As we fly into National Aviation Week, two tremendous women came to mind for me. The first is my grandmother, the first woman to fly around the world. The second is Gladys West, the woman behind global position system or the more familiar GPS , and a “hidden figure” in the field of aviation.
The First Woman to Fly Around the World
It was 1933 when my grandmother decided she wanted to fly around the world. She was just a little girl in a small town in Ohio, but her hero, Amelia Earhart, was already making a name for herself in the aviation world. And the colorful atlases from around the world with pictures of camels and elephants cinched it for her–she had to ride them.
Jerrie Fredritz was so sure this was her destiny that she enrolled in the aviation engineering classes at Ohio State University when she was eighteen years old. Thanks to the times, she dropped out a year later to get married and have kids because that’s what women were expected to do.
The dream lived on until Jerrie–now Mock–told her husband she wanted to take piloting lessons with him at the local airfield. In 1964, after complaining of being bored as a housewife and mother, my grandpa, an ad man with a local agency in Columbus, Ohio, got her the sponsors she needed for her world-record taking flight. The media dubbed her “the flying housewife” and quickly covered the story of her “race” with another woman, Joan Merriam-Smith, around the globe.
Grandma took off on March 19, two days after Merriam-Smith, a professional pilot who has thousands of hours experience in the air and flew through the Bermuda Triangle. After some scares and a bumpy landing, she made it to the small Atlantic island and was grounded for a week due to poor weather.
From there, she flew through icy conditions and nearly crashed before reaching her second destination,Azores, a region of Portugal. She went to Morocco where she stayed near the palace and saw the king’s red pajamas flapping on the laundry line; and then to Libya and Algeria. Amidst Egyptian sandstorms she accidentally landing on a secret military base.
She became the first woman to fly a plane in Saudi Arabia. She made her way through Pakistan, India, Thailand, Guam, Wake Island–where she worried of being shot down–and many others. 29 days and 11 hours later she finally landed, becoming the first woman to fly around the world.
And she did it all solo, in a single-engine airplane, with a compass that was off by 10 degrees, a malfunctioning antenna, and damaged brakes.
Grandma was awarded multiple citations including the Federal Aviation Agency’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service, presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the Louis Bleriot Silver Medal from the World-wide Award of Federation Aeronotique Internationale. She went on to earn other flight records in the next five years, including other significant world’s “firsts.” Her airplane, “Charlie,” hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Woman Behind GPS
Thanks to the book and film “Hidden Figures,” Gladys West’s story has come to light for more than just a few tech-geeks who love diving into the history of things. She wasn’t featured in the movie, but the story inspired her to move out of the shadows.
West was hired in the mid-1960s as a mathematician for the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory. At that time, she contributed to a study on the regularity of Pluto’s rotation relative to Neptune.
After that, using advanced algorithms in the early stages of computing technology, West programmed an IMB 7030 “Stretch” computer in the 1970s and 1980s to create an incredibly accurate model of the earth. This model accounted for irregularities in the planet’s shape caused by tidal and gravitational forces. And this program was the foundation for what we call GPS – Global Positioning System. West retired from the military in 1998, at the age of 68, to pursue her Ph.D. at Virginia Tech.
In December 2018, West’s accomplishments were recognized by the U.S. Air Force, when she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.
What We Can Learn from These Extraordinary Women
We live in an era when more women are given recognition than ever before. Jerrie Mock and Gladys Wes are two extraordinary pioneers who didn’t seek glory for their accomplishments. They can teach us all so much of what we need to do. Have a dream, use your skills, and never give up, no matter what society may say or how little attention your movement may receive.