Few people live a life quite as Jacqueline Cochran did. With a host of records under her belt, a key figure in encouraging female aviators during WWII, and the first woman to break the sound barrier, she certainly is a Hero in Flight to be celebrated!
Jacqueline Cochran’s story is one of rags to riches. Her childhood was not a privileged one; she was born in May 1906 in West Florida as Bessie Lee Pitman. When her family moved to Georgia when she was just eight years old, she began working in the local cotton mill. She was married aged 14 to a man named Robert Cochran, shortly after giving birth to a son. Sadly, her son died just four years later, and by 1927, Jacqueline and Robert were divorced.
Determined to better herself, Cochran trained as a beautician, a career that would see her working in Alabama, Florida and, later on in New York City – and it was at this time she changed her name to Jacqueline.
So far, Cochran’s background doesn’t seem to fit the profile of a successful aviator, does it? However, that chapter of her life was soon to begin.
Getting into aviation
In 1932, Jacqueline Cochran found herself at a society dinner, sitting next to Floyd Odlum, a very wealthy business financier. The couple hit it off and began seeing one another, and Odlum suggested to Cochran that she should learn to fly so that she could extend the capacity of her beauty business.
Cochran liked the idea and took lessons, earning her pilot’s license in just three weeks! Over the next four years, she continued to train and gained her commercial pilot’s license, giving her the opportunity to visit clients and suppliers by air, which in turn turned her business into a multi-million-dollar venture.
That wasn’t enough for Cochran, however. By 1935, she was already competing in various competitions across the country and had even become friends with Amelia Earhart. She and Odlum married in 1936, and in 1937, she set a new woman’s national speed record.
WWII, the ATA, and the WASP
When rumblings of war began in Europe in 1939, Jacqueline Cochran was concerned that the US would become involved at some point. She wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting the need for a women’s flying division in the Army Air Forces, which would free up men from the non-combat jobs and make them more available for fighting.
The First Lady suggested Cochran contacted the Army Air Force General, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. However, he wasn’t keen on the idea, and Cochran’s plan was shelved.
This didn’t knock the feisty aviator back, however. Between 1939 and 1941, she:
- Won the Women’s National Aviation Association award as the most outstanding woman pilot year on year
- Broke the 100km national speed record
- Broke the 2000km international speed record
- Set a women’s national altitude record
- Broke the international open-class speed record for men and women!
Her idea for a women’s flying division wasn’t wholly side-lined however, and in 1941, General Arnold gave Cochran the task of flying to the UK where she would observe the “Wings for Britain” programme.
Getting to the UK involved Cochran flying a US bomber across the Atlantic (making her the first woman to do so!). She stayed in Britain to observe the successful use of women in the Air Transport Auxiliary and worked for the ATA – recruiting 76 of the most qualified female US pilots and bringing them over to fly in England.
In 1942, General Arnold sanctioned the creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron back in the US, which was led by Nancy Harkness Love. Their principle role was ferrying aircraft around for servicemen, and on hearing the news, Cochran returned to the US straight away. She lobbied for the further use of female pilots, and eventually, Arnold allowed her to set up the Women’s Flying Training Detachment. In less than a year, the two divisions merged to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots. As director, Cochran oversaw the training of hundreds of female pilots between 1943 and the end of the war.
After WWII was over, Jacqueline Cochran went back to competing and setting records. The most famous of these came in 1953 when she became the first woman to break the sound barrier at Rogers Dry Lake, California.
In 1971, Cochran was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in honor of her accomplishments and contributions to aviation. This was significant in itself, as no woman had ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame before!
However, not long after, she received the tragic news that her days of flying were over. A heart condition meant she would have to have a pacemaker, and so she made the decision to retire to Indio, California. She lived out her days cycling, gardening, and traveling when she could. Five years later, Odlum passed away, which sent Cochran’s health into further decline, and she passed away on August 9, 1980.
Even today, she holds the highest number of international altitude, distance and speed records than any other pilot (both male and female) either living or deceased.
Jacqueline Cochran’s story shows that, with the right determination, anyone can become a successful aviator if that’s what they want to be! So are you inspired? Start your journey today at CTI Professional Flight Training.