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Unsung Heroes: Jackie Cochran

2011 March 10
Photo: Jackie in 1943. Black and white photo of a young white woman in uniform sitting in front of a map, looking determined


Flying is for many people an utterly terrifying prospect. The loss of control, the unshakable awareness of all that distance between you and the ground, the realisation that you’re strapped into a thin metal tube hurtling along at hundreds of miles an hour, and the knowledge that if something does go wrong you almost certainly won’t walk away from it. It’s no wonder a lot of people have a fear of flying.

Jacqueline Cochran, on the other hand, quite distinctly did not have any fears when it came to taking to the air. Even today, a full thirty years after her death, she still holds more aviation records and firsts than any other pilot, ever.

Born some time in the early 20th century (the details of her birth are somewhat unclear – she was raised by a foster family and didn’t know her own date of birth), Cochran lived at a time when aviation was vastly more dangerous than it is now. Radios? Safety precautions? Reliable engineering? Stuff and nonsense. Those were just the far-flung dreams of futurists. To illustrate the perils of early aviation, consider the first US Air Mail service, which during the first couple of years of operation, saw the death of fully half its 40 pilots.

Combine the expense and danger of flying with growing up in poverty and having minimal education, and it seems Jackie Cochran had little or no chance of ever taking to the air. This, however, is failing to account for her quite remarkable levels of determination, and refusal to take any nonsense from anyone. In one interview she recounts an experience working in a textile mill, aged perhaps 10 or 11.

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.

– Jackie Cochran

Black and white photo showing Jackie climbing out of her plane in 1938. Picture via Wikipedia, shared under Creative Commons

Climbing out of her plane at the 1938 Bendix Air Race

Cochran applied this same attitude to her flying lessons. Having been told that learning to fly would take two to three months, she accepted a wager from her future husband, Floyd Odlum, that she couldn’t complete it in just six weeks. Three weeks later she finished flight school and got her wings. Within months she was entering some of the world’s most prestigious air races.

A decade later she took this same determination into the US military. Having previously worked with the British Air Transport Auxiliary and been the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic, Cochran proceeded to gather evidence to back her claim that female pilots were more than capable of filling all the domestic flight roles left empty during the war. With her experience training women to fly for the ATA, and drive to see them made a part of the Army Air Corps, Cochran eventually oversaw the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a group of just over a thousand pilots who collectively would cover 60,000,000 miles in every kind of military aircraft.

Following the war, Cochran upgraded to piloting jet engined aircraft and set one of her many records, becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. Flying a modified Canadian jet up to over 45,000 feet, she made a dive towards the ground, not quite managing to break the barrier on her first attempt. When asked when she’d like to make a second attempt, Cochran reportedly responded “Let’s go right now!” The second attempt did the trick, a sonic boom echoing over the landscape as Cochran accelerated her jet towards the ground and passed Mach 1. Consider for a moment just how nerve-wracking an experience it has to be, accelerating a thin metal tube towards the ground from 45,000 feet, trying to get up faster than almost anyone had ever gone. Then consider just how badass you have to be to do that twice in one day, because the first time just wasn’t quite fast enough.

What other records and achievements did Cochran manage? Alongside a list of speed and altitude records long enough to keep us here for several days, she was also the first pilot to ever make a ‘blind’ landing using only instruments, and the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask. She was the first woman to enter the prestigious Bendix Trans-continental Air Race, and the first to win it, along with many other famously difficult air races throughout her career. Perhaps her most especially daring records were set during her flights of the F-104 Starfighter, in which she set no less than three speed records in the space of a month.

The F-104 was a staggeringly dangerous craft to fly. In the first 18 months of its use the German Air Force had 85 fatal incidents involving them, earning it the nickname ‘The Widowmaker’. When a plane is killing off pilots at a rate of almost two a week you have to be exceptionally brave to climb into the cockpit even once, and exceedingly skillful to survive the experience often enough to set a handful of world records. Jackie Cochran was both.

In addition to her contributions to aviation Cochran maintained a successful cosmetics business (indeed, it was to promote her ‘Wings’ line of cosmetics that she initially learned to fly). Following the war she poured a lot of her time and money into charitable causes, particularly those providing education and opportunity for those coming from impoverished backgrounds. Whilst she never gained the fame or attention of Amelia Earhart (whose organisation of female pilots, The Ninety-Nines, Cochran presided over between 1941 and 1943), Cochran left a legacy as a successful businesswoman and one of the most daring and important pilots to have lived.


    Black and white photo showing large group of trainee WASPS smiling and laughing, sitting on benches and the floor - Jackie in the centre

    Too much badass to fit in the camera frame: Jackie (centre) and a load of trainee WASPs

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting awesome people we never learned about at school.
  • Rob Mulligan blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011

    Woo! As if this lot wasn’t enough she also masterminded the creation of the first training programme for female astronauts

    • March 10, 2011

      Yup, I was going to include that in the post but ran out of space. She did let the idea down slightly, from what I’ve read, by saying that women should be trained as astronauts but shouldn’t be part of the space race. Apparently she felt beating Russia was the priority and that the time taken to integrate female astronauts would give the Soviets the lead. But still, it’s pretty awesome. There’s more on the whole Mercury 13 in Martha Ackmann’s book, here

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 11, 2011

      I still love that post. Astronette(!), I mean really. Was part of the inspiration for starting this site, the fact that I was discovering stuff like this via blogs like yours.

      So there! ASTRO LOVE IN.

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