(b. ca. 1910; d. August 9, 1980) Director of Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during WWII; first woman to break the sound barrier.
The first woman to break the sound barrier, and the director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in World War II, Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran held more speed, distance, and altitude records during her career than any other pilot, male or female. Although not as well known to the public as Amelia Earhart, she is called by many the greatest woman pilot in aviation history. Her flying career covered four decades, and some of her records still stand.
Orphaned as a child, Cochran was raised by poor foster parents in Pensacola, Florida, where she was born, although the year is uncertain. Her family name and that of her foster parents are unknown, but according to her autobiography, she chose the name "Cochran" out of a phone book. She had very little formal education and began full-time work in a cotton mill as a young girl. From there, she became a beauty operator and by the 1930s had started her own cosmetics firm in New York City. In 1932 Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Field on Long Island at the suggestion of an aviator friend. The idea was partly to promote her company. After her third lesson she flew solo, and two weeks later she had her license. She bought her own plane, a Travelair, and immediately began advanced instruction.
Cochran married her aviator friend, Floyd Odlum, who was also an industrialist and banker, in 1936. A year earlier, she had been the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, and in 1938 she won it. In her silver P-35, she flew from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Ohio, in 8 hours, 10 minutes, 31 seconds. Using a new fuel system, she was also the first to finish the course nonstop. Also in that year she set a speed record for women, crossing North America in 10 hours, 12 minutes, 55 seconds in a converted P-35 racer. Several months later, she climbed to 33,000 feet, breaking the women's altitude record. She also won the Harmon trophy, the top prize for women aviators.
In 1939, when war was looming in Europe, Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, suggesting that female pilots could release men for active duty by flying support missions. Nothing came of the idea at the time. But it was very much alive in Great Britain, where Cochran went in 1941 to study the operation. After President Franklin Roosevelt suggested she investigate ways in which women pilots could be used in the Army Air Corps, she returned to Great Britain with twenty-five American women pilots to help ferry planes. She became a captain in the British Air Force Auxiliary. After the
United States entered the war, Cochran was asked by General Hap Arnold to come home and teach American women to fly. In 1943 she became director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
In 1944, after records showed that the WASP did not have as many fatal and nonfatal accidents as the male pilots, Cochran campaigned to get her unit taken into the Army Air Force. But the war was coming to an end, fewer male pilots were needed for combat missions, and the men staged an effective campaign against admitting the WASP program. It was disbanded in December, and Cochran was given the Distinguished Service Medal the following year.
A disappointed Cochran went back to civilian life and breaking records. In 1950 she set a new speed record for propeller aircraft. She was just getting started. In 1953 she broke the world speed record for both men and women, flying 652.552 mph in a Sabre jet. On March 1 of that year, she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. In 1960 she was the first woman to take off from an aircraft carrier and was the first woman to fly at Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) in 1961. In 1964 she flew faster than any woman in previous history, reaching 1,429 mph.
In the early 1970s Cochran was devastated when told that her flying career must end because of a heart condition. She retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel and served as a consultant to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She died in Indio, California, on August 9, 1980.
Jackie Cochran was a pioneer for women flyers. She opened the door to women flying in the military. Although women make up just 4 percent of U.S. military pilots, since the 1990s their numbers have increased greatly, as have their roles from support to combat. Cochran's experience parallels in many ways that of other groups, especially minorities: society opening up and cultural barriers dropping as a result of Americans being at war.
Cochran, Jackie, and Bucknum Brinley, Maryann. Jackie Cochran. New York: Bantam, 1987.
"Jackie Cochran: Magnificent Woman in Her Flying Machine Climbed into the Cockpit and 'Broke the Bonds of Gender and Space.'" Dryden Flight Research Center, The X-Press. Available from <http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov>.
Rose Blue and
Corinne J. Naden