Jacqueline Cochran never shot down an enemy fighter in combat. She never engaged Luftwaffe bogies at twelve o'clock high, screamed over the treetops of North Vietnam while the tracer fire from Soviet MiGs zipped past her windshield, or told the Iceman that he could be her wingman any time. She did, however, do every other damn thing you can possibly do in an airplane, and she did it so fucking well that she's now recognized as one of the most badass women in aviation history. So, on the 58th anniversary of the date she became the first woman to break the sound barrier, here's her story.
While her later years would be spent obliterating all concepts of speed while rocking out in the cockpit of a wide variety of supersonic experimental jet aircraft, Cochran's early years were a lot less about torpedoing through the sky strapped to a rocket with wings and a lot more about chilling in the back woods living in extreme poverty. Jackie's father was a lumberjack living in rural Florida. Now, I had no idea that there were lumberjacks in the wilderness of Florida, but the only image that comes to mind when I think about that is some kind of ungodly mix between Paul Bunyan and those giant guys with tinted sunglasses who explode beer bottles on their foreheads at SEC football tailgating parties, and I can honestly say that this is the sort of man I hope I never have to encounter in an adversarial situation at any point in my life. Lumberjacking isn't really the sort of profession that requires a lot of academic background, and so, since her dad didn't really see the point, young Jackie got a total of two years of elementary school education before she was pulled out of grade school and put to work helping out around the home – a task that included stealing chickens from neighbors so that her family would have food on the table. When she was old enough (i.e. 12 years old or so), Cochran got a job working at a textile mill, doing whatever the hell women used to do in textile mills back in the early 1920s (I have a feeling it involves a shitload of hard work and is pretty light on the smoke breaks). By 14 she was married, by 15 she was a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and a few years after that her marriage inevitably fell apart and left her a single mom living on the outskirts of Pensacola, Florida.
Now, I'm certainly not going to talk shit about housewives, single moms, and/or Pensacola, but I also think most people can agree that this isn't exactly the sort of "she was abandoned in the woods and raised by wolves and then returned with a magical sword intent on slaying the evil king" origin story that you see with a lot of over-the-top badasses. Perhaps on some level, Jackie knew that. That's probably why, in 1929, with no real prospects and no education to speak of, the 23 year-old Cochran decided she wasn't going to sit around and put up with that bullshit any longer. She took her kid, moved from North Florida to New York City, changed her name from Bessie to Jacqueline, put herself through beauty school, and got a job working as a cosmetics girl in a prestigious department store on Fifth Avenue. While there, she fell in love and married a millionaire, which is a pretty awesome (if relatively easy) way to get out of a life of poverty I suppose, and just like that this unknown single mom from Florida had completely changed her entire life around in the span of like one calendar year. Immediately after seeing her first air show, Jackie went out and earned her pilot's license (a process that took her only 20 days), and started flying around the country selling a new line of cosmetics that she developed herself. Now that's a little more like it.
Jackie's husband, by the way, was the CEO of something called the Atlas Corporation.
Whenever I read that, I just keep thinking about those talking vending machines in Borderlands.
Zipping from stop to stop in a biplane selling her shit was kind of a practical matter, but Cochran quickly determined that she totally fucking loved flying, and that she wanted to be seriously awesome at it. So she just started going out and trying a bunch of crazy-ass stunts in whatever aircraft she could get her hands on, including one time when she got a crappy little open-topped bi-plane up over 30,000 feet – well above the suggested ceiling for the aircraft she was piloting – and then had to think quick where her supplemental oxygen tube burst from the mad G's she was probably pulling and she suddenly found herself without a gas mask in altitudes where human beings really aren't supposed to be able to breathe.
Not only did something like "almost asphyxiating at 30,000 feet and then plummeting to earth like Wile E. Coyote" fail to slow her down, but this near-death experience actually got her even more pumped up to do insane shit in an airplane. Eventually she started entering flying in competitions, demonstrations, air shows, and races, going up against men and women alike in displays of speed, daring, and general balls-out-ery. Now the big race in the U.S. at this time was the Bendix Cross Country Air Race – an insane race that went from Los Angeles to Cleveland at speeds of over 250 miles an hour, but around this time the race was only open to men. Forget that. Jackie went out and worked with Amelia Earhart (who I've heard she totally hated, by the way... how's that for an awesome rivalry?) and these two now-prestigious aviatrixes (aviatrices?) convinced the organizers to open the race to women. The guys weren't happy about letting the girls play in the clubhouse, but in 1936 they finally relented and allowed women pilots to participate in the Bendix race, mostly for marketing and PR purposes. Two women won it the first year. Cochran won the race two years after that. She'd only been racing professionally for three years, and had only been flying a fucking airplane for a little over five.
