Jacqueline Cochran (May 11, 1906 – August 9, 1980) was a pioneer American aviatrix, considered to be one of the most gifted race pilots of her generation. Her contributions to the formation of the wartime Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) were also significant, as she allowed for women in the future to have a place within the field of aviation as well, also supporting the "Woman in Space" program.
She has been honored with numerous awards due to her contributions, among them the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Legion of Honor, and she still holds records in racing planes. Her achievements, which included being the first pilot to make blind (instrument) landing, the first woman to fly a fixed-wing, jet aircraft across the Atlantic and the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask, remain inspirational especially to women who want to pursue a career in aviation or space flight.
Jacqueline Cochran's early years seem to be somewhat of a mystery, even to those who knew her. Although she claimed to have been an orphan, with no knowledge of her family history or record of her birth, Cochran was born as Bessie Lee Pittman. Historians disagree about the exact date of her birth, but agree that it was between the years of 1905 to 1913. She was born in Muscogee, Florida, the youngest of the five children of Mary (Grant) and Ira Pittman, a poor mill worker who moved from town to town in search of work. As a child, Bessie possessed an unusual amount of drive and ambition, and at age 15, left her home in DeFuniak Springs, Florida.
At some point during her later childhood, she began working as a beautician at a local hairdresser's salon. Due to her enjoyment of the work, Cochran decided she wanted to eventually start her own line of cosmetics. In 1929, she moved to New York City, where she hoped salon customers would fully appreciate her skills. She also hoped that her move would help her realize her dream of becoming a cosmetics manufacturer.
Cochran got a job at a fashionable salon in upscale Saks Fifth Avenue, and customers raved about her. It is thought that through her travels with customers, who paid her expenses, that she made extremely good money and was rising well above her early circumstances. Cochran later reported that at this time, she picked her name out of a phone book because her new glamorous life needed a glamorous name.
While in Miami in 1932, Cochran met millionaire Floyd Bostwick Odlum, a middle-aged founder of Atlas Corp. and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. At the time, Odlum was reported to be one of the ten richest men in the world, and was immediately attracted to Cochran. Odlum financed Cochran's cosmetic line, and eventually asked her to marry him.
It was Odlum who first interested Cochran to the idea of flying. The story goes that when Cochran had told Odlum of her dream of starting a cosmetics line, and he suggested that she was going to "need wings" to cover the territory necessary to sustain a cosmetics business, she took his advice literally. After a friend offered her a ride in an aircraft, a "thrilled" Jackie Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Airfield, Long Island, in the early 1930s. She learned to fly an airplane in just three weeks, and quickly obtained her commercial pilot's license.
Odlum, whom she married in 1936, after his divorce from a previous marriage, was an astute financier and savvy marketer who recognized the value of publicity for her business. Calling her line of cosmetics "Wings," after her new-found passion for flying, Cochran flew her own aircraft around the country promoting her products. Years later, Odlum used his Hollywood connections to get Marilyn Monroe to endorse her line of lipstick.
Contributions to aviation
Known by her friends as "Jackie," and maintaining the Cochran name, she flew her first major race, MacRobertson Race, from London to Melbourne, in 1934. Unfortunately, she and her co-pilot, Wesley Smith, had to abandon the race because of problems with their plane's flaps. Although Cochran was disappointed, she continued competing. In 1935, she entered the famous Bendix cross-country race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, but once again had to drop out due to mechanical problems.
In 1937, she was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race. She worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race for women, which she won. That year, she also set national speed record, from New York to Miami: 4 hours, 12 minutes, 27 seconds, and she achieved a new women's national speed record at 203.895 miles per hour (328 kilometers per hour). As a result, Cochran received the Clifford Harmon Trophy for the most outstanding woman pilot of the year. By the end of her career, she would obtain a total of 15 Harmon Trophies.
By 1938, she was considered the best female pilot in the United States. She had won the Bendix and set a new transcontinental speed record as well as altitude records. By this time, she was no longer just breaking woman's records, but was setting overall records. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier (with Chuck Yeager right on her wing), the first woman to fly a jet across the ocean, and the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She was appropriately given the title "Speed Queen," because no pilot, man or woman, held more speed, distance, or altitude records in aviation history than Jackie Cochran during her lifetime.
Before the United States joined World War II, she was part of "Wings for Britain" that delivered American built aircraft to Britain, where she became the first woman to fly a bomber (a Lockheed Hudson V) across the Atlantic. In Britain, she volunteered her services to the Royal Air Force. For several months, she worked for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), recruiting qualified women pilots in the United States and taking them to England, where they joined the Air Transport Auxiliary.
In September 1940, with the war raging throughout Europe, Jackie Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to introduce the proposal of starting a women's flying division in the Army Air Forces. She felt that qualified women pilots could do all of the domestic, noncombat aviation jobs necessary in order to release more male pilots for combat. She pictured herself in command of these women, with the same standings as Oveta Culp Hobby, who was then in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). (The WAAC was given full military status on July 1, 1943, thus making them part of the Army. At the same time, the unit was renamed Women's Army Corps [WAC].)
Also in 1940, Cochran wrote a letter to Colonel Robert Olds, who was helping to organize the Ferrying Command for the Air Corps at the time. (Ferrying Command was the air-transport service of the Army Air Corps; the command was renamed Air Transport Command in June 1942). In the letter, Cochran suggested that women pilots be employed to fly non-combat missions for the new command. In early 1941, Colonel Olds asked Cochran to find out how many women pilots there were in the United States, what their flying times were, their skills, their interest in flying for the country, and personal information about them. She used records from the Civil Aeronautics Administration to gather the data.
In spite of pilot shortages, General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold was the person who needed to be convinced that women pilots were the solution to his staffing problems. Arnold was placed in command of the U.S. Army Air Forces when it was created from the U.S. Army Air Corps in June 1941. He knew that women were being used successfully in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in England. Later that month, Arnold suggested that Cochran take a group of qualified female pilots to see how the British were doing. He promised her that no decisions regarding women flying for the USAAF would be made until she returned.
When General Arnold asked Cochran to go to Britain to study the ATA, she asked seventy-six of the most qualified female pilots—identified during the research she had done earlier for Colonel Robert Olds—to come along and fly for the ATA. Qualifications for these women were high—at least 300 hours of flying time, but most of the women pilots had over 1,000 hours. Their dedication was high as well—they had to cover the bill for travel from New York for an interview and to Montreal for a physical exam and flight check. Those that made it to Canada found out that the washout rate was also high. Twenty-five women passed the tests, and two months later, in March 1942, they went to Britain with Cochran to join the ATA. Although most of the women who flew in the ATA were a little reluctant to go because they wanted to be flying for the United States, those that went became the first American women to fly military aircraft.
Following America's entry into the War, in 1942, Cochran was made director of women's flight training for the United States. As head of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) she supervised the training of more than 1000 women pilots. For her war efforts, she received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
At war's end, she was hired by a magazine to report on global postwar events. In this role, she witnessed Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita's surrender in the Philippines, then was the first (non-Japanese) woman to enter Japan after the War, and attended the Nuremberg Trials in Germany.
Postwar, she began flying the new jet engine aircraft, going on to set numerous records. Most conspicuously, she became the first woman pilot to "go supersonic." In 1948, Cochran joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve, where she eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Encouraged by then-Major Chuck Yeager, with whom she shared a lifelong friendship, on May 18, 1953, at Rogers Dry Lake, California, Cochran flew a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet borrowed from the Royal Canadian Air Force at an average speed of 652.337 mph, becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier.
In the 1960s, she was a sponsor of the Woman in Space Program, an early program to test the ability of women to be astronauts. A number of the women passed or exceeded the results of the male astronauts before NASA canceled the program. Congress held hearings on the matter, during which John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified against admitting women to the astronaut program.
Cochran was the first woman to set a number of records throughout her lifetime. She was the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first woman to reach Mach 2, the first woman enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, the first pilot to make blind (instrument) landing, the only woman thus far to ever be President of the Federation Aeronautique lnt'l (1958-1961), the first woman to fly a fixed-wing, jet aircraft across the Atlantic, the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask, and the first woman to enter the Bendix Trans-continental Race.
Cochran was not just a pioneer in aviation, but also had political aspirations as well, to further the rights of women. She ran for Congress in her California home district as the candidate for the Republican Party. Although she defeated a field of five male opponents to win the Republican nomination, in the general election she lost to the Democratic candidate and first Asian-American Congressman, Dalip Singh Saund. Her political setback was one of the few failures she ever experienced, and she never attempted another run.
Those who knew Jacqueline Cochran have said that the loss bothered her for the rest of her life. However, as a result of her involvement in politics and the military, she would become close friends with General Dwight Eisenhower. In the early part of 1952, she and her husband helped sponsor a large rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City, in support of an Eisenhower presidential candidacy. The rally was documented on film and Cochran personally flew it to France for a special showing at Eisenhower's headquarters. Her efforts proved a major factor in convincing Eisenhower to run for President of the United States in 1952. She continued to play a major role in his successful campaign, and became close friends with the president. Eisenhower frequently visited Cochran and her husband at their California ranch and after leaving office, wrote portions of his memoirs there.
Jacqueline Cochran died on August 9, 1980, at her home in Indio, California, that she shared with her husband, Floyd Odlum. She was a long-time resident of the Coachella Valley, and is buried in Coachella Valley Cemetery. She regularly utilized Thermal Airport over the course of her long aviation career. The airport, which had been renamed Desert Resorts Regional, was again renamed "Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport" in her honor. This airport now hosts an annual air show named for her.
Her aviation accomplishments never gained the continuing media attention given those of Amelia Earhart, which could in part be attributed to the public's fascination with those who die young at the peak of their careers. Also, Cochran's use of her husband's immense wealth reduced the rags-to-riches nature of her story. Nonetheless, she deserves a place in the ranks of famous women in history, as one of the greatest aviators ever, and a woman who frequently used her influence to advance the cause of women in aviation.
Despite her lack of education, Cochran had a quick mind and an affinity for business, shown through her investment in the cosmetics field, which proved to be a lucrative one. Later, in 1951, the Boston Chamber of Commerce voted her one of the twenty-five outstanding businesswomen in America. In 1953 and 1954, the Associated Press named her "Woman of the Year in Business."
Blessed by fame and wealth, she donated a great deal of time and money to charitable works, especially with those from impoverished backgrounds like her own.
Cochran received citations and awards from numerous countries around the world throughout her career. In 1949, the government of France recognized her contribution to the war and aviation, awarding her the Legion of Honor and again in 1951, with the French Air Medal. She is the only woman to ever receive the Gold Medal from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She would go on to be elected to that body's board of directors and director of Northwest Airlines in the U.S. At home, the Air Force awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit.
Other honors include:
- In 1965, Jacqueline Cochran was inducted in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.
- In 1971, she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
- In 1985, the International Astronomical Union assigned the name Cochran to a large (100 km in diameter) crater on planet Venus.
- She became the first woman to be honored with a permanent display of her achievements at the United States Air Force Academy.
- In 1996, the United States Post Office honored her with a 50¢ postage stamp, depicting her in front of a Bendix Trophy pylon with her P-35 in the background and the words: "Jacqueline Cochran Pioneer Pilot."
- She was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1993.
- She is one of the 2006 inductees into the Lancaster, California Aerospace Walk of Honor, and the first woman to be inducted.
- There is an open public airport named after her near Palm Springs, California called Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport as well as an annual air show called the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show.
- Eisenhower Archives, Memorandum to Major General Yount. Retrieved October 31, 2007.
- Eisenhower Archives, Memorandum to Assistant Chief of Air Staff. Retrieved October 30, 2007.
- Eisenhower Archives, Award of Distinguished Service Medal. Retrieved October 30, 2007.
- NASA, Lovelace Woman in Space program. Retrieved October 30, 2007.
- Mercury 13, The Women of the Mercury Era. Retrieved October 30, 2007.
- Eisenhower Archives, Special for Jacqueline Cochran, Radio Reports. Retrieved October 30, 2007.
- Ayers, Billy Jean Pittman and Beth Dees. Superwoman Jacqueline Cochran: Family Memories About the Famous Pilot, Patriot, Wife, and Businesswoman. Self-published: Authorhouse, 2001. ISBN 0759667632
- Carl, Ann Baumgartner. A WASP Among Eagles. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 2000. ISBN 1560988703
- Cochran, Jacqueline and Maryann Bucknum Brinley. Jackie Cochran: The Autobiography of the Greatest Woman Pilot in Aviation History. New York: Bantam Books, 1987. ISBN 055305211X
- Cochran, Jacqueline. The Stars at Noon. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954. ISBN 0405121563
- McGuire, Nina and Sandra Wallus Sammons. Jacqueline Cochran: America's Fearless Aviator. Lake Buena Vista, FL: Tailored Tours Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0963124161
- Merryman, Molly. Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. New York: New York University Press, 1998. ISBN 0814755674
- Reminiscences of Jacqueline Cochran Columbia University Aviation Project, Oral History Research Office, 1961. ISBN 0884550435
- Williams, Vera S. WASPs: Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II. St. Paul, Minnesota: Motorbooks International, 1994. ISBN 0879388560
All links retrieved November 6, 2021.
- National Women's Hall of Fame: Jacqueline Cochran
- AirNav: KTRM - Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport
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