[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Born c. 1906
Died August 9, 1980
Jacqueline Cochran overcame a difficult childhood to achieve many of the goals she set for herself. She was already an experienced, fearless pilot who had set many flying records when the United States entered World War II (December 7, 1941), and she quickly saw a way in which women could help the war effort. Cochran suggested that the U.S. government set up an organization of women pilots to perform various noncombat duties, an experiment that was already working well in Great Britain. Thus the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) were born, and Cochran became their director in August 1943. Although the program was canceled in 1944 and its members left with no veterans benefits and little recognition, Cochran and other female pilots had demonstrated both women's eagerness to serve their country and their abilities in the air.
A rough, tough childhood
Cochran celebrated her birthday on May 11 and estimated that she had been born around 1906, but she never knew who her parents were; when she was a teenager, she chose her last name from a phone book. Raised by a foster family in northern Florida, Cochran spent her early years traveling with them as they worked in different sawmills. The family was desperately poor, and Cochran often slept on the floor, went without shoes, and wore clothing made from discarded flour sacks. As recounted in Women Aviators by Lisa Yount, Cochran later wrote that this rough background gave her "a kind of cocky confidence…I could never have so little that I hadn't had less. It took away my fear."
Cochran began working at a cotton mill in Columbus, Georgia, when she was only eight years old, and as soon as she earned enough money she bought herself two pairs of shoes. By the time she was ten, Cochran was supervising fifteen other child workers at the mill. She told them that she was destined for a life of wealth and adventure. A strike (work stoppage staged by workers as a way to win more benefits, better pay, or more rights) forced Cochran out of her job, but she was soon working as an assistant in a beauty salon in Columbus.
An aviator is born
Throughout her teenage years, Cochran worked in beauty salons in different cities, and after she bought herself a Model T Ford car (one of the earliest and most affordable automobiles) in Montgomery, Alabama, she was able to move even faster and further. By 1929 she was in New York City, working at a popular salon called Antoine's. Cochran's wealthy clients often invited her to their parties, and at one of these she met an older man named Floyd Odlum whom she liked immediately. The two became friends, and Cochran later learned that Odlum was a multimillionaire businessman.
Cochran told Odlum that she would like to become a traveling cosmetics salesperson. Odlum's casual comment that she would need wings for that job inspired Cochran to sign up for flying lessons. In the summer of 1932, she arranged to spend part of her vacation at the Roosevelt Flying School on Long Island. Odlum bet her the cost of the lessons that she would not get her pilot's license in six weeks, but Cochran won the bet by earning her license in only three weeks. The first time she took to the air, Cochran later said (as quoted in Yount's book), "A beauty operator ceased to exist and an aviator was born."
A career in business and flying
Cochran took more lessons and even worked as an unpaid flight attendant on an airline in exchange for occasional time at the controls of airplanes. By the end of 1933 she had enough skill and flying hours to earn her commercial pilot's license. Still interested in the cosmetics business, and backed by money provided by Odlum, Cochran started the Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics Company. She designed and sold hair dyes, moisturizing lotions, and other products. This company remained in business for the next fifty years, even though Cochran sold her interest in 1964.
On May 11, 1936, Cochran married Odlum, who was to remain until his death in 1976, a devoted husband who supported his adventurous wife in everything she did. The two bought a ranch near the town of Indio in the southern California desert and spent most of their time there.
Cochran started entering air races in 1934 and soon began setting records, so that within a few years she was ranked among such top women pilots as Amelia Earhart, Anne Lindbergh, and Edna Whyte. In 1937, for example (the same year Earhart disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean), Cochran set three speed records, including one for flying from New York to Miami. In 1938, she won the Harmon Trophy, an award given each year by the International League of Aviators to the top woman pilot.
"To go faster or farther… "
Cochran's main goal was to work as a test pilot. According to Yount, Cochran wrote that she always wanted "to go faster or farther through the atmosphere or higher into it than anyone else and to bring back some new information about plane, engine, fuel, instruments, air, or pilot that would be helpful in the conquest of the atmosphere."
Cochran remained well informed about advances in research and new technology that could benefit aviation, and in 1937 she learned about a young surgeon named Randolph Lovelace who had developed a special oxygen tank and mask for pilots who flew at high altitudes. This was an important development because pilots who flew above 20,000 feet over the earth often experienced nosebleeds and could even pass out. Cochran believed Lovelace's invention could prove even more valuable if the United States should have to go to war against Germany, which was then beginning to stir up trouble in Europe. She convinced a committee to award Lovelace the Collier Trophy, which honored people who had made major contributions to aviation.
