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 Machmeter aloud to Chuck Yeager, her good friend and the pilot of her chase plane. Facedown 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 a 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, 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 the advanced training at the Ryan School of Aeronautics and earned her instrument rating, and 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.
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 the 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 renowned 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 the 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 her 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.