Bitten by the Flying Bug Gene Nora Jessen grew up in Evanston, Illinois. An older brother told her about the Civil Air Patrol. She was given a cadet’s airplane ride, and the instructor told her she was a natural. “I don’t know if I was, but I believed him and thought maybe I could be a pilot,” she says. “That comment – that I was a natural – set the direction for my entire life. Talk about giving a kid a boost!”
Gene Nora’s life’s path was forged.
In the mid-fifties, Gene Nora began attending the University of Oklahoma because they had a flight school. After gaining her pilot’s certificate, she became a commercial pilot and flight instructor, the first female flight instructor faculty member in the university’s program. Gene Nora attended classes, took time off to earn money, returned to school, took more time off to earn money; it took her 6.5 years to graduate, with a degree in English. Flying was her priority.
About the time she was finishing college – in 1961 – Gene Nora heard about Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II and his program to test women pilots to see if they might become astronauts. NASA’s 1959 Mercury Program and the seven male astronauts chosen for it – known as the Mercury 7 – were the fascination of the country. Lovelace, a former Flight Surgeon and later, chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, helped develop the tests used to screen and qualify NASA’s male astronauts. In 1960, Lovelace and Brig. General Donald Flickinger invited Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, an accomplished pilot, to undergo the same rigorous challenges as the men. She passed all three phases of testing.
The seven Mercury astronauts – Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton – piloted all the Mercury space flights between May 1961 and May 1963. They were American heroes. Who wouldn’t want in on that? Who wouldn’t want to become part of the first group of women to be selected as astronauts?
Gene Nora wrote a letter to Dr. Lovelace, explaining that she was fit and eager to undergo the testing. “I was invited to go to Albuquerque where the tests were performed,” she says, remembering how excited she was to be part of a group of 19 women selected. The secret tests, privately financed by the husband of world-famous pilot Jacqueline Cochran, were arduous and took several days to complete. Space flight was an unknown; no one knew how the human body might respond or exactly what stresses would be encountered. Tests included having the women swallow a rubber tube so their stomach acids could be analyzed; stimulating the reflexes in the ulnar nerve in their forearms with electric shock; inducing vertigo by shooting ice water into their ears, freezing the inner ear and timing how quickly they recovered. Their respiration was tested cycling on weighted stationary bikes. The women allowed their bodies to be subjected to many invasive and uncomfortable tests, just as the Mercury 7 men had done in order to be accepted by NASA as astronauts.
Gene Nora never did meet Dr. Lovelace while she was in Albuquerque undergoing tests.
Gene Nora was one of thirteen women who passed the testing. They were dubbed Mercury 13 by James Cross, a Hollywood producer of military pilot films who was also a friend of Gene Nora’s. Jerrie Cobb referred to the women as the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs).
Phase two of testing was to be done at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine facility in Pensacola. It conflicted with Gene Nora’s job at the U of Oklahoma, so she quit. While preparing to leave for Florida, she – and the other twelve women – received telegrams, telling them the testing, and Dr. Lovelace’s program, was cancelled. Since “Mercury 13” wasn’t an official government program, the Navy refused to allow the use of their facility. The program was disbanded.
Inconveniently Unemployed Jerrie Cobb and others testified before Congress, trying to open the door for women astronauts. Among those testifying against opening that door were astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter who pointed out that under NASA’s selection criteria – requiring all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test-piloting programs and have engineering degrees – meant women could not qualify as astronaut candidates because they were barred from Air Force training schools where they might have become test pilots of military jets. Glenn had to admit, however, that he was allowed to become an astronaut without having an engineering degree. Glenn also believed that “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
Gene Nora was now unemployed. She took it philosophically, though, never truly believing she could become an astronaut because she didn’t have an engineering degree or jet airplane experience. “I was in it for the fun and challenge, to see if I could pass,” she remembers. She was disappointed to not continue with the testing, as all of the women were. But this she knew: she wanted to keep flying. “I wrote to everyone in the United States remotely connected to flying,” she says about the job search that ensued after the receipt of that telegram cancelling the program.
One of the potential employers Gene Nora wrote to was Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas. Her timing was perfect. Beech had just added an entry-level airplane to their line, calling it the Musketeer. To promote the new airplane and introduce it to their sales outlets around the country, the Beech marketing department dreamed up a flying tour of the 48 contiguous states with three Musketeers flying in formation, a play on the 1844 Alexandre Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers. Beech already had two pilots selected, Mike Gordon as lead pilot and Joyce Case, a nationally-recognized aerobatic pilot in second position. What better way to gain publicity than to add a second woman pilot? Gene Nora was ecstatic to be hired for the third position, doing the flying she loved in a brand-new airplane while getting to see the country from the air.
From Sea to Shining Sea Even if Gene Nora had wanted to be upset about how the Mercury 13 program played out, she didn’t have time to indulge such feelings. In 1962, along with Mike and Joyce, Gene Nora started flying the fourth, fifth and sixth Musketeers off the production line. (The first three were used as test airplanes.) They were to spend 90 days during the summer and fall of 1962 flying to nearly all 48 states, putting some 400 hours on those airplanes, essentially acting as test pilots as they noted any issues that cropped up and working with Beech engineering to correct them. But two of these test pilots always wore dresses and heels when they flew! That was part of the job, to make flying the Musketeer appear easy, a normal daily activity, something even women could do.
