Jerrie Cobb reached down and pulled the heavy layers of arctic clothing over her navy blue linen dress. Already the temperature on the airport tarmac that afternoon in June 1957 was a steamy ninety degrees. The shy, soft-spoken young pilot did not mind the heat nearly as much as she minded the reporters who crowded around her. She disliked all the attention and being forced to answer questions such as why she needed warm clothing for her attempt at a new altitude record. Cobb had trouble putting her thoughts into words and knew reporters found her not as quotable as they would like. The questions were predictable. "Are you frightened, Miss Cobb, about trying to break the world record?" "How cold will it get up there?" "Why does a pretty young girl like you want to spend her time around the dirt and grime and noise of airplanes?" "What about boyfriends? Are you more afraid of dating than flying six miles up?" Cobb paused before answering and patiently tried to explain why flying was more important than anything else in her life. It was always difficult for her to describe how content she felt when she was alone in an airplane. She realized her words sounded flat and could never express the genuine passion she felt for flying. It was easier to keep her personal feelings hidden and focus instead on what she wanted to accomplish that day. Her goal, Cobb told the reporters, was to the break the current world altitude record for lightweight aircraft. Since Oklahoma was celebrating its Semi-Centennial, she wanted to use her skills as a pilot to set world records for the Sooner State. Aero Design and Engineering, an Oklahoma City-based aviation company, had been eager to sponsor Cobb and lend her its new twin-engine airplane for the record-breaking flight. It was good publicity, especially after Cobb used one of their planes to break the world record for nonstop long-distance flying-from Guatemala City to Oklahoma City-just five weeks earlier. Today Cobb would push the Aero Commander beyond the highest altitude it had ever achieved. It was a risky proposition. Test pilots had flown the plane to 27,000 feet. Cobb was hoping for 30,000. Her parents just hoped that she could avoid a fatal stall.
Cobb excused herself from the clutch of reporters to concentrate on her final checklist. She had been up since daylight to smoke the barograph drums. Taking a stick of camphor, Cobb had held it near the barograph, coating the surface with dusky smoke. The sharp point of a stylus would scratch through the soot to register her precise altitude. To prepare her lungs for the thin air of the upper atmosphere and wash out nitrogen in her system, she breathed 100 percent oxygen for two hours before the flight. She walked around the aircraft, examining the plane's hinges, vertical stabilizer, and rudder, and got down on her knees to check the tire pressure. She lowered the plastic fuel sampler and studied the color of the fuel, checked it for sediment, and smelled its sharp, pungent odor. Standing nearby, Cobb watched as officials from the National Aeronautic Association certified the official scales and confirmed the Commander's weight class. Cobb kept any concerns about the dangers of high-altitude flying to herself. She knew that at several miles up and at high accelerations, a pilot could faint, breathing became difficult, and vision was impaired. She had been told about the terrifying slump toward unconsciousness: first color would disappear from one's vision, turning everything gray, then sight would shrink to a narrow tunnel, and, finally, all would go dark. Cobb knew she would be needing oxygen bottles in the unpressurized cockpit above 12,500 feet in order to maintain consciousness. She also knew that--as absurd as it seemed--she had to worry about her appearance as well. Unspoken social customs for women pilots dictated that she wear a dress and high heels under her protective clothing. Everyone expected women pilots to look like fashion models when they stepped out of a cockpit, even if they had been up all night working on engines with their arms covered in grease. When she realized she had forgotten a mirror and would need one for retouching her makeup before she landed, Cobb accepted a small compact from a bystander. Then she climbed into the cockpit and, alone at last, kicked off her high heels.
Excerpted from The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann. Copyright© 2003 by Martha Ackmann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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