Cruising to normal altitude, Cobb looked below to the flat Oklahoma prairie and at the sky all around her. She always thought the sky looked bluer when she was actually in it than it did from the ground. She pitied people who spent their entire lives earthbound. They were missing quite a show, she thought. As the Aero Commander rose to 27,000 feet, Cobb could feel the strain on the aircraft and her own body. Every hundred feet meant that both the plane's engine and her breathing were more labored. Cobb breathed from an oxygen bottle and lifted the Commander's nose upward. One more foot, two more feet, she seemed to tell the plane, keeping her eye on the altimeter's needle. The higher she flew, the colder it became in the cockpit. At thirty degrees below zero, the windshield slicked over with ice and the instruments inside became frosted. Flying as much by touch and instinct as by instrument, Cobb continued to push upward almost inch by inch. That was when the beeping started. The stall indicator triggered its alarm. The closer together the beeps were, the nearer Cobb was to a stall. She could either lower the nose to avoid a shutdown, or keep listening to the interval between beeps and praying she had time to climb a few more feet for the world record. Cobb eased the plane upward as images of disaster crowded her mind. If the engine stalled, the Commander would plummet in an unrecoverable spin, faster and faster, wings and tail shearing off in a fatal dive to the ground. Cobb listened to the beeps. Was there just enough time between them to raise the nose once more? Could she gain the remaining altitude for the record? Cobb adjusted the fuel flows and pulled upward. She looked at the altimeter, bouncing higher and higher, 28,000 feet, 29,000 feet, 30,000 feet. At 30,330 feet, the Commander started to shudder, but Cobb almost smiled. She had clinched the world record.
As Cobb guided the plane down, warmer air began to melt the icy windows, and she breathed more easily, as much from relief as from altitude. Floating down from the clouds, she saw the crowd waiting for her at the airport below. Now comes the hard part, she thought. World record behind her, it was time to smooth her blond ponytail, put on lipstick, squeeze her feet into high heels, and start talking.
Although talking did not come easily to Jerrie Cobb, the press attention greeting her at the airport should have felt routine by now. At twenty-six, she had been making headlines for years. She was the only woman in the United States to have ferried military surplus aircraft to countries in South America, Europe, and Asia. She could tell dramatic stories of flying solo over the jagged Andes, hopping a ride on banana boats after emergency landings, and sleeping in less-than-hospitable surroundings with her pistol nearby. An air-race competitor in women's cross-country and international derbies and now a world record holder, Cobb was reaching the goals that every top-flight pilot, man or woman, wanted to attain. More than anything, a great pilot wanted to go "higher, faster, and farther"--the four words were considered a champion's credo. Some people joked that Cobb, with her two new world records, was becoming the country's best Cold War weapon. When she entered the record books the previous month by breaking the nonstop long-distance mark, people in Oklahoma City pointed out that a local girl in a local plane beat a world record held by a male Russian pilot flying a Soviet Yak II aircraft. Jerrie Cobb seemed to be single-handedly winning aviation contests against the Russians--"Sooner-Soviet air competitions" one newspaper reporter called them.
Cobb had gone both higher and farther and had the world records to prove it. There was one record left to complete her aviation hat trick-the world record for speed. Setting off before a cheering crowd of 7,500 at the Las Vegas World Congress of Flight in 1959, Cobb raced the clock over Reno, San Francisco, and San Diego and back to Las Vegas in another twin-engine Aero Commander. Representatives from the National Aeronautic Association and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale of Paris, the official authority on aviation world records, timed her flight and took two sealed boxes from her plane after she landed for shipment to the U.S. Bureau of Standards for speed verification. When the results came back, Cobb had secured a third world record, surpassing another male Russian pilot as the holder of the light plane speed record.
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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