Aviation author & outsize aircraft historian

Aviation author & outsize aircraft historian

william patrick dean

Jackie Cochran, America’s Greatest Aviatrix

I am quite disgusted with the current political rant on equality demanding that everyone is entitled and must be subsidized by the government because they were not born into affluent circumstances. If America had practiced this madness over the last 245 years or society over the last 2,000 years we would have regressed to the stone age. America is or “was” the greatest nation known to exist on this planet because some individuals regardless of the station in life they were born had the desire and perseverance to do something better. If there ever was anyone in the last century who had little or no chance of succeeding or achieving anything it was Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran.

After writing a recent essay on navigator Fred Noonan, I realized that some people over forty can tell you who Amelia Earhart was. However, I could not find anyone of any age who ever heard of Jackie Cochran. It is disturbing that those dedicated to promoting women’s issues do not know her. Have we become so starstruck with people who have achieved fame by doing nothing that we have lost our ability to celebrate real achievement? Jackie Cochran was not a darling of the press. She did not seek fame, or maybe she practiced President Harry Truman’s philosophy: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

I was aware Jackie Cochran was the first female to break the sound barrier but admit I was unaware of all of her other achievements. I also knew she was a friend of Chuck Yeager. After reading Cochran’s autobiography, I can appreciate the extent of her accomplishments and friendship with Yeager who trained her on high-speed flight, which allowed her to break the sound barrier.

Jackie Cochran was a competent pilot when she was introduced to Amelia Earhart at a New York dinner party in 1935. Although Cochran is thought to be nine years younger, they soon became close friends. Earhart was not the pilot Cochran was, but she had national name recognition. Cochran was far more the accomplished pilot setting records and eventually, achieving more firsts altitude and speed records than any other pilot, male or female, in history. 

Earhart was a distance flyer. Jackie Cochran was focused on setting speed and altitude records. Earhart got all the press because her publisher husband, George P. Putnam made a fortune on a book about Charles Lindbergh. He was trying to create a female “Lindberg” by promoting an Earhart clothing brand and coaching her on writing a book. She was even referred to in the press as “Lady Lindy.” Putnam was very cool and patronizing toward Jackie Cochran, downplaying her flying ability. Cochran has been quoted later in life as saying. “I never sought publicity like that in my life because it’s a waste of time.”

Jackie Cochran’s birth may have been illegitimate, but she was in a family of seven, her early years somewhat cloudy. She claimed to be an orphan and often said she did not know when she was born. It has been reported she was born Bessie Lee Pittman between 1905 and 1908 in a sawmill logging camp at Muscogee Cantonment, Florida. She thought she was born in May so decided on 11 May 1906. Pittman (Cochran) was born into abject poverty and poorly cared for as the family moved from town to town looking for work. She was barefoot most of her early childhood because they were too poor to buy her shoes. She claims she was a foster child at age four but other reports state she stayed with her birth parents and may have lived with her grandparents. Father Sands, the Catholic priest in the area visited the lumber camp once a month to hold mass and do what he could to relieve the misery. His influence resulted in Jackie becoming a devout Catholic. Many years later Jackie tried to locate him to obtain information about her birth and early life but found Father Sands had died in an insane asylum. She then employed an investigator to research her birth and childhood. The results came in a sealed envelope which she never opened.

Bessie Lou or “Jackie” only completed the second grade in school. By age seven she was finding odd jobs of cooking and cleaning and midwifing for the pregnant women in the lumber camps. Around 1914, when she was about eight her family moved to Columbus, Georgia where she got a job in a cotton mill, where children were exploited because of little or no child labor laws. She earned six cents an hour and worked twelve-hour days. She would give the money to her “mother” or possibly foster mother but soon learned to hold some back because she was not benefitting from her labor. The floor manager recognized her ability to help the other children and soon made her supervisor over fifteen other children. 

Jackie desperately wanted to improve her appearance and have nice clothes. She was very impressed by a new school teacher who came to town from Cincinnati. She had nice clothes and Jackie thought she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. The teacher tried to help Jackie by reading to her and tottering. She gave her odd jobs like cutting firewood and paid her ten cents a week. She bought Jackie her first new dress. Up until this time, she wore hand-me-downs made of flour sacks. 

