Birth of Jacqueline Cochran
Jacqueline Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pittman on May 11, 1906, in Pensacola, Florida. The first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound, she held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other pilot, male or female, in the world.
Her parents struggled financially, but as the youngest of five children, she was determined to escape poverty. She married Robert Cochran when she was 14, and three months later, she gave birth to a baby. Tragically, the child died at the age of five, and the couple got divorced after that. Jacqueline kept the last name Cochran however, and also began using the name Jackie as she worked as a hairdresser in Pensacola. Hoping for better opportunities, Cochran headed to New York City where she found a job at a salon in the prestigious Saks Fifth Avenue. When she met millionaire Floyd Odlum, who would later become her husband, the world changed for Cochran. Floyd suggested she should learn to fly, and Cochran followed his advice.
After just three weeks of flying lessons, Cochran received her pilot’s license and soon began entering aviation competitions. He husband helped her establish a cosmetics business in 1934. She named it “Wings to Beauty” and flew her own plane across the country to promote her products. Many years later, Marilyn Monroe endorsed her line of lipstick!
Cochran was one of just three women to participate in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race. She then worked with Amelia Earhart to get women admitted to the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race. She won the race in the women’s division in 1937, coming in third overall, before beating out both the men and women the following year to win first. Cochran also set a new women’s world speed record that year and was considered the best female pilot in the country. She repeatedly set air speed and altitude records and was nicknamed the “Speed Queen.”
Cochran was a friend of Amelia Earhart’s and an influential member of the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots. She served as the group’s president from 1941 to 1943 and ensured that women be able to participate in the Civil Air Patrol. Prior to US entry in World War II, Cochran participated in “Wings for Britain,” a group that supplied aircraft to Britain. With that organization, she was the first woman to ferry a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. Cochran also worked with the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) to recruit female pilots for the organization.
Additionally, Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds proposing the creation of a women’s flying division of the Army Forces. She suggested that female pilots could perform domestic, noncombat aviation jobs to free up male pilots for combat missions. Lieutenant General Henry “Hap” Arnold ordered Cochran to take a group of the most qualified female pilots to England to observe the progress of the ATA. Once she was there, she learned that Arnold had created the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), directed by Nancy Harness Love. Cochran immediately returned to the US to speak to Arnold to convince him that women could do more than ferry planes. He finally agreed and established the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), with Cochran in charge. Then in August 1943, the WAFS and WFTD were merged to become the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Cochran served as director while Love headed up the ferrying division.
The WASPs provided a valuable service during the war. Freeing male pilots for combat duty, WASPs ferried an estimated 12,650 planes across the country and overseas. Although some of the jobs – pulling targets and testing aircraft – were dangerous, the organization grew to over 1,000 women. Despite its contribution, the WASPs were disbanded in 1944 because male pilots felt females were taking positions away from them. In 1945, Cochran received the US Distinguished Service Medal for her work with the WASPs.
After the war, Cochran joined the US Air Force Reserve. In 1953 she became the first female pilot to “go supersonic,” breaking the sound barrier. She followed the feat eleven years later by piloting another jet aircraft at 1,429 mph, more than twice the speed of sound. Cochran set more speed and altitude records than any of her contemporary pilots, male or female, and still holds many of them. She was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, fly a jet aircraft on a transatlantic journey, make a blind (instrument) landing, fly a fixed-wing, jet aircraft across the Atlantic, and fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask. During her career, she received more than 200 awards and trophies for her accomplishments, including three Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Cochran was also close friends with General Dwight Eisenhower and was a major figure in his successful campaign for president. In 1956, she unsuccessfully ran for Congress, one of the few failures of her life. She died on August 9, 1980.
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