Jacqueline Cochran

From Sawdust Road to the Stars at Noon

Jacqueline Cochran From Sawdust Road to the Stars at Noon
Jacqueline Cochran, in cockpit of F-86 Sabre Jet that she broke sound barrier in. (Cradle of Aviation Museum)

Jackie Cochran climbed to 45,000 feet in a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet, leaving a contrail of ice crystals behind her path. Achieving the highest altitude necessary, she did a split “S” curve to start a full-power, nearly vertical dive. Keeping the throttle at full power, Cochran read the numbers on the Mach meter aloud to Chuck Yeager, her good friend and the pilot of her chase plane. Face down and diving at Mach 1 with blood surging to her brain she pulled out of the dive through the sound barrier becoming the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound on May 18, 1953.

Jacqueline Cochran, whose career in aviation covered 40 years from the 1930s Golden Age as a racer, through World War II as the founder and director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and into the Jet Age, was born circa 1906 in the Florida panhandle. The product of undetermined parentage, she was named Bessie and raised by the Pittmans, an impoverished family who moved from one sawmill town to another in search of work in the lumber yards of northern Florida and the south.

Owning an extraordinary amount of ambition and drive as a child, Bessie begrudged the narrow opportunities available to her and left home at a young age, performing a variety of jobs, including work at a cotton mill. Eventually she took the name Jacqueline Cochran” to signify her personal break with the past. There are a couple of accounts of how that came to be, but in Cochran’s memoir, “Jackie Cochran” she ran her finger down the listing of a telephone book and took the name from the place on which her finger landed.

After studying to be a nurse, Jackie got a job in a beauty shop and in 1929 scaled the social ladder working as a beautician at the exclusive Antoine’s salon in Saks Fifth Avenue, often following her clients to Miami Beach in the winter months. Upon meeting wealthy financier and her future husband, Floyd Odlum, at a dinner party in Miami, Jackie shared with him her aspirations of selling cosmetics on the road for a manufacturer and starting her own company.

Floyd suggested that in order to cover the territory she wanted and to make money in the economic climate of the Depression, that she would need wings and that she should get a pilot’s license. Engrossed by Floyd’s idea, in 1932, Cochran took flying lessons at the Roosevelt Aviation School at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, soloed and earned her pilot’s license while on a three-week vacation. She then sought out advanced training at the Ryan School of Aeronautics and earned her instrument rating, commercial and transport pilot licenses.

Early on in her career as a pilot, Jackie was captivated with air racing and during the early 1930s she entered as many races as possible. Her first race took place in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race from London to Melbourne, Australia. In 1935 she established Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics and entered her first Bendix Race winning third place overall. That same year Cochran became the first woman to make a blind landing in Pittsburgh and was awarded her first of several Clifford B. Harmon International Trophies as the outstanding woman flyer in the world. 

Jacqueline Cochran From Sawdust Road to the Stars at Noon
Jacqueline Cochran, with Alexander de Seversky by the Seversky AP-7 in which she won Bendix Race in 1938. (Cradle of Aviation Museum)

In 1937, while Cochran was running fuel consumption tests at Roosevelt Field on a new engine installed in a Beechcraft that she was to fly in the Bendix that coming September, Russian émigré ,war ace, aircraft innovator and visionary, Major Alexander de Seversky asked Cochran if she would fly a P-35 pursuit plane manufactured by his company, the Seversky Aircraft Corp. in Farmingdale, Long Island. Jacky’s hopes of winning first place in the Bendix soared with the prospect of flying the P-35 and after a couple of weeks following her first test flight in it, she pushed the airplane up to about 300 mph and was certain that she could take first place flying in the prestigious competition.Her dream of winning top prize in the Bendix Race came true on September 1, 1938 when she flew the Seversky AP-7, an improved civil version of the P-35 fighter, 2042 miles between Burbank, California and Cleveland in 8 hours, 10 minutes, 31 seconds at an average speed of 249.7 mph. 