A few years later, some horrible shit started going down in Europe – namely, a little thing historians like to refer to as World War II. The Nazis overran Poland and France and were currently in the process of brutally hammering England with bombs, rockets, and aircraft, and even though the United States was still officially neutral in this whole business Jacqueline Cochran decided she wasn't going to just sit back like a chump and let a bunch of Fascist fucks shit a bunch of explosives and shrapnel on the good peeps of London. Cochran crossed the Atlantic and volunteered for the British Transport Auxiliary service, who was happy to have her, and she was immediately tasked with ferrying bomber planes across the Atlantic from their manufacturing plants in America to the front-line airfields of war-battered Britain. In 1941, Jackie became the first woman to fly a warplane across the ocean, taking a US-built Lockheed Hudson V from New York to London, passing over deadly waters crawling with U-Boats and dangerous airspace that at times potentially left her vulnerable to attack from German fighter patrols. When Cochran returned back to the United States, she immediately recruited twenty-five more women pilots to help ferry these warbirds across the pond and help the RAF in its desperate struggle. The British Transport Auxiliary was so stoked about this decision that they promoted her to the rank of Wing Commander in the British military.
For the next year, Cochran and her women ferried warplanes to British airfields, and when the United States finally officially declared "Ok, now you Axis suckers are all totally gonna die," Cochran wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt and received permission from the President to help put together the Women's Pilot Training Program. Working with a badass pilot named Robert Olds (the father of an incredibly tough dude named Robin Olds, who I absolutely intend to write about in the next couple months), Cochran helped create the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) – a team of nearly 1,000 experienced women pilots who flew newly-manufactured planes from 120 bases in the United States to the front lines of World War II. The WASPs not only provided valuable reinforcements and equipment to front-line bomber units, but they also freed up more male pilots to serve in front-line air combat duty. As Director of the WASPs, Cochran flew ships, oversaw the program, and ensured the successful operation of the program throughout the duration of the war. By the time the fighting was over, Cochran had received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the French Legion of Honor, and was a Captain in the British Transport Auxiliary and a Lieutenant-Colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force. She was also the first woman to enter Japan after the war, and she witnessed the Japanese surrender in the Philippines and the Nazi trials in Nuremburg.
Once those insanely-dangerous missions to the front lines of enemy territory were no longer available, the woman now affectionately known as "the Speed Queen" decided that the only rational way to risk her life and tempt death inside a cockpit was to work as a hardcore military test pilot. Testing out a few fresh-out-of-the-box F-86 Sabers beside her good friend Chuck Yeager, Cochran hopped into a bunch of hopefully-safe, super-powerful experimental jet aircraft, pushed them to the limits of what they were supposed to be able to accomplish, and casually hoped they didn't completely fucking explode into a cloud of vapor in the lower ionosphere. During her time test-flying out ultra-fast, wildly-unstable prototype technology for the U.S. military, Cochran would go on to set more records than any pilot in history, male or female – including one flight in 1962 when she broke nine different records over the course of one afternoon. That's especially impressive, considering that I don't think I can probably name nine aviation records. She would become the first woman to take off and land a plane on an aircraft carrier, the first woman to become President of the Federation Aeronautique International, and on May 18, 1953 she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. She won the International League of Aviators' award for the "World's Most Outstanding Woman Pilot" every year from 1938 to 1949 (11 years!), and then again in 1953 (when she broke the sound barrier) and 1961. At the age of 57 she became the first woman to break Mach 2. On one of her last flights as a professional test pilot, she broke the air speed record by screaming 1,429 miles an hour in an F-104 Starfighter jet. Basically, if something had wings, Jacqueline Cochrane was going to hop behind the controls, crank the throttle open, and see how many G's the thing could pull in a barrel roll before imploding on itself. No wait, check that, she also flew the fucking Good Year Blimp once, so apparently wings aren't necessarily required. I'm not sure what a loop-de-loop looks like in that thing, but I can only assume the answer is "totally fucking sweet". When she wasn't exploding glass with sonic booms, she was having dinner with Presidents and Prime Ministers, playing poker with Air Force Generals, and having audiences with the Pope.
Oh yeah, this barely-educated one-time Florida housewife also owned a bunch of salons across the country, made millions of dollars off her cosmetics line, and then used the funds to finance a program designed at training female astronauts for the Mercury Program. No biggie.
Jacqueline Cochran, the most accomplished female pilot in American history, died in 1980 at the age of 74. She became the first woman pilot with a permanent display at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the first woman in the International Aviation Hall of Fame. Thanks in part to her, to this day brave female pilots are prominently serving in both combat and non-combat rolls across the U.S. Air Force.
Cochran and Yeager chillin'.
U.S. Centennial of Flight
Florida International University
Cook, Bernard A. Women and War. ABC-CLIO, 2006.
Douglas, Deborah G., et al. American Women and Flight Since 1940. Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2004.
Duncan, Joyce. Ahead of Their Time. Greenwood, 2002.
Heinemann, Sue. Timelines of American Women's History. Penguin, 1996.