LIVING A USEFUL LIFE
By Betty Wright
Jerrie Cobb, a devout Christian who believes in living and sharing her faith in God, uses her exceptional ability as a pilot to bring help and hope to primitive, isolated Indians throughout the South American Amazon.
The Amazon, an area larger than the United States, is an unforgiving environment. Rainfall averages 300 inches yearly. The Amazon River with its 1100 main tributaries creates a vast inland sea within a trackless, impenetrable jungle where man is tolerated by the barest margin. Malnutrition, flood, snakebite, malaria and other diseases take a fearful toll; man seldom survives beyond the age of 40. But this is where you will find Jerrie Cobb, here in this most forbidding corner of the earth, flying a twin-engine bush plane N12JC - more familiarly known as The Bird - into and out of short, sloppy, muddy clearings, surrounded by trees that soar 200 feet into the air, as intimately at home, as if she might be in her own backyard in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
Back in 1963, Jerrie resigned her position as an executive and chief test pilot for Rockwell International's Aero Commander Division in Oklahoma City, having put Aero Commander on the map by setting world's records in distance, speed and altitude. Meanwhile, she had qualified for space travel, the first woman to successfully complete and pass the National Aviation and Space Administration's astronaut testing program. When Jerrie was named a Consultant to NASA instead of an Astronaut, she chose to turn her back on fame and fortune, and use the skill she possessed in the name of God for the betterment of her fellow man.
Flying is the name of the game. Without it, none of Jerrie's astonishing accomplishments would be possible. But this is not the whole story. For Jerrie brings to those who need help as badly as any people on earth medical assistance for sick, seeds to plant for the hungry, speaking quietly, gently of a God who cares and shares with unfailing love. The proof: she is there, whether it is down on her hands and knees, grubbing around in flood plains exposed during the so-called dry season, teaching the Indians to plant and harvest rice, the one crop that grows well in the Amazon, tending the ill with modern medicine, or talking of God's eternal truths with down-home common courtesy and concern.
During these years of living what Jerrie calls "A useful life," she has supported herself and The Bird, while thoughtful people in Jerrie's home state of Oklahoma created the Jerrie Cobb Foundation, Inc. to lend a hand in this most worthy extension toward man's finest hour.
Every penny, nickel, dime and dollar from the foundation," Jerrie explains, "goes toward buying seeds and medicines for the primitive Indians. I have always believed in supporting myself, and insist The Bird does the same. So when we get broke, we go fly aerial surveys for the countries that encompass the Amazon, or we go to Rio, Bogota, or Miami and do some aviation consulting. Knowing how badly these people need help I could never use a cent of the foundation's money for me or The Bird."
To keep in touch with people who assist the foundation, Jerrie types a letter on her activities when she hits a civilized way-station, has the letter copied, writes a personal note on the bottom of each letter, and sends the message along. It is a powerful message:
"Last night I sat with the chief of this Indian village as he lay dying from meningitis. My medicines could not help him. He was a fine, young leader of his people. Through our efforts here, his tribe had learned to grow crops to feed themselves, trading rice with neighboring tribes for wild game. He had learned that he did not have to live in fear of any man, did not have to fear death, his spirit to be eaten by some huge snake or left to roam alone the jungle forever; he understood God's promise of life everlasting.
"Every time he could find the strength he would ask me about God. I assured him that God loved him, cared for him and would receive him to His heavenly kingdom. He died peacefully.
"It all seemed so unfair. He was a victim of a white man's disease. Often I wonder why I am here. I know I can't serve 6 million Indians. Sometimes when I'm lying in my hammock at night in some Indian communal maloca, I get so down and out. But the next day the sun does shine, The Bird and I take off on another jungle flight, and yes, I realize that many are dying, many are suffering, but some are living because we are here..."
And so, Jerrie goes her way, living on a wing and a prayer, not knowing from one night to the next where she will lay her head, stretching a dollar into infinity: during one year alone, Jerrie supported 15,000 Indians on $1200 from the foundation. But she will tell you, "Shoe strings for tying umbilical cords are cheap:" and she will tell you this with the lively blue eye and the wide smile that accompanies the joy of serving God, the pleasure that goes with the courageous kind of flying that make this world a better place in which to live.
Throughout the Amazon, The Bird is a symbol of hope in times of trouble, not only for the primitive Indians, but for other planes that may have lost their way over a geography almost as remote as the moon. Jerrie has gained a reputation for finding downed aircraft when others have given up and gone home. With a particularly perceptive feel for wind and weather, with eyes so sharp perhaps their equal is rare, she has come to know this world apart unlike any other pilot.
Jerrie is a credit to the human race; and in a like fashion, she is a credit to the profession of aviation in the tradition of Amelia Earhart who is remembered always for her charity and love of mankind.
Many distinguished honors have been bestowed on Jerrie, both in this country and abroad. She was the recipient of the Amelia Earhart Memorial Award and the Amelia Earhart Medal. She has been Pilot of the Year and Woman of the Year in Aviation. She was inducted into Oklahoma's Hall of Fame as the most outstanding aviatrix in the United States. She received the Gold Wings of the Federacion Aeronautique Internationale in France. The President of the United States awarded her the Harmon Trophy for the top woman pilot in the world. Brazil, France, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador have honored her. For her humanitarian work in the Amazon, Jerrie was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Recognition has come often to this well-directed and courageous woman. But perhaps the most meaningful recognition arrives when minds and hearts consider a woman with an extraordinary talent who chose not to exploit it, but rather to use it in a cause that is larger than self.
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