Prior to and following this grand feat, Cochran’s racing prowess and record-breaking flights in the 1930s brought her wide acclaim and acquaintances with the most famous pilots of the era, including Amelia Earhart who was a close friend. By 1941, Cochran was one of the most renown pilots in the United States and with the storm clouds of war hovering on the horizon, Jackie suggested the use of women as ferry pilots in wartime and in June of that year she became the only woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic during the Second World War. 

Volunteering her services to the Royal Air Force, she recruited qualified women pilots in the United States for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). In September of 1942, she became the Director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots for the U.S. Army Air Forces and after their deactivation in December 1944 she took a trip around the world as a war correspondent for Liberty magazine, observing conditions in Europe and the Far East. 

Upon her return to the United States after war’s end, Cochran spent many years developing her cosmetics company and entering air races, establishing new transcontinental and international records. In 1948, after the U.S. Air Force became its own separate branch of the military, Cochran joined the Air Force Reserve eventually gaining the rank of Colonel. She continued flying actively in private life and with access to many advanced aircraft and with the assistance of her husband, Floyd, Jackie continued to set flying records until the 1960s. With her continued involvement in many private aviation groups, Cochran used her influence to advance the cause of women in aviation, later serving as a consultant to NASA on the role of women in the space program. In 1963 Cochran sold her cosmetics company and eight years later retired from flying due to a heart condition. At the time of her death on August 19, 1980, Jacqueline Cochran held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot in aviation history, male or female. And it all started in a Fleet 2 trainer at the Roosevelt School of Aviation , one of the vintage aircraft that can be seen on exhibit, suspended from the ceiling of the Visitor’s Atrium at the Cradle of Aviation Museum at Mitchel Field in Garden City, Long Island, this very airplane quite possibly flown by Jackie Cochran nearly nine decades ago from adjoining Roosevelt Field, moments away from Museum Row.

Julia Lauria-Blum
Julia Lauria-Blum earned her BA degree in the Visual Arts at SUNY New Paltz. After a brief career in the hospitality industry she began research on women pioneers in aviation. In 2001 she curated the WASP exhibit at the American Airpower Museum (AAM) and was a consultant on the History Channel documentary, Women Combat Pilots, The Right Stuff and later curated the Ninety-Nines Organization of Women Pilots exhibit and ‘Women Who Brought the War Home, Women War Correspondents, WWII’ at the AAM. Julia is the curatorial assistant and archivist at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Garden City, NY.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Outstanding, in-depth profile of an aviation pioneer. Thank you! And to the 99s Museum for FB posting.

    LuckyLindy Segall
    Son of WASP Flight Lt. Muriel “Mimi” Lindstrom and Captain B Segall, Jr. Army Air Forces WWII
    Producer of “Sweetwater” Musical–The Untold Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots

  2. Jacqueline Cochran knew that Jacqueline Auriol of France was also poised to break the sound barrier. Cochran was determined to be the first female record-breaker. In her career, JC held more speed and distance records than any other pilot. Her record was not broken until a quarter century after Cochran died.
    Earlier on that 18 May 1953, Jacqueline Cochran had attempted the record-breaking flight, but pulled out. She explained that flying straight at the earth was terrifying. After she and Chuck Yeager landed, Yeager looked at his watch and said, “I have a 1:30 tee time.” JC got back in the Sabre cockpit and broke the sound barrier.
    For his invaluable support in her singular accomplishment, JC was forever indebted to Chuck Yeager. That is why, with Yeager at her side, she testified in Congress against admission of women to the Air Force Academy. – because the Air Force did not want to make the change. The irony was as Cochran readily told me. “A plane doesn’t know the pilot’s sex because it doesn’t matter.” And, “A woman can drop a bomb as easily as a man.” (Interview tapes are part of Pateman/WASP Papers, USAFA Library and Archives).
    Jacqueline Cochran came from humble beginnings, embarrassed by her “grade school scrawl,” as she called it. She possessed a drive that eventually led to a Congressional campaign and presidency of the International Aeronautics Federation – no small feats in themselves. Flying props to jets, Cochran was a force to be reckoned with, in the air and on the ground.

    • Thank you for your remarks. With a story as wide and involved as Cochran’s, it is great to receive additional commentary about her, and especially first-hand accounts. She certainly did possess an extraordinary ambition and determination to be the lead on many different levels.

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