Jackie watched the women go and come from a beauty parlor in Columbus. She hung around the beauty parlor and made up stories of her knowledge and ability to perm and set hair. Later in life, she said, “I didn’t see it as lying, it was just surviving.” By age ten, her family moved back to Florida, but she stayed in Columbus and got a job at the beauty parlor doing menial tasks. She soon learned many of the clients which they called “fancy ladies” were prostitutes. They tipped well and Jackie made it her business to learn every aspect of permanent wave machines and hairdressing techniques. However, she wasn’t paid but a fraction of what the other beauticians made. One day, child labor came by and the owner of the salon told them that she would vouch that Jackie was over sixteen and only looked young. After they left, Jackie told the owner that she wanted full pay just like the others and if she didn’t get it, she would go tell the child labor people she was underage. Her threat worked.  

Jackie worked there another year before getting a job in a Montgomery beauty salon. One of the clients was a judge in juvenile court who told Jackie she was very skilled and should attend nursing school. She went to school at a Catholic hospital, actively working as a nurse trainee where she excelled for three years but she could barely read and knew she could never pass the nursing exam. She left to take a job with a country doctor in Bonifay, Florida. After a brief time, she could not stomach the primitive, unsanitary conditions and poverty which she had worked so hard to escape, so she left.          

She took a job at a beauty parlor in Pensacola, Florida. It was here that “Bessie” decided to change her name, which she had been considering for some time. She went through the phonebook and picked out the name Jacquelin Cochran. Other sources state that during this period she married Robert Cochran and had a child who was named Robert Junior. The child died within a few years and nothing else is known about this marriage. Jacque did not mention it in her autobiography stating, “I didn’t ask to be childless.” It is up to conjecture if there was a Robert Cochran. 

Around 1928, she went to Philadelphia for a course in hairdressing and training on new machines. The school was run so unprofessionally that it was evident she knew more than they did. The school offered her a job teaching, which lasted for nine months. She had worked her way up to part-owner of the hair salon in Pensacola, which she had left. At age 19, she returned and sold her half, then left for New York. Jackie interviewed with Charles of the Ritz. She told him she was the best in the business. They had a few cross words but the next day, he called and offered her a job. She was good and soon moved to Antoine’s at Saks Fifth Avenue. The clientele was very rich. By 1932, she ranked among the top hairdressers in New York. When the season changed, her clients insisted she move to Antoine’s in Miami. Jackie had been entertaining the idea of starting her own cosmetics line since she had worked for Charles of the Ritz.

Jackie was very pretty and was often invited by her clients to society dinner parties. She is said to have been cocky but passionate and sincere with a childlike innocence. At one of these parties in Miami in 1932, she was seated next to Wall Street Financier and corporate raider Floyd Odlum (more about him in a future essay). He made millions during the depression and told a friend to seat him next to a woman who works for a living. He was fourteen years older and completely bored with the high society scene. She was not aware he was one of the ten richest men in the world. He was fascinated with Jackie as she told him of the beauty salon business and wanted to represent a line of cosmetics. He told her there is a depression going on. The only way to get a foothold and sell enough products in this environment is to cover a lot of territory. To do that you would have to fly to all the major cities. She was not aware he was married with children. She saw Odlum twice more in Miami.

Jackie returned to New York with the intent of starting her cosmetic business and learning to fly. It was two months before Odlum called in May of 1932. Jacque was adamant about starting a cosmetics business. Odlum bet her the $495 price of flying lessons that she probably could not learn to fly and definitely could not get her license in six weeks. The following Sunday she took the 30-minute introduction flight at Roosevelt Field on Long Island and was hooked. Since she could barely read and could not write, she knew it would be impossible to pass the written test, so she asked if it could be taken orally. She was so determined she took the first lesson that same afternoon. By the next day, the instructor let her take the controls. She spent every waking hour memorizing and practicing and trying to remember all the stories she had heard from the guys at the Pensacola Flying School. She enlisted the help of a male friend to read the manuals and instructions to her. She learned to fly and got her license in three weeks. The instructor said she was a born pilot. It came naturally to her. Jackie began renting airplanes and taking trips without knowing how to navigate. Several times, she got lost but she studied the Navy flying course and hired a tutor in mathematics.

