Cochran, Jacqueline (c. 1910–1980)

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Cochran, Jacqueline (c. 1910–1980)

American aviator, businesswoman, and one of the world's most famous woman fliers, who held the greatest number of speed, distance, and altitude records of any pilot, male or female. Born possibly in 1910, probably somewhere in northern Florida; died at her home in Indio, California, on August 9, 1980; orphaned, parents unknown; married Floyd B. Odlum (a financier), May 11, 1936.

Received primary education until age 9, when she began working in a cotton factory (c. 1919); received three years of nurse's training, Columbus, Georgia; was owner of cosmetics manufacturing company (1935 on); held many aviation records and awards; served as director of Women Pilots, Women's Airforce Service Pilots (1943–44).

Selected publications:

The Stars at Noon (Little, Brown, 1954); (published posthumously with co-author Maryann Bucknum Brinley) Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography (Bantam, 1987).

From the start, everything had gone wrong. To Jacqueline Cochran, still in her mid-30s, the Bendix transcontinental air race of 1946 appeared jinxed. Once she left Los Angeles en route nonstop to Cleveland, she found the radio dead. Facing bad weather near the Grand Canyon, she tried to climb to 30,000 feet, but at 27,000 feet the engine cut, then surged on and off alarmingly. The only answer was to dive head-on into the storm at such a speed that her Mustang-51 was difficult to control. Flying solely on instruments, Cochran decided to jettison the external fuel-tanks over the Rockies, rather than risk dropping them in poor visibility upon a populated area. The drop mechanism, however, had not been tested. Hence, most of the tanks stayed firmly attached, wrenching the aircraft violently and damaging the wings. "The plane made a violent jerk—almost a collision in the air," Cochran said later. Moreover, a bad cut on her head had left her bleeding. "The main question was whether the plane would not disintegrate before I could get to Cleveland." She was able to keep control and landed only six minutes behind the winner.

Jacqueline Cochran's life in the air was always fraught with danger. One time, she crash-landed when the nose of her plane caught fire 10,000 feet in the air. Another time, doubled up

with pain, she climbed in her plane at midnight, flew from Albuquerque to California, landed at the Long Beach airport, and two hours later was on the operating table. Then there was the incident when she crash-landed at Indianapolis with such impact that the plane split in two on the runway. The two halves bounced several feet in the air and collided.

To avoid unnecessary weight, Cochran often calculated her fuel to the last few gallons; in doing so, she landed five times with only enough petrol for two more minutes in the air. For example, during a record flight from New York to Miami, she had to circle an airfield because a naval squadron was flying over it in formation. The engine cut just as her wheels touched the ground. With characteristic understatement, she said about her competitive flying, "All in all, the races were no picnics." Such risks, however, usually paid off. Cochran's name practically became synonymous with women in aviation. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier, the first woman to make a blind landing (that is flying solely by instruments), and the first woman to fly a British bomber. Few, however, realize that she also held practically all the men's records for propeller-driven planes. As jet pilot Chuck Yeager said, "She didn't set women's records. She set records, period. … Sometimes Jackie Cochran couldn't believe what she had accomplished."

Generous, egotistical, penny-pinching, compassionate, sensitive, aggressive—indeed, an explosive study in contradictions—Jackie was consistent only in the overflowing energy with which she attacked the challenge of being alive.

—Maryann Bucknum Brinley

Jacqueline Cochran was probably born in northern Florida, possibly around 1910. (She never knew her real age or the identity of her parents.) Orphaned in infancy, she lived with a poor family in sawmill camp towns of northern Florida and southern Georgia—Bagdad, Sampson, Millville, Panama City. The first sentence in her 1954 autobiography reads: "I am a refugee from Sawdust Road, which is located in the South close by Tobacco Road of theater and movie fame." Life, she continued, was "bleak and bitter and harsh":

Until I was eight years old, I had no shoes. My bed was usually a pallet on the floor and sometimes just the floor. Food at best consisted of the barest essentials. … My dresses in the first seven years of my life were usually made from cast-off flour sacks.

