind; but Smith worried most about her endurance in the cold. Like Quimby, she dressed for it, piling on a custom-made flying suit, fur-lined boots, gloves and helmet, and a chamois face mask Smith called "troublesome from the start" (81).
Winds reached gale velocity; temperatures dipped; the mask itched; the stabilizer jammed so the plane couldn't be trimmed for changes in center of gravity as fuel burned off. By 3 a.m. Smith was ready to quit--but she had never landed at night before, a fact she hadn't admitted to her advisers. She felt very alone, "circling around at 1000 feet on the coldest night of the year, terrified to land an airplane loaded with high-test gas" (Smith 84). Out of the darkness, another small craft glided under her. Although she had no radio contact, she followed the plane down and found on the ground her seeing-eye aircraft was flown by one of her heroes, Lt. Jimmy Doolittle, who later became a World War II flying ace.
Bobbie Trout bettered Smith's record by four hours a few weeks later; Smith determined to get the record back and make it last! She begged aviation legend Guiseppe Mario Bellanca to supply her with a plane. Although Lindbergh hadn't been able even to buy one of Bellanca's models, G. M. gave her a craft with 46-foot wingspan, 225-horsepower engine, and a comfortable cabin that made her next try considerably warmer.
But the teenage flier still had problems; she needed more height and more arms. Fuel controls and brakes were on opposite sides, and she had to hold the stick (steering apparatus) with her knees. At the twenty-four hour mark, a cable controlling the plane's stabilizer trim fouled. Smith was forced to grip the controls with both hands and feet for the rest of her flight. She dropped a note to Bellanca wrapped around a lead sinker.
He signaled for a landing, but she had to fly a difficult additional hour to burn off fuel. When Smith set down, she had been aloft twenty-six hours, twenty-three minutes and sixteen seconds--a record that still stands in the U. S.
Smith set other records in speed, endurance, altitude and in-the-air refueling, many before she was out of her teens. At nineteen she was chosen over Amelia Earhart as Best Woman Pilot of 1930. That same year both Bellanca and Fairchild companies hired her as their first woman test pilot. Most women weren't allowed to fly the "hot" planes--the heavier and faster crafts--that Smith was able to fly. The public thought women could handle only the lighter planes, Smith told an interviewer, but, she added, "If you come in with a light plane nobody pays attention to you. Heavy planes aren't really harder to handle, but people think they are." (Moolman 10).
Recognition of women's flying abilities came slowly. Even Charles Lindbergh, married to pilot Anne Morrow, was astonished on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1938 to find women serving in the air force.
"I don't see how it can work very well," he recorded in his diary. "After all, there is a God-made difference between men and women that even the Soviet Union can't eradicate" (Moolman 7).
Lindbergh ignored the fact his 1927 flight across the Atlantic had been duplicated five years later by the lanky, tow-headed young woman known as "Lady Lindy"--Amelia Earhart. Earhart's arduous, lonely flight had been a nightmare of rotten weather, broken instruments, leaking gas, iced wings, and fire in the cabin. A balky engine finally forced her high-wing red Vega down in a field near Londonderry, Ireland, short of her Paris target. The flight had taken fifteen hours, eighteen minutes--fastest on record at that time.
Earhart had always been a loner; the solitary business of flying seemed made for her. But curiosity and a need to experiment with new ideas and challenges involved her with people. Paul L. Briand, Jr., her biographer in Daughter of the Sky, recognized the contradictions in her:
"She teemed with a zest for living, paradoxically entwined with a gnawing and pervasive longing to be alone."
She refused to believe that she--or any of her pioneering sisters in aviation--were special because they were women. "A fatal accident to a woman pilot is not a greater disaster than one to a man of equal worth," she insisted. "Feminine fliers have never subscribed to the super-sentimental valuation placed upon their necks. I am sure they feel they can endure their share of misfortune. . . as quietly as men." (Briand 65).
At the same time, Earhart felt she had to prove to herself that as a woman alone she could accomplish the flying feats male pilots were attempting. She flew the Atlantic because she wanted to, because she loved flying, but it was also an act of self-justification, a "proving to me, and to anyone else interested, that a woman with adequate experience could do it," she stated. (Earhart 210).
Winging across uncharted territories in Africa with her "small courage," British-born African bush pilot Beryl Markham had often been haunted by the "anticipation of loneliness." She felt no one else existed:
"The hills, the forests, the rocks and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite. The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star. . .the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant"
Markham had grown up with a taste for adventure so strong it overwhelmed her dread of dark solitude. By 1935 she was the only professional woman pilot in all of Africa and the only free-lance pilot, male or female, in Kenya. She flew freight, medical supplies, passengers and mail; she rescued downed fliers in the desert; landed on rough runways where lions, zebras and wildebeests staunchly refused to give clearance; she scouted for elephant safaris that catered to the world's wealthy.
