Jacqueline Cochran (1910-1980) rose from childhood poverty to become an aviation pioneer. She was the first woman to fly in the Bendix Trophy Transcontinental Race in 1935, winning it in 1938, and was the first woman to ferry a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean in support of the war effort in 1941. By 1961, she had become the first woman to break the sound barrier and held more speed records than any other pilot in the world.
The achievements of Jacqueline Cochran would be remarkable for anyone but are even more spectacular considering her humble beginnings and the fact she chose to compete in an arena not readily open to women of her time. An orphan, Cochran's exact birth date is uncertain. While she was raised with the name of her foster family, Cochran later picked from a phone book the name she would make famous. Early years offered little comfort. Cochran recounted in her autobiography Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography how she didn't have shoes until buying her own when she was eight. "Food at best consisted of the barest essentials-sometimes nothing except what I foraged for myself in the woods of the Northern Florida sawmill towns my foster family called home…. I've often heard that if you want someone to really enjoy the pleasures of heaven, then just pitch her into hell for a spell. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed my life to the brimful."
Cochran attempted to leave the squalor of her childhood by running away with the circus. The circus left without her, but it wasn't long before she found another way out. In her early teens she moved in with a Jewish family that owned hair salons. Underage, Cochran worked mixing dyes when she secured a promotion by threatening her employer with disclosure to child labor authorities. A year later, Cochran moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to work in another salon. There, a prominent client secured her admission to nursing school. She recalled that "the formal academic requirements for entry had been waived for me, as promised," Cochran wrote in her autobiography. "I'm certain that hospital had never admitted a second-grade dropout to the program before." Following training, Cochran abandoned hope of passing the state board exam. "My handwriting alone, not to mention my rudimentary arithmetic, would never have allowed me to pass." She went to work for a Florida country doctor where a license wasn't a necessity. Fearful the quality of treatment she and the doctor were providing was worse than none at all, Cochran left medicine and moved to Pensacola, Florida, where she became part owner of a beauty shop. There she picked "Cochran" out of the phone book.
In 1929 she moved to New York City and blustered Charles of the Ritz into offering her a salon job she ended up turning down. "I was so stubborn." Cochran went to work in a Saks Fifth Avenue salon. In 1932 on a trip to Miami, she met Floyd Odlum, the successful businessman whom she would marry in 1936. "Every orphan dreams of marrying a millionaire, but I had no idea at first that Floyd Odlum was worth so much money." Cochran confided her idea of becoming a traveling cosmetics saleswoman. His mind on the Depression, Odlum said success could only come from covering a large territory. "Get your pilot's license," he told her. In the year they met, the two made a wager: if Cochran could get her license in three weeks, Odlum would pay the $495 course fee. Cochran won the bet.
Emboldened by her success, Cochran set out on a solo flight to Canada, learning compass navigation from a helpful fellow aviator along the way. A commercial pilot's license followed, as did Cochran's entry in her first race in 1934, the MacRobertson London-to-Australia race. With a great deal of effort by Cochran and others working on her behalf, she secured a plane with which to enter the race, one manufactured by the Granville Brothers called a Gee Bee. "There were few pilots who flew Gee Bees and then lived to talk about it. Jimmy Doolittle was one. I was another." Cochran flew the race with copilot Wesley Smith. Malfunctioning flaps put the pair down in Bucharest, Rumania, and out of the race.
One year later, in 1935, Cochran entered her first Bendix Trophy Cross-Country Air Race, a race that is "to aviators what the Kentucky Derby still is to horse breeders," Cochran wrote. The year before she had managed to get the race open to women but didn't make it to the starting line herself. Cochran finished third in the 1937 Bendix and won the famous race in 1938; the same year First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt awarded her the first of 15 Harmon Trophies she would win. That first trophy was her recognition for setting three speed records. After winning the 1938 Bendix race from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio in 8 hours, 10 minutes and 31 seconds in a Seversky Pursuit, Cochran set a new women's west-to-east transcontinental record of 10 hours, 7 minutes, 10 seconds.
Women could compete with and often surpass men, but being ladylike also was a Cochran priority. Before stepping from the cockpit, she usually paused to apply lipstick. No longer a teenager mixing hair dye in someone else's beauty parlor, Cochran set about building her own cosmetics empire. "I told Floyd that I wanted my own beauty business so I could end up at the top. I had started at the bottom and supervising shampoos and permanents was not for me anymore." In 1935, the same year she entered her first Bendix race, Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics began manufacturing operations. A popular product was Cochran's "Perk-Up" cylinder, a container holding enough makeup for any woman traveling light. "I would take one on all my trips, all my races."
There were many more races, victories and records. In 1939, Cochran established a women's national altitude record and broke the international open-class speed record for men and women. The following year she broke the 2,000 km international speed record and the 100 km national record. During this time one of Cochran's dearest friends was fellow aviator Amelia Earhart, who Cochran met in 1935.
