Jackie Cochran

During her aviation career, Jackie Cochran set more speed and altitude records than any of her contemporaries, male or female. She not only became one of the world's great aviatrixes but also one of the best pilots of either gender. Throughout her life, Cochran demonstrated an incredible drive; she wanted to succeed at everything she did. Remarkably, Cochran, unlike many famous aviators, did not originally show an interest in learning to fly. In fact, she obtained her pilot's license only so that she could peddle her own line of cosmetics across the country. Nevertheless, Cochran was a true aviation pioneer.

Cochran's early childhood is a bit of a mystery. She claimed to have been an orphan with no exact record of her birth (although some debate the issue) Historians consequently disagree about when she was born, with dates ranging from 1905 all the way to 1913. Although her birth date is uncertain, it is clear that Cochran grew up in poverty in the rural panhandle of Florida.

Despite the mystery surrounding her early years, Cochran's later childhood is a bit clearer. At some point, she began working as a beautician at a local hairdresser's. Because she enjoyed the work, she decided she wanted to eventually start her own line of cosmetics. In 1929, Cochran moved to New York City, where she hoped salon customers would fully appreciate her skills. She also hoped that her move would help her realize her dream of becoming a cosmetics manufacturer.

New York City was kind to Cochran. She got a job at a fashionable salon in upscale Saks Fifth Avenue and customers raved about her. Some even paid her to travel with them. She made good money and was rising well above her early circumstances. Then, while in Miami in 1932, Cochran met millionaire Floyd Bostwick Odlum. He was immediately attracted to her and would eventually ask her to marry him.

It was Odlum who first interested Cochran in learning to fly. Cochran had told Odlum of her dream of starting a cosmetics line and he suggested that she was going to "need wings" to cover the territory necessary to sustain a cosmetics business. Cochran took Odlum's advice seriously and obtained her pilot's license after only three weeks of instruction. For Cochran, flight provided an opportunity for a new life. Although she kept her cosmetics business, to her, "a beauty operator ceased to exist and an aviator was born."

After sharpening her skills at a California flight school, Cochran entered her first major aviation competition in 1934--the MacRobertson Race from London to Melbourne. Unfortunately, she and her co-pilot, Wesley Smith, had to abandon the race because of problems with their plane's flaps. Although Cochran was disappointed, she continued competing. In 1935, she entered the famous Bendix cross-country race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, but once again had to drop out due to mechanical problems. Ironically, in spite of her ambitions, it turned out that Cochran's major accomplishment of the year was the launch of her own cosmetics company.

In 1937, Cochran's luck in the air changed dramatically. She finished first in the women's division of the Bendix and third overall. Cochran also set a national air speed record from New York to Miami in 4 hours, 12 minutes, 27 seconds, and she achieved a new women's national speed record at 203.895 miles per hour (328 kilometres per hour). As a result, Cochran received the Clifford Harmon Trophy for the most outstanding woman pilot of the year. By the end of her career, she would obtain a total of 15 Harmon Trophies.

In September 1938, Cochran demonstrated the full depth of her piloting skills by winning the Bendix outright. She flew a Russian-made Seversky fighter plane to victory in 8 hours, 10 minutes, 31 seconds. Cochran finished first overall, even beating all of the men in the race. Thanks to her victory, she also received the William Mitchell Memorial Award, an honour given to the person who makes the most outstanding contribution to aviation during a given year.

Shortly after her Bendix win, Cochran set several more records. In March 1939, she achieved a new women's national altitude record at 30,052 feet (9,160 meters), and then a few months later, set two new world records for the fastest times over a 1000-kilometer course and a 2000-kilometer course. By the beginning of the 1940s, Cochran had achieved a multitude of altitude and speed records.

When World War II began, Cochran travelled to England to observe how female pilots were helping the British war effort. She had been contemplating the idea of a fleet of women aviators who could fly military aircraft in support of general operations. The idea was to free up men so they could fight in the war, instead of dealing with such tasks as ferrying military planes and providing basic aerial training. While overseas, Cochran saw that women could effectively take on the more routine tasks of military flight, and she lobbied the U.S. government to create just such an outfit.

In 1942, Cochran got her wish. Army Air Force General Henry "Hap" Arnold asked her to organize the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) to train women pilots to handle basic military flight support. The following year, Cochran received an appointment to lead the Women's Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs. The WASPs were essentially two groups in one--the WFTD, and another organization called the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), a group responsible for delivering military planes to their base of operations.

The WASPs proved invaluable to the war effort. They transported planes overseas, tested various military aircraft, taught aerial navigation, and provided target towing. Under Cochran's leadership, the WASPs grew to well over 1000 members, but despite their usefulness, the organization did not last long. In December 1944, Congress disbanded the WASPs because scores of male pilots complained they were being put out of work. During their brief existence, the WASPs delivered approximately 12,650 planes and flew more than 60 million miles (97 million kilometres). In recognition of her leadership, Cochran received the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal, the first civilian woman ever to do so.

After the war, Cochran returned to racing and setting records. In 1950, she set a new international speed record for propeller-driven aircraft by flying a P-51 at 447.47 miles per hour (719 kilometres per hour). Then, in 1953, while flying a Sabrejet F-86, she became the first woman to break Mach 1, or the sound barrier. Interestingly, in the late 1950s, as the U.S. human spaceflight program was getting started, Cochran was among 13 women who lobbied to become a female astronaut. The idea, however, did not came to fruition then because of the political volatility of the issue.

In the 1960s, Cochran continued to set records. Many of these new marks came while she was working as a test pilot for Northrop and Lockheed. In 1961, she established a string of eight major speed records in a Northrop T-38. Three years later, she set three new speed records in a Lockheed 104 jet Starfighter. During one of her runs, she flew more than 1,429 miles per hour (2,300 kilometres per hour), the fastest a women had ever flown.

In the 1970s, Cochran finally slowed down due to a serious cardiac condition. During the decade, she received numerous awards and honorary degrees in recognition of her outstanding accomplishments. In August 1980, after struggling with failing health, Cochran died in Indio, California.

Clearly, Jackie Cochran was an exceptional pilot and an exceptional woman. During her lifetime, she received more than 200 awards and trophies and set more speed and altitude records than any other pilot. In addition to her American aviation awards, Cochran also garnered numerous foreign honours, including the French Legion of Honour and a Gold Medal from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Interestingly, Cochran also excelled in the cosmetics business, which she had continued to run. During the 1950s, the Associated Press voted her "Woman of the Year in Business" two years in a row. And, as if these accomplishments were not enough, she also advised the U.S. Air Force, the FAA, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and served as a board member for museums and non-profit organizations. In the end, Jackie Cochran, one of the world's best pilots, influenced the world well beyond aviation. From the 1930s onward, she left an indelible mark on aviation history.