At times close to starvation, Cochran often ate what she could steal or scrounge, and used a device of her own invention to "hook" stray chickens. On learning, at age six, that her "mother" and "father" were not her real parents, she grew even more independent, determined not to follow in their footsteps. She recalled: "My only reaction was happiness. I was glad that I wasn't related by blood to those shiftless people. Just knowing I wasn't really one of them gave me incentive to get away and improve my lot."

She worked from the time she was seven. Once she stopped going to school because a teacher hit her, another time because her foster family needed another wage-earner. She learned her ABCs by watching railroad boxcars, sounding out the words written on their sides. A Roman Catholic priest befriended her, and a teacher, Miss Bostwick, taught her habits of cleanliness and paid her for doing odd jobs. At age seven, Cochran became a rent-out housekeeper, earning ten cents a day (if she was paid). She even served as midwife to an 18-year-old mother.

At nine, Cochran began work in the cotton mills of Columbus, Georgia, on a 12-hour night shift. Her first job: pushing a four-wheeled cart up the aisles that delivered spools of bobbins to the weavers. Her salary: six cents an hour. Soon, she was promoted to inspection room supervisor, where she had charge of 15 other children. The lighting was poor, ventilation bad, and sanitary conditions atrocious. "Human beings did not count—only yardage," she recalled.

By age 13, she left home to find work at a Columbus beauty shop. Here, Cochran learned how to give permanent waves for $1.50 a day. Then, at about age 15, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where she was employed in the beauty shop of a department store. One of her customers, a woman judge in the juvenile court, arranged for Cochran to seek nurse's training in a local Roman Catholic hospital. Formal requirements were waived. Although her grades were low in academic subjects, she excelled in nursing. At the end of three years in training, she worked for a country doctor in Bonifay, Florida, for three dollars a day. Before long, however, she moved to Pensacola, where she became a partner in a local beauty shop. While in Pensacola, she chose the name Cochran by scanning a telephone book. (In her autobiography, she never identifies her foster parents or offers her original name.)

In about 1928, Cochran worked nine months in a beauty operators' school in Philadelphia, after which she struck out for New York. She was immediately hired by the famous hair stylist Antoine at his Saks-Fifth Avenue salon, although in the winters she worked at his Miami Beach salon.

At a dinner party in Miami in 1932, Cochran met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, one of the wealthiest people in America. The founder of the Atlas Corporation, a giant holding company, Odlum held major interests in RKO and Paramount pictures, Greyhound bus, United Fruit, and Bonwit Teller and Franklin Simon department stores over the course of his career. Although Odlum was 14 years older than Cochran, the couple were married on May 11, 1936, in Kingman, Arizona. Appropriately for the husband of what was then called an "aviatrix," he would head the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, which built the B-36 intercontinental bomber and the Convair.

It was from Cochran's first conversation with Odlum that she got the idea of becoming an airplane pilot. In the summer of 1932, she took flying lessons at Roosevelt Field on Long Island. An exceptionally quick learner, she made her first solo flight after only three days of instruction. She later recalled:

I was getting ready to land when suddenly the motor quit. I can remember thinking how considerate it was of my teacher to have arranged for the motor to stop while I was up there so I wouldn't have any trouble landing.

She was well aware of her ignorance, not even knowing how to read a compass or a map. Within three weeks, however, she obtained her pilot's license. Cochran took the examination orally, as she was still barely literate. In less than three weeks, she rented a Fairchild plane and traveled solo to Montreal. "Flying was now in my blood," she recalled.

In 1933, Cochran went to San Diego, where Ted Marshall, a friend and naval officer, taught flying according to military standards. She bought an old Travelair plane with a Gypsy motor for $1,200 and earned a commercial pilot's license. Because forced landings were the usual practice, she landed on many of California's beaches and open fields. At one point, she was briefly part of a flying circus.

In 1934, Cochran was the only American woman entrant in the McRobertson London-to-Melbourne air race. She started from England in a "Gee Bee" racing plane that was neither finished nor tested, sitting on a cracker box as the pilot's seat was not ready. After a forced landing in Bucharest, she had to abandon the race.

