Jacqueline Cochran (1906-1980)
Stage Name: Jacq of all trades
Way up in the stratosphere, where your pilot is asking you to keep your seatbelt on and tray table locked in its upright position, isn’t just a place for commercial planes taking passengers from point A to point B. High in the sky, 36,000 feet above the ground, is also a travel lane for racing planes and pilots transporting people and weapons during wartimes. Jacqueline Cochran lived her life in that fast lane, excelling in aviation and out-competing all the other (mostly male) proficient pilots of her era. In between her accolades, she also served her country during World War II. Jacq of all trades paved the airways for future female flyers, and if alive today, would continue to do so with these tunes:
Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pittman in the Florida panhandle (specific location unconfirmed) on May 11, 1906. The youngest of five children, Jackie distanced herself from her low-income family from an early age and often claimed that she was adopted. She began to work odd jobs as early as seven years old, and at 10 she took her odd jobs talents to a beauty salon and swept the floor while soaking up all the knowledge she could. In 1920, right as she was entering her teenage years, Jackie married Robert Cochran. Jackie gave birth to their son, also named Robert, that same year, but he died just five years later. Jackie and Robert’s marriage deteriorated and met its demise in 1927. She kept the Cochran name and set her sights on a new path for her life: a career as a beautician.
Jackie followed that career path to Pensacola, FL, then to Montgomery, AL, and finally to New York City, where (dreams are made of) she worked as a hairdresser. She landed in the Big Apple in 1931, and adopted the name Jacqueline, thus completing her name journey away from Bessie Pittman. It was also here that she began to set aside the shears and started workin’ the airplane gears. In 1932, she began taking flying lessons, and received her pilot’s license in just three weeks.
As she continued to pursue her interests in aviation, she also piloted her own cosmetics company, called Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics, in 1935. Jackie’s skincare #ShelfieSunday from her cosmetics line consisted of one of her popular creations: a face moisturizer meant to combat dry skin at high altitudes. Appropriate, considering she was a pilot. Jackie quickly rose high in the sky and high in the pilot ranks as she mastered the technical and navigational skills of flying. In 1935, she became one of the first women to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, which is known for attracting accomplished pilots to its competitive ranks and awards the top flyer $15,000 (Amelia Earhart was the first woman to enter the Bendix, and finished fifth in 1935). In 1938, Jackie became the first woman to take home the gold.
Amidst the takeoff of her flying career, Jackie met Floyd Odlum at a fancy society dinner party. Floyd was 14 years older than her and is described as, “possibly the only man in the United States who made a great fortune out of the Depression.” He was the CEO of RKO Pictures in Hollywood, fun-loving, confident — and, married with children. But the two bonded that night over dinner, and he became taken with her sky-high dreams and charisma. Floyd supported her endeavors, and helped her kickstart her cosmetics company, including using his Hollywood connections to get Marilyn Monroe to endorse Jackie’s lipstick line. They tied the knot in 1936, after his divorce, and they remained together until his death in 1976.
Jackie’s flying skills became more indispensable as World War II spread around the globe. In 1941, she flew to England and became a captain in the British Air Transport Auxiliary. There, she trained a group of female pilots to fly for the war transport service. She then returned to the U.S. and worked in a similar program in the Army called the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD).
In 1943, now with a decade of flying under her belt, Jackie was named the director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and helped equip the military with adequate numbers of pilots. Under the leadership of Jackie from 1943 – 1944, the WASP program brought over 1,000 women into the skies, flying 60 million miles in total. They transported personnel, performed check flights, put new flying times on engines and returned aircrafts such as B-17 and B-29 bombers from the front lines back to the base. As the War came to an end, the women of the WASP program were denied military benefits which included the GI Bill. In 1944 the WASP program was ended. Over 30 years later, Congress did pass a bill that gave all WASPs honorable discharges and declared them veterans. *standing ovation*
Jackie continued her Jacq of all trades lifestyle after the War. She travelled to Japan, and throughout Asia as a correspondent for Liberty Magazine. She also ran for a California congressional seat. She flew her own plane around her district while campaigning. A banner reading “Vote for Me, I’m Jackie C!” tailed her plane. Just kidding. But that’s a catchy slogan. She also competed in the Bendix Race again and came in second. Her drive to be the best pilot wouldn’t let her sit with second so she took on more challenges, and eventually became the first woman to break the sound barrier.
What’s the sound barrier? So when an airplane is going fast, like really fast, air will get all caught up in front of the plane because it can’t keep up with the high speeds. Once the jet hits the right speed, it breaks through that mass of air and (sonic) BOOM. If there is enough moisture and humidity, a cloud forms around the plane so it looks looks like the plane is passing through a wall of air. When pilot Jackie soared through air and eventually an air wall, she averaged speeds of 652.337 miles per hour. Woah.
Jackie continued to set and beat new records. She reached an altitude of 55,253 feet in the air (No thank you) and set the women’s world speed record of 1,429 miles per hours (Again, no thank you). Jackie also became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She was a two time President of the Ninety-Nines, a women’s flying organization founded by her pilot pal Amelia Earhart, and she became the first female President of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) from 1958-1961. That organization keeps track of all official aviation records. Because of her successes in the air, Jacquelie Cochran was inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1965 and the U.S. Aviation Hall of Fame in 1971. She even wrote two autobiographies titled Jackie Cochran and The Stars at Noon.
In the early 1970s, Jacqueline’s health began to deteriorate and her doctor gave her a pacemaker. This prevented her from flying, but didn’t stop her from moving around. She tended to her vegetable garden on her ranch in Indio, California. In 1980, she passed away. In true spirited fashion and love for the air, Jackie hoped to bring with her a sword presented to her by the Air Force Academy with her to her grave in case she had to fight her way out of hell. The sword was not buried with her, but a childhood doll was.
Jacqueline Cochran led her life with a tenacity for learning and transformed that into one of many accomplishments on the ground and in the air. A beautician, pilot and published author, this Jacq of all trades broke through speed, sound (literally) and society’s norms. We remember her name as one of the greatest pilots of all time. And with that, words from Jackie herself:
“I have found adventure in flying, in world travel, in business, and even close at hand… Adventure is a state of mind – and spirit.”