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Colonel Jacqueline Cochran

The wartime head of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) 1943-44

TK Tim Kirsten Updated
Colonel Jacqueline Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran, an American pilot, was best known as the wartime head of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) (1943-44) in which about 1000 civilian American women ferried planes from factories to port cities in non-combat roles. She also set many records and was the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953.

Many American women served bravely and in roles of leadership in World War II. Some were nurses, others served in the women's auxiliary units of the armed forces.

Cochran was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1910. She was orphaned at an early age and never knew the exact date of her birth. She lived with poor foster parents in the sawmill camp towns of Florida and Georgia. "Until I was eight years old, I had no shoes," she wrote in her autobiography, The Stars at Noon. "My bed was usually a pallet on the floor and sometimes just the floor. My dresses in the first seven years of my life were usually made from cast-off flour sacks." At eight, she went to work in the cotton mills of Columbus, Georgia, earning six cents an hour working the 12-hour night shift. It was hard work for long hours, but she was happy because she could buy her first pair of shoes. In her spare time, she read.

After several years, when the mill workers went on strike, she found work in a beauty shop. Later, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and worked in the beauty shop of a department store. In her teens, she bought a Model T Ford and learned auto mechanics so she could maintain the car herself. Cochran then became interested in nursing. After three years of training, she worked as a nurse in several towns in northern Florida. Before long, she moved to Pensacola, Florida, and returned to the beauty shop work. After about a year, she went to New York City and worked for the famous beautician, Antoine, at his Saks-Fifth Avenue salon. Soon she spent her winters working at his second salon in Miami Beach, Florida.

At a party in Miami in 1932, she met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, a banker and industrialist. She told him she would like to work for a big cosmetics company, selling beauty aids to stores across the country. She thought it would be fun to travel from store to store and help the company grow. "You would need wings to do all that!" Odlum told her. The suggestion changed her life. Cochran spent her three weeks' vacation learning how to fly a plane. The instructor said it usually took two to three months to get a pilot's license, but Cochran learned to handle a plane quickly at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York. After only three days of instruction, she flew her first solo flight. It wasn't an easy solo. The plane's engine stopped in mid-flight, but Cochran glided the plane down safely for a "dead-stick landing."

Cochran did not let the scare deter her. She stayed with her training and received her pilot's license even before her vacation was over. In Four Women of Courage, biographer Bennett Wayne says one of Cochran's fellow pilots, Captain Kenneth P. Behr, said of her: "We couldn't help rooting for Jackie. Here she was, a blonde who hadn't even finished grammar school, but she buckled down over the heavy textbooks and mastered celestial navigation and Morse Code." She still had vacation time left to rent a plane and fly to Montreal, Canada, to attend an air meet of sportsmen pilots.

"Flying was now in my blood," she later recalled in her book. Cochran resigned her job as a beautician and drove to San Diego, California, where she took extra courses at a flying school. After that, she bought an old Travel Air plane for $1,200 and earned a commercial pilot license.

There were few women pilots in the early 1930s, but Cochran was determined to be one of the best. She trained more and by 1934 was considered a skilled pilot. That same year, she started a cosmetics firm that grew and prospered under her management. Soon she was flying all over the country to expand her own business. Deciding it was time to enter her first air race, she became the only American woman to enter the McRobertson London-Melbourne (Australia) air race in 1934. It was a major international event put on by manufacturers to test their new planes.

A friend, Wesley Smith, agreed to be her copilot. The race was to start in London and end in Melbourne. But the American Gee Bee racing plane Cochran and Smith were to fly wasn't completely built yet. They took it by ship to England, and mechanics worked on it during the ocean crossing. After some scary trial flights, they started the race, but the plane didn't feel right to Cochran. Later, after nearly crash-landing over Europe, she and Smith dropped out of the race because the plane was too unsafe to fly any farther. It was a wise decision.

Gee Bees were fast but small and unstable planes that were notoriously dangerous. Many pilots lost their lives racing them. In 1935, Cochran became the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Ohio. Officials told her it was too difficult for a woman, but she got signatures on a letter from all the male pilots saying it was okay with them if she wanted to enter the race.

On the night of the takeoff, fog rolled off the ocean so heavily that pilots could not see the end of the runway. The plane ahead of Cochran's crashed on takeoff and the pilot was killed. The owner of the Northrop Gamma plane, which Cochran was to fly, begged her to call off the flight, but she believed she could use the plane's instruments to take it up. She began her blind takeoff, but as the plane moved down the runway, its engine did not seem to build up enough power. Just before the plane was about to crash into a fence at the end of the runway, its wheels left the ground. The fence caught the radio antenna and pulled it off. Cochran had no radio to navigate or communicate with, but had made it up into the sky.