In 1937, she entered the Bendix Cross-Country Air Race, the major long-distance competition in the world. She placed third overall, first in the women's division, and covered the distance between Los Angeles and Cleveland in 10 hours, 19 minutes. That year, she set three major speed records: women's national, women's world, and New York-to-Miami.

Entering the Bendix race again in 1938, she won first place. The flight was a difficult one. Departing from Burbank, California, and piloting a craft she had never flown before, she ran into bad weather. Because a wad of paper was blocking the fuel pipe, she had to fly the plane with one wing higher than the other, which was the only way she could ensure an adequate gas supply. After reaching Cleveland in just over eight hours and receiving her trophy from Vincent Bendix, she climbed back into her Seversky Pursuit Plane and flew to Bendix Airport in New Jersey, in the process setting a new women's west-to-east transcontinental record of a little over ten hours.

In 1939 and 1940, Cochran set more records: women's national altitude record; international open-class speed record for both men and women; the New York-to-Miami Air Race record of 1939; world speed record for 100 and for 2,000 kilometers. In August 1939, she made the first blind landing ever performed by a female pilot.

As United States involvement in World War II approached, Cochran was convinced that woman pilots would be needed. Encouraged by General Henry H. ("Hap") Arnold, deputy chief of staff for air, and Lord Beaverbrook, British supply minister, she was the first woman to pilot a bomber to England, doing so on June 17, 1941. She sought to prove to U.S. and British officials that women could handle such heavy aircraft. Because of the opposition of the British military pilots, who fought the very idea of a civilian—much less a woman—at the controls, Cochran was required to relinquish the lever to a male copilot on takeoff and landing. In March 1942, while serving with the British Air Transport Auxiliary, she took a group of 25 American women pilots to England for training. She held the honorary title of flight captain.

That September, the U.S. Army Air Force recalled Cochran from Britain to direct its own women's pilot-training program. In August 1943, her unit was merged with the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, headed by pilot Nancy Love . The new organization, named the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), was headed by Cochran, who was given the title Director of Women Pilots.

Cochran insisted on a strict military schedule, although technically her fliers remained civilians. WASPs not only did ferry duty; they towed targets for student anti-aircraft gunners, took part in smoke-laying, flew test flights, and simulated gas attacks and low-level strafing. They flew nearly every type of plane used by the Army Air Force, from small trainers to B-29 Superfortresses. Some 1,074 WASP women flew 60 million miles. Only 38 fatalities resulted, or one to every 16,000 miles of flying.

Although well-connected with Washington's circles of power, Cochran was unable to keep her program intact, much less realize her goal of having it placed under the aegis of the semi-autonomous Army Air Corps. The opposition of unemployed male pilots and the Women's Army Corps (WAC) was too much for her. Cochran was so bitter that she called WAC director Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby "the woman I love to hate." When, in December 1944, the WASPS were disbanded, Cochran's final report claimed that her pilots had proved conclusively that women were as fit as men to be pilots. In 1945, Army Air Force chief Arnold awarded her the Distinguished Service Medal, normally only bestowed upon full-fledged members of the armed forces.

When Cochran's WASP work was completed, the editor of Liberty magazine appointed her correspondent to the Pacific Theater. She witnessed the Japanese surrender of the Philippines at Baguio. In the process, she became so bitter at General Yamashita Tomoyuki, whom she held responsible for the atrocious treatment of war prisoners, that she said she wished she could have been present "when the rope tightened" around his neck. Soon she was the first American woman to enter postwar Japan. Going on to Shanghai, she was decorated by Song Meiling , the wife of China's Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek, and spent two hours with Communist leader Mao Zedong.

For a year and a half after the Japanese surrender, Cochran worked as Arnold's special assistant, touring the country on behalf of a separate autonomous U.S. air arm. In 1948, she was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves, retiring in 1970 at the rank of full colonel. In the summer of 1950, the U.S. chief of staff, General Hoyt S. ("Van") Vandenberg, offered her the directorship of the new Woman's Air Force. Cochran refused the offer while agreeing to serve as consultant, in which capacity she made various inspection tours in the United States and overseas.