In 1933, Jackie Cochran went to San Diego and enrolled in the Ryan Flying School where she passed the exam for her commercial pilot’s license. She continued to see Odlum and began flying him to inspect potential investments. Jackie purchased a Lockheed Lodestar which she flew for years. She was able to form “Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics” in 1934 and incorporate in 1935. It became a major brand of style and beauty in the American cosmetics industry which lasted until after her death in 1980. After Marilyn Monroe became a celebrity, she endorsed “Jacqueline Cochran” lipstick.

Jackie loved the desert after spending so much time in California at flying school. She purchased 20 acres of land near Indio, California and built her own house. She traveled back to New York often. Jackie loved clothes and was always meticulously dressed. She traveled with 40-50 suitcases, which ensured she would always have the right clothes for any occasion. Floyd Odlum got a divorce in 1935 and he and Jackie were married in 1936. In time he purchased the 900 acres next to her ranch in California. Odlum had severe arthritis and decided to move to the California desert for health reasons. However, they kept the New York apartment. 

Jackie Cochran’s accomplishments in aviation are unsurpassed. It has been argued that it was easy when your husband is a billionaire. That may or not be true. He had connections and knew senators, congressmen, titans of industry, and influential people. Odlum knew Senator Stuart Symington who had been appointed by President Truman as the first Secretary of the Air Force. Symington introduced Cochran to Chuck Yeager in his office which was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Yeager said, “I can’t teach Jackie Cochran about flying. The woman knows how.” Later in life, Yeager said Cochran was the best pilot he ever flew with. Not best woman pilot, best pilot!  However, all the connections in the world cannot make you one of the best pilots in history. Jackie Cochran pulled herself out of poverty and became a successful businesswoman before she met Odlum. She started her cosmetics business and he dared her to learn to fly. If she did not have the natural ability to pilot an aircraft and the drive to pursue it, all the money in the world would not have made a difference.

1932: Received her first pilot’s license. 

1934: Founded “Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics” in Manhattan. Hired a chemist to perfect perfume. Competed with Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. 

1934: Got Bendix Transcontinental race open to women. Did not compete because the engine supercharger kept blowing up on test stand. Eventually won the race two out of three times she entered.

1935: Competed against Earhart and Paul Mantz in Bendix LAX-CLE cross-country race. Earhart only got in the race after Cochran forced the male pilots to let her compete. Cochran diverted to Kingman, AZ with engine failure. Earhart finished 5th.

1935: Test pilot for the Seversky P-35 prototype for the P-47 Thunderbolt.

1936: Went to Mayo Clinic to work with Dr. Randy Lovelace to develop the oxygen mask. 

1937: Invited to serve on the Collier Trophy Committee:  

1938: First woman to win the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race.

1939: Set women’s altitude record of 33,000 feet in fabric-covered bi-plane. Ruptured a blood vessel in her sinuses. Her record resulted in mandatory wearing oxygen mask above a certain altitude.

1939: Presented a plan to Eleanor Roosevelt for female pilots called “Free a man to fight” by ferrying aircraft, towing targets or flying other non-combat capacities.

1940: Breaks 2,000 kilometer international speed record.

1941: First woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic as captain in Royal Air Force Auxilary. Elected President of the 99s from 1941-43

1943: Founder and Director of Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) during WW-II. Taught 1,200 women to fly transports.

1945: Became an American war correspondent for Liberty magazine. First American woman to visit Japan after the war. Then went to China and met Mao Tse-tung. Then flew to Chungking to have lunch with Madam Chang Kai-shek who had attended Agnes Scott College in America. She was enamored with anything American and a chance to converse with an American woman.    

1945: Awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Commissioned Lt. Colonel in the Air Force.

1946: Cochran hosted the Air Force Association convention. She met Dwight Eisenhower who was the speaker. He sat next to Jackie and she suggested he would be the perfect candidate for president. Eventually was a primary force in convincing him to run for president. 

1948: Lyndon Johnson running for Senate. Jackie was invited by Stuart Symington for Air Force Association function. Johnson was in a hospital with kidney stones. They had botched the procedure to remove them and he was seriously ill. Jackie Cochran secretly took him to the airport and flew him to the Mayo Clinic in her Lockheed Lodestar. They were afraid he would die on the airplane. Jackie used her nursing skills to get him there saving his life.

