Jacqueline Cochran – faster, higher, longer

Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran may not be as well-known as her fellow aviator friend Amelia Earhart, but she goes down in history as one of the most incredible female flyers of all time. To this date she still hold more aviation records than any person, male or female, dead or alive!

Jackie was born in Florida in 1906. Information about her childhood varies, some accounts say she was raised by an adopted family – others that she simply claimed that she was adopted. Either way, their circumstances were humble. At a young age Jacqueline got a job at a local hairdressers, where she swept & shampooed. She keenly observed the hairdressers and before long had become a hairdresser herself. She moved to New York where she secured a position hairdressing at Saks Fifth Avenue, cutting the hair of the rich & famous.

Jackie loved helping people look their best and had an idea of starting her own cosmetics company. Around the same time her work had brought her into contact with the man who would later become her husband, Floyd Odlum. He loved the idea of her make-up company and invested to help her get it going.

The story has it that Odlum also made an off-the-cuff remark that Jackie should learn to fly so she could deliver her make-up across the country. The seed was planted, and Jackie’s destiny was sealed. She took herself to flying school where amazingly she learnt how to fly in just three weeks! It took her a while longer to get her pilot’s licence, due to the written exams which she had to study hard for but within two years however she was fully qualified. She called her cosmetics company ‘Wings’ and distributed it herself all across America.

A poster for Jackie's 'Wings' cosmetics
A poster for Jackie’s ‘Wings’ cosmetics

Jacqueline was fast becoming one of the best female pilots around; ready for a new challenge she began to fly competitively. She became the first woman ever to enter the MacRobertson Air Race from London to Melbourne. This first time she didn’t succeed due to problems with her plane, but she went on to enter other transcontinental air races, like the Bendix race, which she won in 1938 – beating even the men who had entered.

Getting the taste for competitive flying she began a run of record-breaking flights, which are too many in number to mention. She flew faster, higher and longer than any other woman had ever flown before, and was widely considered the best female pilot in the country.

She was friends with Amelia Earhart and from 1941-43 was the president of the Ninety Nines female flyers club – which Amelia had formed.

When the Second World War broke out a new chapter in Jackie’s flying career began. She took part in America’s ‘Wings for Britain’ scheme, where American-built planes were flown to Britain for the Royal Air Force. She flew a Lockheed Hudson V from America to the UK, becoming the first woman to fly a bomber all the way across the Atlantic.

Once in the UK she observed how talented female pilots were being put to use in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and decided she could help. She stayed in Britain and recruited other American female pilots to join her in assisting the women of the ATA.

Inspired by how well this scheme worked, she wrote to  Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting that a similar scheme might work in the US. She personally knew many talented female pilots, and as America entered the war and its male aviators left for oversees, she could see how her & her friends could help out.

It took a bit of time and lots of convincing, but eventually, in 1943 the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) formed, with Jackie as their Director. She oversaw the training of hundreds of other women who all became skilled pilots. For her service during the war Jacqueline was awarded two war medals, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Jackie with some of the WASP women
Jackie with some of the WASP women

When the war ended she worked for a time as a journalist, during which time she became the first non-Japanese woman to enter Japan after the War and attended the Nuremberg Trials in Germany. After not too long however, she went right back to setting records.

On May 18, 1953 she flew a jet plane at 652.337mph, becoming the first woman to go supersonic & break the sound barrier. Not content with being the fastest, she also became the highest, setting a record height of 17,091m (peak altitude).

The whole while that Jackie was breaking records & helping to win wars, her cosmetic company continued to grow – with big stars such as Marilyn Monroe using her products. Later in life, as well as the many accolades she received for her flying career, she was also recognised as a skilled business woman, being voted as one of the 25 most outstanding business women in America, and winning the title of Woman of the Year in Business in 1953/54.

The number of awards she received throughout her life, just like the number of records she broke, is far too long to list. Jackie pushed boundaries, always seeking to achieve more and never taking no for an answer. She has been inducted into numerous halls of fame, and is celebrated at the annual Jacqueline Cochran Airshow, which takes place at the airport in California also named after her. In 1996 she was remembered on a US postage stamp.
Find out more…

There are several books you could read to learn more about Jackie’s remarkable life. Jackie Cochran: Pilot in the Fastest Lane would be a good place to start. You can also read about Jackie’s life in her own words, her self named autobiography is available here.

You can visit the National WASP Museum in Texas to find out more about the role of the WASPs during WW2, they even have an entire exhibition all about Jackie. If you can’t get to the museum in person then they also have loads of information on their website.

I love this video made for a History Fair project, which is a really nice overview of Jackie’s life:

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