Love, Nancy (b. 1914)

American aviator and director of the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS). Born Nancy Harkness in Houghton, Michigan; attended Vassar; married Robert Love (a pilot).

Nancy Love learned to fly at age 16, was awarded her pilot's license one month after her first flight, and, in 1933, at age 19, received her transport rating. While at Vassar, she launched a flying school and transported passengers at the Poughkeepsie airport, but she was forced to leave school in her sophomore year because of the financial drain caused by the Depression. Even so, she continued to fly. In 1935, along with Blanche Noyes, Louise Thaden, Helen Richey , and Helen MacCloskey , Love was hired by the Bureau of Air Commerce. Love then worked with her husband Robert as a Beechcraft distributor; she also served as a test pilot for the Gwinn Air Car Company (1937–38), testing the durability of tricycle landing gear by performing hard landings.

At the onset of World War II, before Americans were engaged in the war, Love joined 32 male pilots to ferry much-needed American planes to Canada for shipment to France. Unfortunately, France capitulated before the planes could set out from Canada. When her husband was called to Washington as deputy chief of Air Transport Command (ATC), Love went with him. Aware of the contributions women could make to the air-ferrying service, she sought out Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds. Olds was impressed with her idea and asked for a list of all women with advanced ratings; Love returned with 49 names. On September 10, 1942, the WAFS was formed with Love as the director. Twenty-seven women signed on. See also entry on Fort, Cornelia.

After World War II, Cochran's primary focus was on her racing career. She finished second in the 1946 Bendix race, third in 1948. By the 1950s, Cochran experienced a new challenge: jets. "I had been in the center of aviation," she wrote later. "The jet phase was threatening to pass me by. I wanted a real touch of it." She took lessons from Air Force Captain Charles (Chuck) Yeager, who was establishing many records in this field. In spring 1953, Cochran flew a Canadian-built Sabrejet F-86, the fastest plane in the world, to become the first woman to soar faster than the speed of sound. She climbed to nearly 50,000 feet, breaking through the sonic barrier while diving at nearly 700 miles per hour. She wrote of the experience:

As I climbed for this dive past the barrier, I noticed that the sky above was growing darker until it became a dark blue. The sun was a bright globe there above but there are no dust particles at the height to catch and reflect the sun's rays, so there is not what we know as "sunshine" down on the surface. Yellow has given way to blue. The gates of heaven are not brilliantly lighted. The stars can be seen at noon.

That same year, Cochran set several jet records for both men and women, including 15, 100, and 500 kilometers. On June 6, 1960, piloting an A3J plane, she was the first woman to fly at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. She achieved another "first" for women on June 15, when she made an arrested landing in a jet on an aircraft carrier, the USS Independence, and was also catapulted from the carrier. By 1961, she was breaking her own 100- and 500-kilometer records of 1953, while setting an altitude record of 55,253 feet.

By now, setting records was becoming a pattern: 1961 (1,000 kilometer closed course; a new altitude record of 55,253 feet); 1962 (69 intercity and straight-line distance records for Lockheed in a Jet Star; nine international speed, distance, and altitude records in a Northrop T-38 military jet); 1963 (15–25 and 100-kilometer courses in a Lockheed F-104G Starfighter); 1964 (15-25, 100-, and 500-kilometer courses in the same Starfighter model).

During her career, Cochran received many honors. In 1938, she was given the General William E. Mitchell Award for her contribution to the progress of American aviation. In April 1938, she was awarded the first of 15 Clifford Burke Harmon international trophies as the world's outstanding female pilot of 1937. Later, the Harmon selection committee named her the outstanding woman pilot of the 1940s. Other such tributes include the French Legion of Honor (1949), the French Air Medal (1951), the gold medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (1953), the gold medal of the International Flying Organization (1954), and the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak-leaf clusters (1969). In 1958–59, she was elected president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the only woman to have held that office; she was reelected for the 1960–61 term.

Though many know of Cochran's flying exploits, few are aware of her activities in business and politics. In 1935, she started Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics, which began with a beauty salon in Chicago and a laboratory in New Jersey. The company prospered, selling millions of dollars' worth of her products each year through thousands of outlets. Among her best-known products were Flowing Velvet and Shining Hour creams. In March 1961, she sold a major interest to Andrew A. Lynn, who became president and chief executive.

