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Jacqueline Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran Odlum is a legend in aviation history. There are few, if any aviators who have accomplished so much or set and held as many aviation records. Yet, if you ask anyone to name a famous aviatrix, nine times out of ten he or she will name Amelia Earhart. Jackie who? They retort as one proceeds to describe an aviation legend. Major General Fred J. Ascani said of Jackie’s ability “There are cautious pilots who never want to know what the plane's maximum performance is and then there are pilots like Yeager & Cochran”.


Born around 1906 (Jackie Cochran did not know her exact date of birth) in Florida, Jackie grew up never knowing her natural parents. She spent her early years with a foster family in Florida, her bed was at best a pallet on the floor, and sometimes it was just the floor. Jackie was 8 years old before she had her first pair of shoes. Working in a textile mill when she was about 10 years old, she had the following encounter – “I didn’t see him coming, but a foreman was suddenly over me and pinching me in a way that no little girl should ever be pinched. My reaction was immediate and not surprising. My fist flew up and I hit him squarely on the nose. Hard. He jumped back and then rushed away, shocked. He never touched me again. What I don’t quite understand is why he didn’t fire me”.


Jackie never finished her schooling; in fact her formal education lasted only 2 years. She could not even write and in latter years would take the exam for her pilot’s licence orally.


Around 1921 Jackie started working in a beauty parlour in Montgomery, Alabama. Her earnings were by commission and in her own words “giving more Nestle permanent waves than Montgomery society could believe and earning more money than even the store manager could feel comfortable about.


In 1929 Jackie made the move to New York City and managed to gain employment with Antoine whose salon in Saks Fifth Avenue was always packed with customers. . In 1932 at a Miami hotel function, Jackie met a handsome young man by the name of Floyd Odlum. Instantly she knew “he’s the one” she would marry. At this time Floyd was still married, but the marriage was over before he met Jackie. Floyd Odlum was one of the cleverest and most affluent individuals you could meet back in those days. His company, The Atlas Corporation had made him $14 million by 1929, which was a huge fortune to have particularly when at the time the majority of the United States had hardly any money at all. At one time or another, he obtained control of or was involved in the management of companies like the Greyhound Bus Company; RKO Pictures Corporation and Paramount Pictures; Hilton Hotels Corporation and Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair). At the time they met, Jackie had no idea Floyd was such a wealthy man.


Jackie Cochran had been thinking of learning to fly for months, the seed was sown by Floyd, who told her that “If you’re going to cover the territory you need to cover to make money in this kind of economic climate, you’ll need wings. Get your pilots licence!”


In the summer of 1932, during a six-week vacation, Jackie travelled to the Roosevelt Flying School at Long Island, New York to begin her flight instruction. Determined to gain her pilots licence as quickly as possible, Floyd bet her the $495 it cost for the course of lessons that she couldn’t gain her licence in six weeks time. Jackie said she’d do it in three, as she didn’t want to spend her entire vacation at Long Island.


Her instructor was called Husky Lewelleyn, after her introductory flight, she asked Husky how long it would take to gain her licence he replied that it would take her at least 20 flying hours & that take around 2 to 3 months, then she would need to sit a test. When Jackie told him how quickly she needed to learn, Husky laughed and said it would be tough, so kind of like throwing down the gauntlet in a challenge, Jackie threw down the $495 on the table and said “I don’t think so”.


And sure enough, three weeks later Jackie Cochran had her wings.


She set the first of many record-breaking feats in 1934 when she flew and tested the first turbo-supercharger ever installed on an aircraft engine. She was the first person ever to flight test the Pratt and Whitney 1340 engine forerunner. When the first wet wing was ever installed in 1938, it was Jacqueline Cochran who flight-tested it.


Incidentally, she also made her mark in history as being the first person to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask. Her 1940 recommendation to lengthen the tail wheel installation on the P-43 was adopted on the P-47 aircraft. Cochran’s accomplishments weren’t limited to the United States. She left some ever-lasting impressions just about everywhere she flew in the world.


The 1935 Bendix Trans-continental Race included the first woman to participate – Jacqueline Cochran. She captured first place in the women’s division of the Bendix Trans-continental Race in 1937 and place third among all pilots. She also made the first totally blind instrument landing for women that same year.