She began making longer flights, following the propeller of her turquoise blue and silver Avian as it pushed against the silence of the Sudan, the Libyan desert, the ancient expanse of Egypt, the Mediterranean.
On September 4, 1936, Markham began her attempt at Abingdon, England. Pushing against forty miles-per-hour head winds in her specially built DeHavillana Vega Gull, she had plenty of time to consider the more than a quarter million flying hours behind her and to ponder a loneliness deeper than any she had found in East African skies. Most of the flight came at night, a night made darker, colder, more hazardous by heavy rain and turbulence. She recorded her feelings in West with the Night.
"Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind--such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger." (283)
Markham was flying blind with no radio when headwinds cut her speed to 130 miles per hour. Suddenly the fuel was gone. Before she could switch to a sparetank, the Gull's engine quit and the plane began descending toward a very wet, very cold ocean. She nosed down to recover lost speed and fumbled with frozen fingers over the petcocks of auxiliary tanks crowding the small cabin. Three hundred feet above the Atlantic, the small plane's engine still hadn't caught. Markham watched the altimeter needle circle faster and faster, like the contrived close-up in a bad disaster movie.
At last the Gull began gulping fuel again and nosed upward. By daybreak Markham could see the cliffs of Newfoundland and altered course, flying south through dense fog to the lighthouse at Cape Race, then west toward Sydney on Cape Breton Island, off Nova Scotia. She planned to refuel there before the final leg to New York. She glanced at her auxiliary tanks and noted the last one was nearly full.
Forty or fifty miles off the coast the Gull coughed, spluttered, coughed again, then died. Markham lost altitude. Airlock or ice was blocking fuel flow to the carburetor. The small plane limped unevenly until, at the edge of the island, it gave one final cough. After nearly twenty-two hours aloft, she was headed not for the adoring crowds at Sydney but for the dangerously soft ooze of a Cape Breton bog--twelve minutes from the airstrip. The Gull's wheels touched, then sank. The propeller grabbed at the mud, pulling the nose ignominiously down, deep.
Everyone but Beryl Markham thought she and her flight were spectacular. It became part of the lore of long distance aviation; other women followed, set more records, tested new planes, put more pavement on the path still being paved thirty-five years later when another British woman, Sheila Scott, alone in her twin-engine Piper Aztec, became the first pilot, male or female, to fly directly over true North Pole in a light aircraft.
Few Americans had ever heard of Scott although she had set hundreds of aeronautic records before her polar flight in 1971. However, the U. S. Navy had orders: "Don't lose Sheila!" Their job was to track her via the American polar satellite, Nimbus. The Aztec was a laboratory for NASA biomedical research. Scott was to fly from equator to equator, from Kenya to Canton Island, and was expected to answer NASA's signals at set periods of time.
Aloft, Scott discovered almost immediately her auto pilot wasn't working. She would have to be constantly alert, with no relief. In spite of her busy-ness, the Arctic solitude soon touched her. Echoing Beryl Markham, Scott described her flight over "acres and acres of lonely desolate ice packed sea" as if "everyone else on earth had mysteriously disappeared, and. . .I had wandered out into space to some other planet." (Scott 137).
Near the pole Scott's airspeed slowed. The nose wheel had slipped from its casing, creating a gas-guzzling drag. The wheel retracted, then came down again as Scott desperately manipulated the gear mechanism. She made the rest of her historic flight with a problem that would have driven any ordinary small craft pilot back to the hangar.
Scott radioed regular reports to NASA, but no one could hear her, nor could she hear NASA. However, NASA was still tracking her by wires; both knew she was in trouble. When the Aztec's compass needles began to diverge, advising two separate paths, Scott chose one toward mountains and at last made voice contact with a Danish base at Nord, Greenland.
Ironically, NASA had been radioing Scott that their data indicated she could not reach her destination at Barrow, Alaska, without refueling. "Land at Nord," engineers tried to tell her. Scott never heard them; she only knew she had been awake under the quitless sun for forty hours. She had to land somewhere. Luckily, when she found Nord's long gravel runway, the Aztec's nose wheel was on one of its down cycles.
From Nord, Scott headed north to Barrow. As she flew over the emerald expanse of the Arctic Ocean, her only contact with Earth seemed to be the matching green light linking her with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. It grew bitter cold in the cockpit as hail and rain buffeted plane and pilot. The Aztec's wings iced.