In 1952, Cochran was an early supporter of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential candidacy. Indeed, the famous slogan "I like Ike" was coined at a meeting in her New York City apartment. On February 11, Cochran made a special flight to Paris, where Eisenhower was on duty as supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Her purpose: to show him newsreel films of an "Ike" rally in New York that she had co-chaired.

Four years later, Cochran took part in a colorful political contest in California. She contended for the 29th District Congressional seat against Dalip S. Saund, a Democrat born in India. Cochran genuinely suspected Saund of being a Communist, much less an illegal alien. Although Cochran was a flamboyant campaigner, piloting her own Lockheed Lodestar around the district, Saund won the election by about 3,000 votes.

Her autobiography, The Stars at Noon (1954), reveals her social views:

Every generation has its rough roads and its barriers to surmount. … What I have done without special advantage, others can do. I hear too much about the desire for security—at least with satisfaction. It doesn't come from a private pension fund or a Government promise of poor bed and board after most of life has been spent idling around waiting for such a payoff.

At the same time, Cochran was somewhat close to Lyndon Johnson. In 1948, when Johnson was campaigning for the Senate, he fell ill from kidney stones. Cochran was attending a clambake in Dallas as the guest of Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington. Symington suggested she visit the ailing Johnson. Once Cochran saw his condition, she warned Lady Bird Johnson : "Either you get proper medical aid for this man or he's going to be dead within twenty-four hours. I think he is dying." Within an hour, Cochran was personally flying the future president to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he recovered.

By and large, Cochran's conservativism was bolstered by her frequent trips. Her personal prestige plus her husband's business influence gave her access to most of the world's leaders. In 1950, the Odlums met with Generalissimo Francisco Franco, whose regime—she claimed—"gives considerable freedom to the people of Spain." Several years later, however, she was horrified when South Korean president Syngman Rhee told her that the United States was a "yellow" nation that refused to summarily execute suspected Communists. She replied: "If you weren't an elderly man, and if I were strong enough, I'd knock you right on the nose. … I love my country and I'm leaving. … Good day."

Cochran always believed that she possessed unique psychic powers. She and her husband Floyd claimed to be able to communicate with each other while separated, in fact even in their sleep. In May 1937, on the basis of an intuitive hunch, Cochran tried to persuade her friend Amelia Earhart not to make her fatal round-the-world flight. When on July 2, Earhart was thought to be lost over the Pacific, her husband, George Putnam, enlisted Cochran's supposed power in the search for her aircraft. Cochran claimed to know just where Earhart had crashed, although her assertions were never confirmed. A devout Roman Catholic, with a firm belief in an afterlife, Cochran lit a candle for Earhart when her senses told her that Amelia was no longer alive. Shaken by the experience, she seldom attempted to use such powers thereafter.

Through her life, Cochran suffered from health problems. A faulty appendicitis procedure led to seven further abdominal operations. She also underwent eye and foot surgery and miscarried twice. "My body simply wouldn't behave," she said. At their 600-acre ranch in California's Imperial Valley, Jacqueline and Floyd played host to hundreds of celebrities, often entertaining former president Eisenhower. In 1970, she experienced a major heart attack, and for the rest of her life she lived with a pacemaker. She was finally forced to give up competitive flying. In June 1976, Floyd Odlum died at age 84. He had suffered from arthritis for many years and was bedridden at their ranch. After Floyd's death, Jacqueline declined rapidly, suffering from heart and kidney disease. Jacqueline Cochran died on August 9, 1980, at her home in Indio, California.


Cochran, Jacqueline. The Stars at Noon. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1954.

——, and Maryann Bucknum Brinley. Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography. NY: Bantam, 1987.

suggested reading:

Lomax, Judy. Women of the Air. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1987.


Both the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas, have many items dealing with Cochran. One should also consult the Columbia University Oral History Project and the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

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Cochran, Jacqueline (c. 1910–1980)

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