Today female aviators play a large role, ranging from local helicopter pilots reporting the news to astronauts conquering the realm of space. However, this was not always the case. Like their male counterparts, a number of heroic women have paved the way to achieve the progress we witness today. During this blog, we'll tell the story of one such woman and the legacy of her achievements.
Jacqueline Cochran, born Bessie Mae Pittman, grew up in DeFuniak Springs, Florida working in the cotton mills until the age of ten, when she left to take a position at a beauty salon. After working at the salon for several years, Cochran briefly studied nursing. Shortly after completing her nursing training, Jackie left the Florida panhandle to pursue her former career of hairdressing, at which she was highly successful, working in the elite Antoine's salons in Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City and Miami. In 1921 Jackie married Robert Cochran, giving birth to a son three months later. Robert Jr. died four years later while staying with his grandparents. Upon her return to New York, Jackie began telling acquaintances that she was an orphan and had selected her name from a telephone book, in an attempt to make a break with her past. Though she maintained contact with her family and provided for them financially, the story stuck with her for the rest of her life.
During her time at Saks, Cochran came into contact with a number of socialites while working at the New York salon and the Miami salon during the winter months. While working there, Jackie met her future husband, Floyd Odlum. While Odlum came from a relatively poor background, like Jackie, he was able to develop a highly successful venture capital firm. While others lost money during the depression, Odlum made millions. In an effort to expand her career horizons, Cochran told Odlum of her interest in a traveling sales job with a cosmetics company. Odlum then asked Cochran if she had considered the advantages of flying her own plane between client destinations. With the exploits of Amelia Earhart and other aviatrixes, the world of aviation began to open up to women. Jackie was particularly attracted to the potential fame, fortune and opportunity aviation held for women. Before returning to New York the following spring, Jackie had an ongoing bet with Odlum-if she could get her pilot's license during her six-week vacation, he would pay the tab. Though Jackie had difficulty with the written text of the course, a friend helped her learn the written material before persuading her instructors to let her take the test orally. On August 17, 1932 Jackie received pilot's license no. 1498 with only three weeks of flight training. This was an accomplishment, in and of itself, since the average pilot candidate completed the course in three months.
During the remainder of the 1930's, Jackie began to establish herself as an aviation personality, competing in a number of races which made her the dominant female aviator. Though losses came along the way, Jackie pursued flying with a relentless determination. In 1938, Jackie won the Bendix Trophy Race, as well as receiving the Harmon Trophy twice for her outstanding performance in aviation. Though she lacked close relationships with most of the lady pilots, Amelia Earhart was a close friend of hers, with Jackie asking Amelia for advice on occasion. Paralleling her aviation career, Jackie also developed a successful line of cosmetics (Wings to Beauty), utilizing her aviation fame to promote the cosmetics. The essence of Jackie's marketing approach was based upon women entering male-dominated fields, such as aviation, using her cosmetics to distinguish themselves from their male counterparts. This on-the-go lifestyle was used by Jackie throughout her marketing campaigns and was highly successful in attracting young female consumers. This also widened Cochran's influence and contacts, to include both Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
When World War II began in 1939, Cochran corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt to promote women aviators serving in the national defense. Combatants on both sides in Europe used female aviators in a number of combat support roles, such as ambulance, transport and courier duties, freeing men for combat assignments. However, the Air Corps leadership was not keen toward the idea and it was not acted upon. Sensing this attitude, Jackie flew to Britain in March 1942, joining the British Air Transport Auxiliary, a ferrying service which used civilian pilots to transport military aircraft. Jackie brought about twenty four female aviators with her, who were already licensed pilots to join her in the British service. Cochran reasoned if female aviators performed well in the British service, one might be established by the USAAF. After serving with the Transport Auxiliary for about four months, Jackie learned the Air Corps leadership had reversed itself and began plans to form a cadre of experienced female aviators to ferry aircraft. Nancy Love, another female aviation advocate, was to be their leader. Jackie quickly returned to the United States, confronting General Henry "Hap" Arnold, who had promised the job to Cochran before she left for Britain. Though both Love and Cochran advocated using female pilots in support roles, their approaches differed. Love wanted to place existing pilots immediately in service, while Cochran wanted a program which trained a large number of female aviators. The result of their discussions created two separate programs, the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), which Love directed, and the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) directed by Cochran. Though both groups worked for the United States Army Air Forces, the women were designated as civilian pilots. Jackie's program was progressing behind Love's, largely due to Jackie's need to recruit women pilots, as opposed to Love's efforts, which merely placed existing pilots into service. One of Cochran's problems was to find a place to train the new women pilots. This hurdle was cleared in November 1942, when the first class of the WFTD began at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Once Jackie's pilots were qualified, they were transferred Love's WAFS. While the USAAF instructors were often not happy about the assignment, among other challenges, the program began to produce a relatively large number of female aviators, leaving a long and complicated paper trail. General Arnold solved this problem in July of 1943 by combining both organizations into a single unit, known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) under the leadership of Cochran.