Hours later, approaching the Grand Canyon, Cochran saw that an electrical storm was building up. Cochran observed that her plane was overheating. The winds were very strong; It rained, and lightning flashed all about her. She feared she could not fly the overheated plane safely through the storm, so she reluctantly flew to the nearest airport. She hadn't finished the race but had proved that a woman could enter the Bendix. Cochran and Floyd Odlum were married in 1936. She nearly lost her life in several flying accidents, but he knew how much she loved flying and encouraged her to continue.

Trying the Bendix Race again in 1937, she came in third. "It's the number on your plane," the other pilots told her about her bad luck. Her plane's number was 13. But Cochran laughed. She wasn't superstitious and, in fact, thought the number would bring her good luck someday. She entered the Bendix again in 1938, piloting a small Seversky pursuit plane that she had never flown before. Again, she encountered trouble. Soon after taking the plane up, the gas tank in the right wing became blocked, and she could get enough fuel only if she tipped the plane. But she won the race anyway, and the cheers of thousands at the finish and the admiration of pilots everywhere.

Cochran became one of the most famous women pilots in America, entering more races and testing new planes, engines, fuels, instruments, and propellers. Some of these failed and nearly cost her life, but she kept on flying and testing products. As her cosmetics business prospered during the mid-1930s, she bought a home and a 600-acre (2.4km2) date farm in the California desert near Indio, where she and her husband spent most of their time when she wasn't flying. Also, during these years, Jacqueline Cochran and Amelia Earhart, then the most famous American woman flier, became close friends. Earhart had been the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane, in 1928, and the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic, in 1932.

In 1937, Earhart and copilot Fred Noonan were to fly around the world. She spent most of the last few months before the flight resting at the Cochran ranch in California. Cochran had doubts about the success of the flight, sensing it might end disastrously. The plane that Earhart and Noonan were flying disappeared over the Pacific between New Guinea and Howland Island. Their fate remains a mystery to this day. Some believe the Pacific leg of their flight was in part a mission requested by President Roosevelt to spy on Japanese military activity in the area. If they had survived a crash-landing, they may have been executed as spies. Cochran was among the many pilots who searched the Pacific, finding no sign of her friend or her plane.

As the Nazi encroachment on Europe extended in the late 1930s, Cochran became certain that they would need women pilots in the war. At a luncheon early in 1941 in Washington, D.C., she told Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps, she wished she could help in the war effort. America was not yet in the war in Europe, but England had been at war with Germany since 1939, after Germany invaded and occupied Poland. Arnold told her about the men who were flying American-built planes from Canada to England for use by Britain's Royal Air Force. In her autobiography, Cochran says he suggested, "Why don't you fly one bomber over to England? We need every plane we can get over there, and besides, your flying would call attention to the need."

Cochran thought the job was just right for her. But she ran into trouble after being accepted by some male pilots. One stole equipment out of her cockpit just before she could take her first test flight for the mission. Some others threatened to go on strike if she flew the plane, but they reached a compromise when Cochran agreed to let a male pilot take the plane up and land it, but she would take over the controls while it was in the air. This was how Cochran flew her first bomber to England in June 1941. Nearly at daybreak, after an overnight flight, tracer bullets shot up around the plane as Cochran piloted it over the ocean, nearing the coast of Ireland. At first, the plane had been mistaken as an enemy aircraft, but then the firing stopped.

Twelve hours after takeoff, the plane reached Scotland. Newspapers everywhere told the story and called Cochran “the glamour girl of aviation." After she returned to the United States a few days later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Cochran to the White House for lunch. She told him about the "Battle of Britain" the English military and civilians were waging, bravely withstanding the devastating German air bombings of British cities.

Two days later, General Arnold summoned Cochran to his office. She says in her autobiography: "An English official has asked me if you would organize a group of American women pilots and take them to England," he told her. He said that England needed experienced women pilots to fly planes to relieve male pilots of domestic duties so they could fly in combat. Cochran accepted the job and flew all over America, gathering women pilots willing to fly for England. Cochran selected twenty-five and trained them, then led them to England as flight captain.

