Pioneer in aviation who paved the way for future female American pilots.
Born near Pensacola, Florida, sometime in 1910 (although she claimed her birth date was May 11, 1912), Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran spent her early years in poverty. Orphaned while still an infant, she was raised by a foster family of sawmill workers. Her formal education did not go beyond the second grade. During her teens, she moved to Alabama to work as a beautician and enrolled in a three-year nursing program. Although she completed her training, Cochran, fearing failure, did not take the written examination and instead became a doctor’s assistant near the sawmills where she had been raised.
Depressed by the poverty of the sawmills, however, Cochran returned to work as a beautician. This work took her from Pensacola to Philadelphia, and finally to New York City, where she worked at the Saks Fifth Avenue department store. On a business trip in 1932, she met Floyd Odlum, a wealthy investor who enjoyed aviation. Following their conversation, Cochran enrolled in flight school. She quickly completed the courses, becoming one of only a few women to have a pilot’s license. Thereafter, she received a commercial pilot’s license, bought her own plane, and began competing in air races.
Cochran opened a beauty shop and started a cosmetic manufacturing business. In 1936, she married Floyd Odlum; the couple settled on a ranch near Indio, California. Marriage allowed Cochran to concentrate most of her time on flying. During the next year, she set three speed records and was awarded the Harmon trophy as the outstanding woman aviator of the year. In 1938, she won the Bendix Transcontinental Race by setting a new speed record, and the following year set an altitude record of 33,000 feet while winning the New York to Miami air race.
During the early 1940’s, Cochran used her aeronautical skills to help the Allied war effort. In 1941, she became the first woman to ferry a B-17 bomber to Britain, and thereafter recruited other female pilots to continue ferrying operations for the military. As a result of this success, in 1943 the military appointed her as the head of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Under her direction, over one thousand women completed important missions across the Atlantic. In 1945, the Army awarded Cochran the Distinguished Service Medal for her accomplishments as head of the WASPs. Following World War II, she worked as a reporter for Liberty Magazine. As a journalist she covered the Nuremberg war crimes trials, was the first American woman to enter Japan after the war, and interviewed Chinese leaders Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong.
Following the war, Cochran returned to the skies to set new records. In 1948, she set an altitude record of over 55,000 feet, and in 1953, she flew an F-86 Sabre jet faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1), becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. Her aviation records continued, as she became the first female pilot to land a jet on an aircraft carrier and the first woman to pilot a jet across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1964, she logged a record-setting flight at 1,429 miles per hour, over twice the speed of sound (Mach 2) and the fastest for a female pilot.
In 1970, Cochran retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve with the rank of colonel, and the next year she became the first living woman to be inducted into the American Aviation Hall of Fame. She died in 1980, leaving behind more than two hundred flying records. In addition to holding more records for altitude, speed, and distance than any pilot in history, her pioneering efforts made it possible for women to serve their country as pilots, astronauts, and military officers.
Cochran, Jacqueline, and Maryann Bucknum Brinley. Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam, 1987. A detailed autobiography compiled by Brinley consisting of interviews, personal recollections, and photographs. Cochran, Jacqueline, and Floyd Odlum. The Stars at Noon. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1980. A fascinating autobiography providing important descriptions of Cochran’s early years and the challenges women faced during the development of aviation, especially during World War II. Cole, Jean Hascall. Women Pilots of World War II. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992. Excellent overview of the WASP program with personal interviews. Lomax, Judy. Women of the Air. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1987. The chapter on Cochran provides an excellent overview of her contributions to flight.
Women and flight
Women’s Airforce Service Pilots
World War II