While both Cochran and Love shared the common goal of allowing women into the Army Air Forces, they began to face renewed resistance from the Air Corps leadership. Though the WASP program was growing at a fast pace with female pilots stationed at about 120 bases around the country, both Cochran and Love were still at odds about how to incorporate female pilots into the Air Corps. Although a bill was introduced in Congress, which allowed women to serve as pilots in the USAAF, it was never passed, nor were WASP pilots accepted into the Women's Army Corps (WAC), when it was formed in 1943. Part of the problem was Cochran's personality, which could be rather curt at times. This intensified the rift with Love, making unity between the two more difficult. Jackie also had a strained relationship with Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, commander of the WACs. Cochran wanted her pilots merged into the WAC on her own terms, which both Culp and the Army wouldn't allow. On October 1, 1944, Jackie received more bad news from General Arnold, that the WASP program was to be disbanded by December 20, 1944. Though she publicly supported the decision, it came as a blow. Jackie had worked long and hard for the program, but she could see the rotation of a greater number of male combat pilots was making the WASPS unnecessary. In the hope of gaining acceptance for women military pilots in the future, Cochran prepared a report for Arnold detailing the accomplishments of the WASPS. In August 1945, General Arnold presented Jackie with the Distinguished Service Medal-the first woman to receive it.
With her WASP service over, Jackie became a war correspondent for Liberty magazine, owned by her husband, Floyd Odlum. She traveled to both the Pacific and European theaters, even getting a door knob from the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Though Jackie was a dedicated pilot, her wartime experience was one of command, rather than actually flying. In 1946, she bought a surplus P-51 Mustang, entering a number of races with her efforts bearing fruit by coming in second in that year's Bendix race. She also set a woman's speed record, flying at 420.828 miles per hour. During the next two years Jackie saw two of her political objectives achieved when the Air Force was established as an independent service in 1947 with women allowed to join the armed forces permanently in 1948. Cochran was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in the USAF reserve that year, though not as a pilot (women were not allowed to fly until 1976). In 1952 Cochran began preparation for what would become perhaps her greatest achievement. She began training to fly jets under the supervision of Major Charles (Chuck) Yeager, who had broken the sound barrier in 1947. The two had met that year and Yeager was the ideal instructor from both the standpoint of personality and piloting. She and Yeager worked for months until Jackie was ready to fly an F-86 Sabre, the most capable aircraft at the time. On May 18, 1953, both she and Yeager took off in F-86s. As Jackie approached Mach 1, she saw shock waves roll off of the canopy of her aircraft with two sonic booms shaking the ground below her while she experienced silence around the plane. However, the tower air controllers heard no booms, so Jackie went up that afternoon and reached Mach 1 for the second time that day. She broke several other records that week, to include a world speed record for a 100 km course. In 1961, Jackie again teamed up with Yeager, this time flying a T-38 Talon, setting eight records. Three years later, Cochran flew a modified Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, becoming the first woman to fly faster than Mach 2. By 1967 she was having health issues preventing her from flying jets, so she pursued flying helicopters, receiving her license at the age of 61. In 1970 she retired from the USAF Reserve, setting more flight records than any male or female, proof that a little perfume in the cockpit makes the plane go.
This article is the second of a series about leaders of aviation.