The Bendix Races proved that the third time was indeed lucky for Cochran as she won the 1938 Trans-continental Race overall that year. She also set a new women’s division record (10 hours, 7 minutes and 10 seconds.) The talented aviator won the General William E. Mitchell Memorial Award for making the greatest contribution to aviation in 1938.


In the year 1941, Cochran captured another aviation first when she became the first woman pilot to pilot a military bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. She was president of the Ninety-Nines – an organisation of women pilot’s founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929. Cochran was their president from 1941 to 1943. In 1943, she founded the WASPS (Women’s Air Force Service Pilots) program. More than 25,000 applied for training, 1830 were accepted and 1074 made it through a very tough program to graduation. These women flew approximately 60 million miles for the Army Air Force with only 38 fatalities, or about 1 for every 16,000 hours flown. Jackie Cochran was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for services to her country during World War II.


Jacqueline Cochran joins the jet age


The war had ended, but her career certainly hadn’t. In fact, it was just taking off (no pun intended). With (then) Captain Chuck Yeager’s experience of breaking the sound barrier for the first time still fresh in many peoples minds, Jackie Cochran decided to follow suit.


Knowing she would need the help and assistance of the newly formed United States Airforce (for which Jackie had campaigned for feverishly after the end of the war). She made use of her good contacts in the Air Force and was introduced to (then) Colonel Fred J. Ascani who would give Jackie her first ride in a military jet (Lockheed P-80). With the tutoring from men like Ascani and Yeager, Jackie soon became an accomplished jet pilot. At the time Ascani held the world closed course 100km-speed record of 635.686 mph, which he had set at the Detroit Air Races in August 17th, 1951.


Jacqueline Cochran sets record of 652.337 mph


Flying a Canadian built (Canadair) F-86 Sabrejet, which was powered by an Orenda turbojet in place of the GENERAL ELECTRIC J-47 turbojet generally, installed in the American-built F-86 aircraft, Jacqueline Cochran set a new speed record of 652.337 mph at Edwards Air Force Base, California on May 18th, 1953. One of the Canadair technical crew involved in the episode at Edwards AFB was engineer Lewis Chow. He recalls “Jacqueline Cochran was a lady of great influence, and smart to boot. How else could she have got her hands on a Sabre 3 and access to the most classified Air Force Base in the United States. But a lady she was, and she treated all of us from Canada splendidly. Chuck Yeager helped her a great deal on her record-breaking flights. He flew on her wing for all of those flights.


Not content with setting a new World Speed Record, Miss Cochran wanted to have the honor and distinction of being the first woman to fly faster than sound. Jackie took her Canadair F-86 up to over 45,000 feet and sped towards the earth in her assault on the sound barrier. On the first dive she failed to record a “sonic boom” that is usually evidence of piercing the wall – a compressibility effect of shockwaves that results in an earth-level explosive wound. There was no doubt that Jackie had gone through Mach 1.0 on that first dive, but when she was told that the tower had not heard or recorded the boom, she was a little deflated. An observer asked her if and when she would like another attempt on the sound barrier – Jackie’s answer – “Lets go right now!” On the second dive the blast was clearly heard, according to observers at the Air Force Flight test Center at Edwards AFB, who said she probably pierced the wall on her first dive with the air conditions preventing the shock waves from being heard. Jackie was on cloud nine.


The only complaint: the low-swooping Sabre on one of those record flights stampeded a couple hundred chickens on a nearby ranch. The chickens were herded into a corner and some were smothered to death. “Produce the dead chickens,” Jackie told the owner, “and I’ll pay for them.”


President Eisenhower presents Jacqueline Cochran with Harmon Trophy


At a ceremony at the Whitehouse in early 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Jacqueline Cochran with the Harmon Trophy for the outstanding female pilot of 1953. Major Charles E. Yeager received the male pilot trophy for his record breaking flight in the Bell X-1A.


Continue reading the Jackie Cochran story.

Photograph Gallery

The thumbnail images below can be enlarged by clicking on the image. I am indebted to Major  General Fred J. Ascani, Mr Lewis and Sue Chow and the AFFTC History Office for the donation of these images.

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