It was not just her strong competitive spirit that led Cochran to enter air races, but also her interest in testing new airplanes. One of her favorite yearly events was the Bendix cross-country air race, when pilots flew from Los Angeles, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. Cochran had entered the race in 1935 but had to drop out after a treacherous takeoff, and in 1938 she decided to try again. This time she would fly in a new military pursuit plane, the P-35, which was considered fast but not too reliable.
During the flight, Cochran avoided a major catastrophe when she figured out how to correct a gas tank problem, and she went on to win the race. After picking up her trophy in Cleveland, she immediately took off again and flew to New York City, setting a new women's record for west-to-east transcontinental flight in a propeller-driven plane.
War brings a need for women pilots
In 1939 World War II began when Great Britain and France declared war on Germany after the German invasion of Poland. Through a special "Lend-Lease" program, the United States sent supplies and equipment to England, including airplanes. On June 17, 1941, Cochran joined this effort by flying a Hudson V-bomber from Canada (since the United States was officially a neutral country, the flight had to take off from Canada) to Great Britain, becoming the first woman to fly a military plane over the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. government insisted, however, that a male pilot fly with her to perform the takeoff and landing.
In addition to publicizing Great Britain's need for airplanes and pilots, Cochran felt that the historic flight had shown that women were capable of noncombat military flying. If they could perform some duties other than those that would put them into battle, she reasoned, more male pilots would be available for combat. In fact, Great Britain had already put this idea into action by setting up the Air Transport Authority (ATA), through which women pilots flew planes from manufacturers to airports near fighting units. Cochran thought the United States should do something similar. Meanwhile, Cochran recruited twenty-five American women to serve in the British program and took them to England for training. These women performed well, and some stayed for the rest of the war.
The WAFS and the WASPs
Meanwhile, another American pilot, Nancy Love (1914-1976), did convince the U.S. government to establish the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). This was a small group made up of experienced women pilots to ferry aircraft to Canada so that it could be sent on to England. Cochran got another chance to help women get involved in the war effort when her friend General A.H. "Hap" Arnold suggested she set up a program to train more women to fly the military aircraft.
Twenty-five thousand women applied to Cochran's program. She accepted 1,830 women; 1,074 completed the difficult twenty-three-week training (the same success rate for men who joined the Army Air Corps). When Cochran's first class of trainees graduated in the spring of 1943, she told them they were being given "the greatest opportunity ever offered women pilots anywhere in the world."
The WAFS and Cochran's group merged in August 1943 and were named the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Cochran was assigned to direct the organization, with Love still managing her own group but serving under Cochran. The WASPs learned how to fly almost every plane the air force used, including the gigantic B-29 Superfortresses and the Mustang and Thunderbolt fighter planes. They not only ferried airplanes between airports but transported cargo, weapons, and troops as well as tested new airplanes for safety. They towed targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice and made low-altitude flights so that radar and searchlight operators could practice spotting them. By the end of the war the WASPs had flown 60,000 hours and sixty million miles, delivering 12,650 planes and performing just as well as male pilots (but with fewer hours lost due to illness or accidents).
The end of the WASPs
Cochran and most of the WASPs were disappointed and angered when Congress canceled their organization in December 1944. Because the organization had never been made an official part of the military, the women were not eligible for the veterans' benefits (such as continuing pay and medical care) that male members of the armed forces received. Three decades later, some WASP veterans who had been angered by the air force's announcement that it would soon start to train its "first women military pilots" started a campaign to publicize their accomplishments and gain recognition as the first women U.S. military pilots. On September 20, 1977, Congress voted to allow the WASPs or their families to receive benefits.
Breaking the sound barrier
Cochran received the Distinguished Service Medal (the second-highest honor an American civilian [nonmilitary person] can receive) for her contributions during World War II. Then she went back to testing new airplanes, which had been her first love. In 1947 test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound (this means that the plane is flying so fast that the sound waves carrying the noise it makes cannot keep up with the plane). Cochran was a friend of Yeager's, and she longed to join him in testing military jets. Only air force members on active status were allowed to do so, though, and neither Cochran nor any other woman was a member of this group.
Cochran found a way to break this barrier with her husband's help. He owned the company that made the F-86 Sabre, one of the air force's newest jets and used his connections to make Cochran a pilot for Air Canada. Cochran could then borrow a Sabre from the Canadian Air Force, which also owned some of the planes, bring it back to the United States, and test-fly it.