No landmarks pointed to the North Pole--no quaint Santa's cottage, no red-striped barber pole. Only her instruments told Scott she was there as she let loose into an icy windstream a Union Jack for Britain and a paper Snoopy for her NASA friends. At 90 degrees north, Sheila Scott shouted into her mike, "I am on top of the world!" And at Goddard, jubilant scientists were broadcasting, just in case she could hear them:
"Sheila, you are on top of the world. . . . Congratulations, Mother Christmas" (Scott xv).
At that moment, the errant gear thumbed its nose at Scott's success, came down, and stayed down, literally dragging the flight to Barrow into more hours than she had planned. She didn't panic. Later, in Barefoot in the Sky, she recalled thinking:
"Being alone for me does not mean I am necessarily lonely, for it is only in solitude that I really find true clarity. Up here, even though my body is still, my mind does not run down like a dead battery; it goes on working. I have no excuse to deviate from its path of real self-truth. Adventure, challenge, and national pride are forgotten, as I learn a little about who I am." (173)
At last Scott reached Barrow. She continued on to Anchorage, then along the northern coast of America to San Francisco, over to Hawaii and through the fringes of a hurricane to Canton Island, just below the equator. She had completed her "first." Almost offhandedly, Scott continued the flight, going on to break the Australia-to-England small aircraft record of five and one-half days set in 1937 by Jean Batten. Mother Christmas made it in four.
As Scott was breaking that record, America's Apollo 15 crewmen were walking on the moon--giving the world an ironic panorama of aerial progress. Women have always been a part of that progress. Even in their solitude, the first women fliers--the pioneers--were not alone; they were always a part of today. Looking back at the feats of Scott, Markham, Earhart, Smith, Quimby, of hundreds of other pioneering women fliers is to look ahead to the pioneers of tomorrow who move along the same paths, covering the same distance measured in units of courage.
Harriet Quimby's small step across the English Channel had to come before the giant leap into outer space taken when astronaut Kathryn Sullivan set foot outside the U. S. space shuttle in late 1984.
Even in moving forward we sometimes find the need to step back in time, to make contact once more with the trail blazers. Linda Finch felt it in the summer of 1997 when she recreated Amelia Earhart's ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe at the equator. Finch, a 56-year-old Texas businesswoman, flew the 26,000-mile pilgrimage in the same model aircraft Earhart had chosen sixty years before, a custom-made 1935 twin-engine Lockheed Electra. She had the advantage of a state-of-the-art radio system and a global positioning satellite system to pinpoint her location. But for a while she saw what Earhart had seen, felt something of what Earhart had felt--what every pioneer has felt--and asked what the incomparable Amelia asked in her poem, "Courage":
How can life. ..compensate/For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate/Unless we dare/The soul's dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay/With courage. . ./And count it fair." (Briand, frontispiece).
Jerrie Cobb can't go back in time and re-trace the courageous steps she was never allowed to take. She'd rather take those steps now. After all, this nation has never had a 67-year-old woman astronaut. She can truly be again a pioneer. Her effort to be named as a mission specialist on a future shuttle is backed by many admirers, among them the American Association of University Women of California, the National Women's History Project, Republican Senators James Inhofe and Don Nickles from Cobb's home state of Oklahoma, and Democratic Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California. How fitting if Cobb could be a member of the Columbia crew in January 1999 when Eileen Collins becomes the first woman commander of a shuttle mission.
Anyone who wants to support Cobb's efforts may contact the
National Women's Historical Project,
7738 Bell Road,
Windsor, CA 95492-8518.
- Briand, Paul L., Jr. Daughter of the Sky. New York: Duell, Sloan
and Pearce, 1966.
- "Dream of astronaut candidate stays aloft." The Fresno Bee 13 July 1998:
- Earhart, Amelia. 20 Hrs. 40 Min. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons,
- Funk, Virginia. "Grandmother of Aviation." Modern Maturity Aug.-Sept.
- Gadebusch, Ruth. "She's ready: Let's send Geraldyn Cobb into space." The
Fresno Bee 25 April 1998: B5.
- Jones, Terry Gwynn. "For a brief moment the world seemed wild about
Harriet." Smithsonian Jan. 1984: 112-116+.
- Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point
- Moolman, Valerie. Women Aloft. The Epic of Flight Series. Alexandria,
Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1981.
- Scott, Sheila. Barefoot in the Sky. New York: Macmillan, 1973.
- Smith, Elinor. Aviatrix. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
About the Author
Lynne Ashe is currently a speech
and English professor at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, CA.
She earned her Masters at Cal State-Northridge. She has been involved in
a variety of civil rights movement activites and founded Distaff, the newspaper
for the Florida Women's Political Caucus. She earned her pilot's license
at the age of 47.
Other Nonfiction articles
Three Legendary Feminists
The Myth of Kin
Wind Trails on the Sea
Welcoming the Year 2000
They told me I couldn't
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