In 1961, Jacqueline Cochran set eight major speed records in a Northrop T-38, including speed over a 1000 kilometer closed course; 639.38 mph, distance in a straight line; 1492.39 miles, sustained altitude of 56,071.80 feet high, speed over a 15 kilometer course; 844.20256 mph, speed over a 500 kilometer closed course; 680.855 mph, speed over 1000 kilometer closed course; 649.3924 mph.
The flights were accomplished in a standard, production version of Northrop’s T-38 Talon without the use of external tanks or additional internal fuel tanks to increase the normal fuel capacity. In Jacqueline Cochran’s own words she called the T-38 Talon “the greatest step forward in the history of pilot training”. In fact, the USAF still uses the T-38 as its primary trainer some 40 years later! Because Jackie was a civilian, she was not permitted to fly government property, so her record-breaking flights were made in a company (Northrop) T-38, for which Jackie was a “paid” Test Pilot.
Jackie & F-104 Chalk Up Speed Record’s
On June 1, 1961, Jacqueline Cochran flying the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, claimed her third jet speed record in less than a month when she flew the difficult Edwards 100 Kilometer circular course at 1,303.241 mph, bettering the existing women’s record of 1,266 mph held by the well-known French Aviatrix Jacqueline Auriol. Miss Cochran’s first record flight in series was made on May 11 over a 15-kilometer straightaway course in which she attained a speed of 1,429.297 mph. This speed was over 155 mph faster than her own previous record and the fastest speed ever attained by a woman pilot. The third record she claimed was the 500-kilometer record with a speed of 1,127.394 mph. Many male pilots had trouble with the F-104; folklore called it “The Widowmaker” due to the high rate of pilot fatalities. Major General Fred J. Ascani recalls his experience with the F-104 –
“I flew that bird, the F-104 Starfighter. It’s scary and fast. Tony Levier (then Chief of Lockheed Test Pilot’s) has a tendency to play down the danger. But if you want to get an idea of how dangerous that plane is, you should dig into the German Air Force'’ accident records for the 104 and count the fatalities. They attribute them to pilot error, but it wasn’t the case. I think they lost something like eighty-five F-104’s in the first 1 ½ years of flying them. Eighty-five? That’s more than two killed a week during some weeks. They blamed it on the pilot, but the plane had a nasty tendency to pitch up under certain conditions and there wasn’t much you could do to save yourself under those conditions. There was not wing area there to recover. Tony, being the naturally great pilot he is, would pooh-pooh the dangers, but the F-104 was a tricky airplane to fly. I took it to Mac 2 and I guess that’s the fastest I’ve ever gone. You had to be extra careful in the slower speed ranges and getting it back onto the ground. It wasn’t, and still isn’t a very forgiving airplane. It will not forgive a pilot the slightest error and you get into fatally hot water so fast. Dangerous airplane.”
“But I think I gave Jackie the F-104 challenge at a banquet up at Edwards when we were celebrating her success at breaking the sound barrier. Pancho Barnes was invited. And Jackie Cochran was the guest of honor at the officer’s club. It could have been a disastrous combination because the two gals hated each other”.
“We were sitting at a U-shaped table, with Jackie on one end of the U and Pancho on the other. They glared daggers at each other the entire evening. Jackie didn’t like Pancho because she believed Pancho was the most uncouth woman alive. And she did have a mouth on her you couldn’t believe possible in a woman. Pancho didn’t like Jackie, perhaps because of Chuck. Chuck was friendly with both of them”.
“Anyway, as I sat there that night at dinner, I decided to make a little toast to Jackie Cochran. It rhymed. I can’t remember it word for word now, but the essence was: “Here’s to Jackie, who pierced Mach 1, and to the day Mach 2 is done.”
“Jackie Cochran was so delighted with what se had done that week tat I felt a little guilty about planting such a notion for the future. But not too bad”.
A summing up
I have only briefly covered Jackie Cochran’s flying career here in this article. It is fair to say that she has not got the world-wide recognition she deserved. People remember Amelia Earhart primarily because she vanished during an attempt to fly the pacific. Jackie Cochran should be remembered for breaking down walls and barriers, she went after records not to be the fastest WOMAN but to be the fastest. Period. Aviators like Yeager and Cochran were not just the best of their generation, but head and shoulders above any pilot seen before or since.
Jackie had her own internationally successful Cosmetics Company, which she subsequently sold control of. Was a close friend of President Eisenhower (Ike used the Cochran-Odlum ranch as his base when he wrote his memoirs), President Lyndon B. Johnson (whose life she saved in 1948 before he was elected to the United States Senate), General Jimmy Doolittle, General H. H. “Hap” Arnold and test pilots of the calibre of Yeager, Ascani, Boyd, Ridley, Everest and Bud Anderson. The fact was, Jackie was much more confident in the company of such huge male ego's than she was with other women.
This page would not have been possible without the help and generosity of Dr. Raymond L. Puffer of the AFFTC History Office at Edwards AFB, Major General Fred J. Ascani and Mr. Lewis Chow and his daughter-in-law Sue. Sincere thanks to you all. If you have something you would like to share with me for the inclusion in this website, please contact me via the enquries section.