Jerri Truhill, Famed Female Test Pilot Who Almost Became an Astronaut, Died in Irving on Monday
Had Jerri Truhill been born a quarter century later, she very well might have made it into space. Some argue she should have. She and the dozen other women who composed the Mercury 13 program passed whatever tests NASA threw at them, and she seemed to possess as much of the "right stuff" as John Glenn and the rest of the men who would be launched into orbit.
The early 1960s, however, were not a time of gender equality, so when Truhill passed away Monday at an Irving hospice, her story remained buried in the footnotes of the history of American spaceflight.
Truhill's first encounter with flight came at the age of 4, when her father brought her into the cockpit of flight he was taking to a business meeting.
"I said, 'I want to fly all the time,'" she told NPR in 2007. "And he said, 'Well, if you make real good grades and you grow up and you become a registered nurse, then you can be an air hostess.' And I said, 'Oh, no. That wasn't what I had in mind at all. I am going to fly planes.'"
By 15, she began taking flying lessons on the sly. When her parents found out, they shipped her off to Catholic school in San Antonio, according to her official bio on the website of the University of Wisconson-Oshkosh, which awarded her an honorary doctorate.
She became business partners with, and later married, a fellow pilot named Joe Truhill. Together, they flew twin-engine B-25s for Texas Instruments and helped test the company's terrain-following radar, among other things, which mostly involved flying very fast at dangerously low altitudes.
That, says longtime friend David Adair, was par for the course for Truhill.
"She's like the Dale Earnhardt of the female air-racing world," he says. "She was an intimidator," tailing her opponents at the at the distance of a dining room table before zooming past.
In 1961, Truhill got a call from a friend named Jerrie Cobb, wondering if she was interested in participating in a top-secret government project. She was.
The project was the Woman in Space Program and basically involved putting women through the same grueling battery of tests that had just been developed for male astronauts. They did well enough to suggest that they might be good candidates for spaceflight, but the program was prematurely torpedoed by NASA on the grounds that the participants couldn't complete the required military jet test pilot program, which, naturally, was only open to men.
Truhill told NPR that she took the decision in stride, but others didn't, leading a Congressional committee to hold a special hearing on the subject in 1962 which, according to NASA's official history, foreshadowed later action to curb sex discrimination.
After the truncated astronaut training, Truhill and her husband bought a P-51 Mustang, which she used to fly around the country modeling a pink lycra flight suit for Monsanto. After that, she and her husband bought a house in Richardson, where she lived until her death.
Al Hallonquist, who maintains a website devoted to the Mercury 13 program, says Truhill was "so much more than a Mercury 13 lady."
"I think the biggest testament to her character was when her husband was imprisoned in South America and their aircraft confiscated (he was there legally), the State Department washed their hands of it," Hallonquist wrote in an email. "She put together the efforts on her own to get him home. She didn't go physically but managed to pull strings, push, cajole and finally get it done."
Here's a clip from a 2006 documentary on Truhill: