During her aviation career, Jackie Cochran set more speed
and altitude records than any of her contemporaries, male or
female. She not only became one of the world's great
aviatrixes but also one of the best pilots of either gender.
Throughout her life, Cochran demonstrated an incredible
drive; she wanted to succeed at everything she did.
Remarkably, Cochran, unlike many famous aviators, did not
originally show an interest in learning to fly. In fact, she
obtained her pilot's license only so that she could peddle
her own line of cosmetics across the country. Nevertheless,
Cochran was a true aviation pioneer.
childhood is a bit of a mystery. She claimed to have been an
orphan with no exact record of her birth (although some
debate the issue) Historians consequently disagree about
when she was born, with dates ranging from 1905 all the way
to 1913. Although her birth date is uncertain, it is clear
that Cochran grew up in poverty in the rural panhandle of
mystery surrounding her early years, Cochran's later
childhood is a bit clearer. At some point, she began working
as a beautician at a local hairdresser's. Because she
enjoyed the work, she decided she wanted to eventually start
her own line of cosmetics. In 1929, Cochran 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
New York City
was kind to Cochran. She got a job at a fashionable salon in
upscale Saks Fifth Avenue and customers raved about her.
Some even paid her to travel with them. She made good money
and was rising well above her early circumstances. Then,
while in Miami in 1932, Cochran met millionaire Floyd
Bostwick Odlum. He was immediately attracted to her and
would eventually ask her to marry him.
It was Odlum
who first interested Cochran in learning to fly. 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. Cochran
took Odlum's advice seriously and obtained her pilot's
license after only three weeks of instruction. For Cochran,
flight provided an opportunity for a new life. Although she
kept her cosmetics business, to her, "a beauty operator
ceased to exist and an aviator was born."
sharpening her skills at a California flight school, Cochran
entered her first major aviation competition in 1934--the
MacRobertson Race from London to Melbourne. 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. Ironically, in spite of her ambitions,
it turned out that Cochran's major accomplishment of the
year was the launch of her own cosmetics company.
Cochran's luck in the air changed dramatically. She finished
first in the women's division of the Bendix and third
overall. Cochran also set a national air speed record from
New York to Miami in 4 hours, 12 minutes, 27 seconds, and
she achieved a new women's national speed record at 203.895
miles per hour (328 kilometres 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.
1938, Cochran demonstrated the full depth of her piloting
skills by winning the Bendix outright. She flew a
Russian-made Seversky fighter plane to victory in 8 hours,
10 minutes, 31 seconds. Cochran finished first overall, even
beating all of the men in the race. Thanks to her victory,
she also received the William Mitchell Memorial Award, an
honour given to the person who makes the most outstanding
contribution to aviation during a given year.
her Bendix win, Cochran set several more records. In March
1939, she achieved a new women's national altitude record at
30,052 feet (9,160 meters), and then a few months later, set
two new world records for the fastest times over a
1000-kilometer course and a 2000-kilometer course. By the
beginning of the 1940s, Cochran had achieved a multitude of
altitude and speed records.
When World War
II began, Cochran travelled to England to observe how female
pilots were helping the British war effort. She had been
contemplating the idea of a fleet of women aviators who
could fly military aircraft in support of general
operations. The idea was to free up men so they could fight
in the war, instead of dealing with such tasks as ferrying
military planes and providing basic aerial training. While
overseas, Cochran saw that women could effectively take on
the more routine tasks of military flight, and she lobbied
the U.S. government to create just such an outfit.
Cochran got her wish. Army Air Force General Henry "Hap"
Arnold asked her to organize the Women's Flying Training
Detachment (WFTD) to train women pilots to handle basic
military flight support. The following year, Cochran
received an appointment to lead the Women's Air Force
Service Pilots, or WASPs. The WASPs were essentially two
groups in one--the WFTD, and another organization called the
Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), a group responsible
for delivering military planes to their base of operations.
proved invaluable to the war effort. They transported planes
overseas, tested various military aircraft, taught aerial
navigation, and provided target towing. Under Cochran's
leadership, the WASPs grew to well over 1000 members, but
despite their usefulness, the organization did not last
long. In December 1944, Congress disbanded the WASPs because
scores of male pilots complained they were being put out of
work. During their brief existence, the WASPs delivered
approximately 12,650 planes and flew more than 60 million
miles (97 million kilometres). In recognition of her
leadership, Cochran received the U.S. Distinguished Service
Medal, the first civilian woman ever to do so.
After the war,
Cochran returned to racing and setting records. In 1950, she
set a new international speed record for propeller-driven
aircraft by flying a P-51 at 447.47 miles per hour (719
kilometres per hour). Then, in 1953, while flying a Sabrejet
F-86, she became the first woman to break Mach 1, or the
sound barrier. Interestingly, in the late 1950s, as the U.S.
human spaceflight program was getting started, Cochran was
among 13 women who lobbied to become a female astronaut. The
idea, however, did not came to fruition then because of the
political volatility of the issue.
In the 1960s,
Cochran continued to set records. Many of these new marks
came while she was working as a test pilot for Northrop and
Lockheed. In 1961, she established a string of eight major
speed records in a Northrop T-38. Three years later, she set
three new speed records in a Lockheed 104 jet Starfighter.
During one of her runs, she flew more than 1,429 miles per
hour (2,300 kilometres per hour), the fastest a women had
In the 1970s,
Cochran finally slowed down due to a serious cardiac
condition. During the decade, she received numerous awards
and honorary degrees in recognition of her outstanding
accomplishments. In August 1980, after struggling with
failing health, Cochran died in Indio, California.
Cochran was an exceptional pilot and an exceptional woman.
During her lifetime, she received more than 200 awards and
trophies and set more speed and altitude records than any
other pilot. In addition to her American aviation awards,
Cochran also garnered numerous foreign honours, including
the French Legion of Honour and a Gold Medal from the
Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Interestingly,
Cochran also excelled in the cosmetics business, which she
had continued to run. During the 1950s, the Associated Press
voted her "Woman of the Year in Business" two years in a
row. And, as if these accomplishments were not enough, she
also advised the U.S. Air Force, the FAA, and the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration, and served as a board
member for museums and non-profit organizations. In the end,
Jackie Cochran, one of the world's best pilots, influenced
the world well beyond aviation. From the 1930s onward, she
left an indelible mark on aviation history.