1950: Set a new international speed record for propeller-driven aircraft in a P-51 of 447.47 mph.

1951: Received the French Air Medal.

1951: Jackie Cochran asked to chair the Eisenhower kickoff campaign at Madison Square Garden. Eisenhower and his wife Mammie would spend many years after his presidency at Jackie’s ranch writing his memoirs.

1953: First woman to break the sound barrier in a Canadian F-86. (652.337 mph). Won the Harmon Trophy, which was presented by Eisenhower, for breaking the sound barrier.

1953: Named Business Woman of the Year. Director of Northwest Airlines.

1954: Named Business Woman of the Year.

1957: Air Force award for distinguished civilian service.

1960: As co-pilot, she was the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier in an A3D Skywarrior, USS Independence.

1960: Sponsored an astronaut test program to qualify women for space.

1961: Member of the board of directors of George Washington University.

1961: At over 50 years of age in August and October she set eight speed records for a closed course of 639.38 mph in a T-38 Talon. Set altitude of record of 56,071 feet. On 22 August flew 863 mph.

1962: On 18 October President John Kennedy presented Jackie Cochran her 14th Harmon Trophy. Set 69 straight line distance records in Lockheed Jet Star and nine speed and distance records in Northrop T-38.

1963: Set record in 9-12 course of 1273.109 mph in a Lockheed F-104G

1964: 04 May became the first woman to fly faster than Mach 1 setting a 9-12 mile course record of 1,429 mph in a Lockheed F104G

1965: Inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.

1967: First woman to fly faster than Mach 2.

1969: Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. At age 61 she learned to fly helicopters. Promoted to Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

1970: Retired from the U.S. Air Force. Received Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Notre Dame.

1971: First living woman enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame.

1975: The only woman honored at the Air Force Academy with a permanent display of her memorabilia.

Jackie Cochran campaigned for women military pilots during WW II but was against training women as commercial pilots because they would get married and have children and quit flying. Still, her accomplishments are too many to list all of them in this essay. She was the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental race. First woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic and later the first woman to fly a jet transatlantic. She became a test pilot on the F-86 jet. First woman to break the sound barrier which she did multiple times in her career. First pilot to make a blind instrument landing. She pioneered oxygen mask development and was first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask. The only woman ever to be president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (1958–1961). After her retirement from the Air Force, she continued to serve as special consultant to NASA.

Women’s Air Force photo: USAF

Jackie’s husband of forty years, Floyd Odlum, died in 1976. Chuck Yeager was the executor of his estate. Yeager found the still sealed envelope containing the information supposedly about her birth and early life. Yeager asked Jackie if she wanted him to open it. She said no, so he burned it.  

Jackie Cochran died in 1980, She still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female. She was born in poverty and illiterate for nearly half of her life and yet she was friends with presidents, military generals, supreme court justices, and their wives and some of the most influential people in the world, becoming one of the most accomplished pilots of the twentieth century. It has been said she was a real-life “Li’l Orphan Annie.”

I encourage anyone to read Jackie Cochran’s Autobiography for an interesting account of an incredible individual.

Cochran, Jackie and Maryann Bucknum Brinley. Jackie Cochran, The Autobiography of the Greatest Woman Pilot in Aviation History. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Cochran, Jacqueline. The Stars at Noon. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1954.

** Photos: Eisenhower Presidential Library, State of Florida Archives, National Air and Space Museum.**

  1. Richard Sartini says:

    Very interesting! Amazing what we don’t know about so many people.

  2. Richard Sartini says:

    Very interesting! Amazing what we don’t know about so many people.

  3. Ruth Cook says:

    Wow, Unbelieveable, most of us never heard of this amazing woman. Thank you for bringing her to her well deserved place in history.

  4. S K McBee says:

    What a amazing story. I had never heard of this lady. She is an American treasure and I would hope her story could be told on network TV or maybe in a movie.

  5. What a great summation of Jackie’s life and achievements. As a docent with our Chico Air Museum I look forward with sharing these accomplishments and stories with, in particular , the young girls who visit our museum as encouragement to them to continue their interest in all aspects of aviation.

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