In May 1953 Cochran made a historic flight. With Chuck Yeager following in a chase plane and ready to help her if she got into trouble, Cochran took the Sabre up to 45,000 feet, then went into a nosedive that soon put her at a speed of 500 to 600 miles per hour. Suddenly the noise of the plane died, proving that Cochran had reached Mach 1, the speed of sound. Then she heard the voice of Chuck Yeager over her radio, saying, "Congratulations, Jackie, you've made it." Cochran said that becoming the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound was the most thrilling event of her life.
Setting more records
Cochran made twelve more flights in the Sabre, breaking three men's records and flying faster than the speed of sound three times. She went on to set even more records, including sixty-nine inter-city and straight line distance records in 1962 alone, and becoming the first woman to fly jet airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean. During the 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was developing its manned space program, and Cochran wrote (as quoted in Yount's book), "I'd have given my right eye to be an astronaut." Instead, she helped other women undergo tests to show that they too could qualify for space travel.
A heart attack in 1971 put an end to Cochran's flying career. She had once commented that life without risk would be the same as death to her, so it is not surprising that her health declined even more when she could no longer fly. Cochran died in August 1980, leaving behind an incredible record: she had set about 250 speed, altitude, and distance records (more than any other male or female pilot), earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and Order of Merit from the U.S. government, received the Harmon Trophy fifteen times, been named "Pilot of the Decade" for 1940-49 by the Harmon trophy committee, and served as the only woman president of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (which also made her the only woman to receive its gold medal).
In 1971, Cochran became the first living woman to enter the Aviation Hall of Fame, and she was featured as part of the U.S. Postal Service's Great Aviators stamp series, issued in 1996.
Where to Learn More
Fisher, Marquita O. Jacqueline Cochran: First Lady of Flight. Champaign, IL:Garrard, 1973.
Mondey, David. Women of the Air. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1981.
Smith, Elizabeth Simpson. Coming Out Right: The Story of Jacqueline Cochran, the First Woman Aviator to Break the Sound Barrier. New York: Walker, 1991.
Schraff, Anne E. American Heroes of Exploration and Flight. Springfield, NJ:Enslow Publishers, 1996.
Yount, Lisa. Women Aviators. New York: Facts on File, 1995.
"Fact Sheet: Women's Airforce Service Pilots." Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.[Online] Available http://www.af.mil/50th/library/wasp.html (March 28, 1999).
"Jacqueline Cochran." U.S. Stamps Alive Archive. [Online] Available http://www.usps.gov/kids/stompfeature23.html (March 28, 1999).
Jacqueline Cochran served as director of the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots), whose members transported airplanes and performed other noncombat duties during World War II.
German Aviator Hanna Reitsch
While Jacqueline Cochran was proving what women could achieve in the service of the Allies (Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the other countries fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan), Hanna Reitsch was doing something similiar in Germany.
Born in 1912 in Hirschberg, located in a part of Germany that is now part of Poland, Reitsch was a young woman of small stature but incredible bravery when she became a stunt pilot known for her skill and daring. A devoted follower of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (1889-1945; see entry), Reitsch was chosen in 1937 to test military aircraft for the Luftwaffe (the German air force). After a terrible crash that left her hospitalized for months and afraid of flying, Reitsch recovered her health, conquered her fear, and went continued flying.
In 1944, Reitsch took part in an experiment to test whether the new V-1 buzz bomb could be carried in a manned aircraft that would then become a suicide weapon (the pilot would sacrifice his or her own life by intentionally crashing the plane with the bomb aboard). The experiment was banned after two pilots crashed while trying to land, but Reitsch defied the ban and made a successful flight. She later said, "Those other two did not know how to bring down fast planes."
Reitsch made a dramatic visit to Hitler when, in April 1945, he had been forced to hide in an underground bunker while the Soviet Union's Red Army kept up a steady attack on Berlin. Assigned to carry General Ritter von Greim to see Hitler, she landed on a shell-battered Berlin street, flying out safely several days later through Russian anti-aircraft fire. Reitsch was the first woman to earn Germany's highest military honor, the Iron Cross, and was the only civilian (nonmilitary person) so honored.
Reitsch was eventually captured by the Allies and held for fifteen months before being released without trial. She resumed her flying career, winning many glider championships and establishing a gliding school in the West African country of Ghana in 1962. She died in 1979.