People & Events
Jackie Cochran (1906 -1980)
At 2:23pm on September 23, 1938, with the equivalent of just a few minutes more
gas left in her tanks, Jackie Cochran's silver P-35 shot across the finish line
in the challenging, transcontinental Bendix Race. The triumphant former
beautician had just won the cross-country race, completing the 2,042 miles from
Los Angeles to Cleveland in just eight hours, ten minutes and thirty-one
seconds. Using an innovative, new fuel system, she chalked up another first by
becoming the first pilot to finish the course non-stop. Within a year Cochran
was awarded, for the second time, the most prestigious prize given to American
women aviators: the women's Harmon trophy. She'd also broken a women's
altitude record, climbing to 33,000 feet, and she'd broken several speed
records. When Cochran was asked what fueled her ambitions she would reply: "I
might have been born in a hovel, but I determined to travel with the wind and
Cochran's earliest memories are of life with a foster family on what she called
"Sawdust Road," but what was, in fact, a lumber mill town in northern Florida.
In her autobiography she remembered having no shoes until she was eight years
old, sleeping on a pallet on the floor and wearing dresses made of cast-off
flour sacks. As a child she was hired by a beauty shop owner, and by the time
she was 13, she was cutting hair professionally. In the 1920s she became one
of the first women to master the newly invented permanent wave. But one of the
customers, noting Cochran's spark, encouraged her to do something more serious
with her life. With very little formal education, Cochran enrolled in nursing
Even though Cochran completed three years of training to be a nurse, she never
quite adjusted to the profession. In her autobiography, she remembers not ever
getting "comfortable with the sight of blood." She constantly had to resist
the urge to hand in her notice, reminding herself that a nurse was more
valuable than a beautician. But she was never convinced, and an experience
delivering a baby to an impoverished mother in Florida helped drive her back to
the beauty trade. She remembered three children were sleeping on pallets next
to the woman giving birth. "There I was with neither the strength nor the money
to do the smallest fraction of what needed to be done to make those lives
better... . In a beauty shop the customers always came in looking for a lift.
And unless I really screwed up," she concluded, "they left with that lift."
Her next job as a beautician at Antoine's in New York's Saks Fifth Avenue
brought Cochran into her future husband's world. At a dinner in 1932, the
dashing millionaire financier Floyd Bostwick Odlum advised Cochran that if she
were ever to realize her dream of setting up her own cosmetics firm, she'd need
wings to cover enough territory to beat her competition. Cochran took the
advice to heart, and that summer she learned to fly. "At that moment, when I
paid for my first lesson," Cochran remembered later, "a beauty operator ceased
to exist and an aviator was born."
It wasn't until the end of the decade, after Cochran had established herself as
America's leading female pilot, that she tried to turn her new profession into
one in which she could make a vital contribution to her country. In September
1939, shortly after Warsaw fell to the invading German army, Cochran wrote to
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arguing that, in the eventuality of American
involvement in the war, women pilots could fly military aircraft on support
missions, releasing men for combat duty. Implicit in Cochran's letter was an
offer to begin the planning for such a squadron of female pilots. Even though
she constantly promoted the idea, nothing came of her suggestions for a couple
It was the British who resoundingly demonstrated that women were more than up
to flying military aircraft. By July of 1941, almost two years into the war,
England was desperately short of pilots, and the flight schools couldn't keep
up with demand. The Royal Air Force's solution was to use trained female
aviators to ferry planes around the British Isles. The women's contribution
was invaluable. They were moving planes around by the thousands with just a
few minor accidents. In the summer of 1941, Cochran spent some time in London
studying how that operation worked. When she returned to the U.S., President
Roosevelt asked her to research ways of using female pilots in the U.S. Army
Air Corps. The following summer, Cochran returned to Britain, this time with
25 hand-picked American women recruits who would help ferry planes for the
British Air Transport Auxiliary.
While Cochran was in Britain, another renowned female pilot, Nancy Harkness
Love, suggested the establishment of a small ferrying squadron of trained
female pilots. The proposal was ultimately approved. Almost simultaneously,
General Hap Arnold asked Cochran to return to the U.S. to establish a program
to train women to fly. In August of 1943, the two schemes merged under
Cochran's leadership. They became the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
Cochran was soon thrilled at the success of her experiment. Her female pilots
were no longer just ferrying planes around the states; some were training B-17
turret gunners, others were working as test pilots at repair depots, some were
training staff pilots at navigator schools, and yet others were tow-target
pilots. In January 1944, the War Department announced that the Army Air Forces
women's fatal and non-fatal accident rates were lower than the men's. In March
Cochran presented a report of the WASPs achievements to General Hap Arnold.
She hoped that it would help convince Congress to bring the WASP formally into
the Army Air Forces.
Cochran's hopes were dashed by the end of the year. Not only had Congress
voted against admitting the WASP into the military, the program had been
deactivated. As the war progressed, fewer men were required for combat
missions. Also, male pilots conducted an extremely effective campaign against
the WASP, arguing that the women weren't needed. On December 20, 1944, the
women pilots were flown home.
The end of the WASP, however, was not the end of Cochran's flying career. In
1946 she competed in the Bendix Race again, coming in second with a time of
four hours and 52 minutes. In 1950 she set a new speed record for propeller
driven aircraft, and in 1953 she became the first woman to break the sound
barrier. In the end it was her health that grounded her. In the early '70s,
doctors told a devastated Cochran that she needed a pacemaker and that she
could no longer fly. But even that news failed to slow her down for long.
According to one friend she bought a big recreational vehicle that she drove
"like an airplane all over the country." Another friend remembers her spending
much of the end of her life cycling around her large ranch, back and forth to
her vegetable garden.
Cochran's spirit finally broke after her husband died in 1976. Her health
deteriorated rapidly, and she was often in excruciating pain. Friends say she
began talking a lot about death, frequently asking to be buried with a doll
that she won as a child and a sword presented to her by the Air Force Academy.
The latter she wanted in case she needed to fight her way out of hell. When
she finally died in 1980, the sword was returned to the Air Force Academy, but
the doll went with her to the grave.