Cochran and the other women pilots learned to fly military planes in wartime England. They flew both combat and support planes from factories to airports and from one airport to another, transporting people, equipment, and supplies. Cochran remained in charge of the women pilots’ program in England until shortly after the United States entered the war in December 1941. Then she got a brief message from General Arnold: "Come Home." Back in Washington, Arnold asked Cochran to find more women pilots and organize a training program for them. She would be put in charge of an operation in America similar to the one she had organized in England, so women pilots could relieve American male pilots of noncombat duty and free them for action.

Colonel Jacqueline Cochran in the Cockpit of a Curtiss P-40
Colonel Jacqueline Cochran in the Cockpit of a Curtiss P-40

Cochran accepted and chose Houston, Texas, as the training base for the Army Air Force's new women's auxiliary. She started with a new group of 25 volunteers and after several months of directing their training, the women pilots were ready to graduate. But Cochran was ill at her ranch in California. She could hardly stand up, the result of injuries suffered earlier while testing planes. The nearest airport where she could take a plane to Houston was 200 miles (320km) away, in Phoenix, Arizona, but her doctor insisted she could not sit up in a car to take her there. Determined to be at her first class's graduation, Cochran thought of a way to make the trip to Phoenix while lying flat on her back. She hired a hearse. It took her to the airport in Phoenix, and she got to Houston in time to hand out each diploma personally.

Soon as she was well again, Cochran resumed her post as director of the WASPs—the Women's Air Force Service Pilots. Before long, dozens of similar groups of women were in training at other airfields where she had set up programs. When two women pilots were killed when their planes crashed in North Carolina, Cochran flew there to give courage and solace to some others, afraid to complete training. When they said the planes weren't safe, Cochran flew each of the planes, giving them all a hard flight test. Each had something wrong with it, but she told the women that no plane in wartime was perfectly safe.

The women returned to their planes, but a few days later, another plane crashed. The pilot lived but suffered a skull fracture. Cochran was determined to learn the cause of the plane crashes. She found that sugar had been added to the gasoline, so the engine stopped shortly after the plane would take off. An enemy agent had done it to sabotage the program.

With Cochran's leadership, before the war ended, 1,830 women had taken the flight training course and 1,074 of them graduated, flying about 60 million miles (97 million kilometers) and relieving American pilots of noncombat duty. Thirty-eight WASP pilots were killed in flight accidents during the war. They awarded Cochran the Distinguished Service Medal for her work. Also, during the war, Cochran was a foreign correspondent for Liberty magazine in the Pacific. Later she reported the Japanese surrender and, back in Europe, covered the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi officials.

Returning home, Cochran resumed management of her cosmetics business and tested planes and entered air races again. She also became interested in politics. In 1952, she flew to Paris to show former General Dwight D. Eisenhower a two-hour film of a rally in New York's Madison Square Garden at which 15,000 people shouted, "We want Ike! We want Ike!" Cochran's effort is credited with helping Eisenhower run for president. Meanwhile, the jet air age had begun, and Cochran wanted to be a part of it.

In 1952, she became a flight consultant for a Canadian company building the F-86 Sabre Jet and made speed tests of the plane at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There she met Colonel Charles "Chuck" Yeager, the first person to fly a plane faster than the speed of sound. Yeager helped Cochran learn more about flying at faster speeds and higher altitudes. Though often in poor health, she continued to fly and set new world speed records. On May 18, 1953, flying her F-86 Sabre Jet at a speed of over 760 miles an hour (1,223km/h) over the desert in California, Cochran became the first woman to pilot a plane faster than the speed of sound. They awarded her the International Flying Organization's gold medal for outstanding accomplishment by any pilot, man or woman, during that year.

In the following years, Cochran set over 200 flying records, including the fastest speed flown by a woman (1,429 miles per hour- 2,300 kilometers per hour) in 1964. The Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross honored her. Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to land a jet on an aircraft carrier; the first woman to fly at March 2, twice the speed of sound; and the first woman to pilot a jet across the Atlantic. She retired with the rank of colonel in the Air Force Reserve in 1970. Jacqueline Cochran, who also worked tirelessly on behalf of the Camp Fire Girls and for education for needy children, died at her ranch in Indio, California, on August 9, 1980.

Colonel Jacqueline Cochran - Quick Facts

Country:
United States
Nickname/s:
Jackie
Service Unit/s:
  • Air Force Reserve Command (United States)
  • Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)
Other Position/s:
Director of Women's Air Force Service Pilots
Born:
1910
Died:
1980
Military Rank/s:
Colonel
Period/s:
  • WWII (1939-1945)
  • Cold War (1947-1991)
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