In 2009 Gene Nora wrote a book, The Fabulous Flight of the Three Musketeers, detailing the 1962 Three Musketeer’s 90-day tour of the country. She describes, in entertaining prose, learning from their very first take-off how to fly and land in formation, often without reliable radios to talk to each other or airport towers. They visited Beech dealerships across the country, and took salespeople and prospective customers on demonstration flights. “We often put customers in the left seat and let them fly,” Gene Nora remembers. “I learned to ask them what they’d last flown as we walked across the tarmac to the airplane, so I’d know what sort of danger I might be in!”
After the extended sales tour ended, Gene Nora continued working for Beech as a salesperson, continuing to do lots of traveling. She ended up flying all of the Beech models. As a female pilot, she was able to address what was in the sixties perceived as an issue for Beech dealers: wives killing sales of airplanes because they thought them dangerous. Gene Nora remembers being asked to talk to a wife whom a dealer thought was killing the sale of a Beech Baron twin-engine. The dealer specifically asked Beech headquarters “to send one of the girls.” Gene Nora flew out in a Baron and met the wife who explained that she wasn’t against her husband buying the airplane, she just refused to fly with him because if something happened, who would raise the children?
Early in her flying career Gene Nora joined the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots created by Amelia Earhart and other female pilots in 1929 when they invited all 117 certificated women pilots to attend a meeting. Ninety-nine showed up, giving the new organization its name. Gene Nora would eventually become the International President of the organization for a time. She’s still a member today.
Making Idaho Her Home The other benefit of her career with Beech was meeting her future husband, Bob Jessen. Bob was also a pilot, having learned to fly in 1943 in the Army Air Corps, eventually flying B-17s and B-29s. After selling Cessna airplanes for seven years, Bob became a Beechcraft salesman. They eventually married, and for their honeymoon flew into the Middle Fork of the Salmon backcountry, a place Bob had seen when visiting McCall and flying into backcountry airports.
In 1967 Bob and Gene Nora moved to Boise and started their own Beech dealership, Idaho Beechcraft. (In 1980 Beech Aircraft was purchased by Raytheon Company and became known as Beechcraft.) Bob sold airplanes while Gene Nora operated their flight school. They lived in Meridian and raised two children together – Briana and Taylor. Eventually they sold Idaho Beechcraft and became owners and operators of Boise Air Service until retiring in 2005. About that time, they purchased a home in McCall, where Gene Nora and Bob, now 92 and possessing a keen mind and sharp sense of humor, spend about half of their time. Macular degeneration eventually robbed Gene Nora of her depth perception so she quit flying two years ago, at the age of 80. “That was tough,” she says, “but I’ve made peace with it.”
In addition to her book about the Three Musketeers flying tour, Gene Nora is the author of Sky Girls: The True Story of the First Women’s Cross-Country Air Race, a 2018 republication of what was initially titled The Powder Puff Derby of 1929 and published in 2001. In 2014 she published Amelia Was Right, a collection of flying stories, the title a play on Amelia Earhart’s book titled The Fun of It. While she doesn’t foresee any more books in her future, she does enjoy doing speaking engagements. “I enjoy telling the stories,” she says.
Mentoring Throughout her life Gene Nora has supported and promoted women pilots, through example as well as her work with the Ninety-Nines. Gene Nora was a trailblazing pilot, opening doors for other women to enter. One McCall resident who took up flying in her fifties feels a strong sense of gratitude for Gene Nora’s role in her own career. “I first met Gene Nora Jessen at Si Bueno in McCall (now called the Southside Grill) across the street from the airport,” says Alana Erickson. “I was a brand-new student pilot and had joined the Ninety-Nines. The group was having a social lunch. I had no idea at the time the stature of the women I was dining with. They were so warm and humble and welcoming. Over the years Gene Nora has been instrumental in my aviation career progression, including helping me with my scholarship application to obtain my multi-engine commercial certificate. If I can be the gracious, professional, kind and humble aviatrix that Gene Nora Jessen is, I will consider my flying career extremely successful. And if I can be one portion the mentor she has been to me to other aspiring female pilots, I’ll be very grateful indeed.”
Oh, and should you get the opportunity to meet Gene Nora in person – say, maybe at the screening of the Netflix documentary Mercury 13 at the McCall Library on March 5th from 6:30 – 9:00 pm, which Gene Nora will attend and answer questions afterward – know this: her name is pronounced “Janora,” a nickname her University of Oklahoma flying club friends bestowed upon her because they couldn’t say her true name correctly. Their pronunciation stuck.
A Full and Exciting Life Gene Nora didn’t make it into the space program. None of the Mercury 13 women did. It wasn’t until Astronaut Group 8 in 1978, which selected astronauts for the operational Space Shuttle program, that women were included. Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 on STS-7, and Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle during STS-63 in 1995. Collins invited the surviving Mercury 13 women to attend the launch. [Photo of seven Mercury 13 women at launch.]
In 2005 the Mercury 13 were awarded the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award, and in May 2007 the eight surviving members of the group were awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.
Best of all, from Gene Nora’s perspective, is that the end of Dr. Lovelace’s experiment provided the serendipity that led to her being hired by Beech, going on that fabulous 90-day tour of the country promoting the Musketeer, and eventually meeting Bob and creating their lifelong partnership with aviation as its joyful theme.
Maybe participating in that experiment was worth it, after all.
Here’s the official trailer for Mercury 13, the Netflix documentary.
(All photos courtesy Gene Nora Jessen unless otherwise noted.)