Jacqueline Cochran was a pioneering 20th-century pilot who advocated for female aviators during WWII and was the first woman to break the sound barrier.
Born in rural West Florida circa 1906, Jacqueline Cochran grew up in poverty. After working as a beautician and starting her own company, she became involved in aviation. She advocated for female aviator involvement in WWII and led the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots training program. In 1953, she became the first woman to breach the sound barrier and holds more speed and distance records than any flier in history.
Aviator Jacqueline Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pittman on May 11, 1906, in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. As a young girl she worked in textile mills to help her family, and in her early teens she was hired by a beauty shop to sweep the floors. A few years later she was cutting hair for a living.
Not satisfied with working in a small beauty shop, Cochran enrolled in nursing school and later worked in a doctor’s office but never felt she was quite suited for the profession. She traveled to New York, where she advanced her hairdressing career, garnering high-profile clients and devoted customers. Soon her business was thriving.
On a trip to Miami, Florida, in 1932, Cochran attended a society dinner and sat next to business financier Floyd Odlum. Though opposites in personality, they found they had much in common and the two began to see each other. Odlum suggested Jacqueline learn to fly to call on clients and gain an advantage over her competition in the beauty business.
Cochran returned to New York, and over the next four years learned to fly, earned her commercial pilot’s license and called on clients and suppliers by flying her own plane. In 1936, she married Odlum. During this time she also befriended fellow aviator Amelia Earhart and began competing in air races. By 1935 she was participating in major competitions (winning several over the next three years) and running a multi-million-dollar beauty products business.
World War II
In 1939, Adolf Hitler and Nazi troops marched across Europe. Like many others, Jacqueline Cochran believed America might become involved in the war. She also felt that women could play a major role in the war effort. With this in mind, Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt proposing a women’s flying division. Mrs. Roosevelt put her in touch with Army Air Force General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, but he wasn’t supportive of the idea.
Discouraged but not defeated, Cochran threw herself into air races and began to set records. In 1940, she broke both the national 100 kilometer and international 2,000 kilometer speed records. She won the Women‘s National Aviation Association award as the outstanding woman pilot for ’38, ‘39, ’40 and ‘41. She also established a woman’s national altitude record and broke the international open-class speed record for both men and women.
In 1941, General Arnold reconsidered Jacqueline Cochran’s proposal and asked her to travel to England to observe the "Wings for Britain" program, an organization that flew American-built aircraft to Britain. In June 1941 Cochran became the first woman to fly a bomber across the North Atlantic. In July 1943 Cochran was appointed to the General Staff of the U.S. Army Air Forces to direct the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program and trained women pilots for the duration of the war. In 1945 she received the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal for her contributions.
After the war, Jacqueline Cochran continued to follow her passion for air races and aviation competition, setting new transcontinental and international records. In May 1953, at Rogers Dry Lake, California, she became the first woman to break the sound barrier, and in the 1960s, Cochran was involved in an effort to test the ability of women to become astronauts in the Mercury 13 program.
In recognition of her accomplishments as a pilot, in 1971 Cochran was enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, the first woman to be so honored. Cochran still holds more international speed, distance and altitude records than any other pilot, male or female.
Soon after her induction, Cochran received the bitter news that she would need a pacemaker and that her days of flying were over. She retired to her home in Indio, California, to enjoy travel, bike riding and working in her vegetable garden. Her husband, Floyd, died in 1976, and Cochran’s health deteriorated further. On August 9, 1980 Jacqueline Cochran died at her home at the age of 74.