Cochran assured readers of her autobiography she and Earhart were not competitors. Earhart flew for distance; Cochran was after speed, but she later did pursue distance and altitude. Earhart shared in Cochran's interest in parapsychology, first sparked by Odlum. Cochran and Earhart used what they considered extra-sensory powers to locate the crash sites of downed aircraft. Earhart's husband, George Putnam, was skeptical and someone Cochran considered less than a friend. "I didn't like that man at all." But Putnam called on Cochran for help when Earhart failed to arrive at a planned stop on her 1937 quest to encircle the globe. Cochran wrote she "saw" Earhart after her plane went down over the South Pacific. "'Circling-cannot see island-gas running low' were the last words anyone heard from Amelia, including me. That still hurts," Cochran wrote.
In spite of the achievements of Cochran and others, women aviators had to fight for the right to serve their country during World War II. Cochran was in the forefront of the battle. In June 1941, Cochran became the first woman to pilot a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. However, because she had some difficulty operating the plane's hand brake during practice flights, she was forced to turn the controls over to a male pilot on take-off and landing. The flight was a milestone male pilots fought all the way. Cochran was accused of wanting to make the flight for publicity reasons. Male pilots also charged that allowing women to fly bombers would take work away from themselves. Someone tried to prevent Cochran's flight by holding up a required visa. "In a contest of power and friends, I knew I could win, so I contacted the American consul in Montreal, who called the Passport Department in D.C. and, voilà the visa arrived sooner than someone else ever predicted."
Seeing British women ferrying planes for their country's war effort gave Cochran the idea to start a similar program in the United States. She told President Franklin D. Roosevelt her plan over lunch. Cochran was against integrating women aviators into the U.S. war effort on a piecemeal basis. "I felt that a few good women pilots amidst all the men would simply go down as a flash in the historical pan. I wanted to make a point with my planned program." Perhaps she did have extra-sensory powers; it would be many years after the war before women aviators would receive recognition for their contributions.
In preparation for a larger effort in the United States, Cochran organized a group of 25 female American aviators to ferry planes for Great Britain's Air Transport Auxiliary. "More than a month before Pearl Harbor brought World War II to America, I was off on my own wartime project-a project that would take me away from Floyd and home for nearly three years." The British program was a success, and the United States decided a similar program also would work. In 1942, Cochran was assigned the task of training 500 women pilots. The number would eventually grow to more than 1,000. A bill had been introduced in Congress to militarize Cochran's pilots and incorporate them into the Army Air Corps, giving them military benefits. This is what Cochran wanted as she saw plans for a separate Air Force. She fought attempts to make her pilots part of the Women's Army Corps. In 1943, the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) was formed, and Cochran was named director of women pilots.
"The Women's Airforce Service Pilots program really proved something," WASP member Margaret Boylan is quoted saying in Cochran's autobiography. "It was a marvelous period of history, made possible by Jackie Cochran. When you consider how competitive this woman was with other women equal to her, it's amazing that she worked so hard for our benefit." Among the obstacles the women pilots and Cochran overcame was the belief women's flying ability was affected by their menstrual cycles. More than 25,000 women applied for WASP training; 1,800 were accepted and 1,074 graduated. The women aviators flew about 60 million miles for the Army Air Forces with only 38 fatalities, about one to every 16,000 hours of flying.
Cochran lost the battle to have the WASPs militarized in 1944, denying the women pilots military benefits including the GI bill. The WASP program was deactivated at the end of 1944. In 1977, Congress passed a bill giving the WASPs honorable discharges and declaring them veterans. It took two more years to make it official.
Cochran's aviation career continued well after the war, as did other activities. She was the first woman to enter Japan after the World War II, and she traveled to the Far East as a correspondent for Liberty magazine. In 1956 she ran, unsuccessfully, for a California congressional seat, campaigning by flying her plane around her own district.
In 1953, Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier and received a Gold Medal from the Fèdèration Aèronautique Internationale. She was president of the organization, holding two terms, from 1958 to 1961. In 1962 she established 69 inter-city and straight-line distance records for aircraft manufacturer Lockheed and was the first woman to fly a jet across the Atlantic. The same year Cochran set nine international speed, distance and altitude records in a Northrop T-38 military jet. In 1963, Cochran set the 15-25 km course record in a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, going 1,273.109 mph, and broke the 100 km course record with a speed of 1,203.686 mph. The following year she began resetting her own records in the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. In the 15-25 km course she set a record of 1,429.297 mph; for the 100 km course her record was 1,302 mph; and for the 500 km course she set a record of 1,135 mph.
Not only was Cochran competitive with herself; she was competitive with others. When she was a child, Cochran was forced to give a cherished doll, her only doll, to a younger sister in her foster family. When they were adults, the younger sister sought Cochran's aid in New York City. Cochran gave it but demanded her childhood doll as payment. At Cochran's insistence, she was buried with that doll following her death in 1980 at her Indio, California home.
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