- Erik Thomas Robinson
Cochran, Jacqueline (1910?–09 August 1980), pioneer aviator and business executive, was born in Muscogee, Florida, near Pensacola. Her parents both died during her infancy, and she was raised by foster families with whom she worked in the lumber mills of the Florida panhandle. By the age of fifteen she had also worked in a Columbus, Georgia, cotton mill and learned how to cut hair in a beauty shop. Cochran took nursing training at a hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1925 to 1928, but by 1930 she had returned to Pensacola to work in a beauty salon. In 1932 she traveled to Philadelphia to work in a beauty shop and then moved in the same year to New York City, where her skill earned her a job at Antoine’s, a well-known Saks Fifth Avenue beauty shop. For the next four years she worked for this business, spending every winter working in Antoine’s branch in Miami Beach, Florida. She met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, a banker and industrialist, in the winter of 1932 and married him in 1936. They settled on a 1,000-acre ranch near Indio in southern California.
In the summer of 1932, Cochran’s future husband introduced her to the idea of flying. She spent three weeks at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, learning to pilot an airplane. Her pilot’s license followed immediately. She began entering air races and seeking sponsors to finance her racing ventures. In 1934 she entered the McRobertson London-to-Melbourne air race but dropped out after engine trouble developed in her Gee Bee aircraft near Bucharest. Cochran next entered the prestigious Bendix air race from California to Cleveland, Ohio. She was the only woman to compete in 1935 and was required to gain the permission of all the other pilots in the race before the judges would agree to let her compete. After a difficult takeoff in California, engine trouble near the Grand Canyon again forced her out of the race.
In 1935 Cochran started her own cosmetics business, Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics. She used her abilities as a pilot to establish a chain of beauty shops, a research laboratory in New Jersey, and product outlets in the United States, often flying 90,000 miles per year. Her cosmetics business was at its height in the fifteen years after World War II. She was voted Woman of the Year in Business in 1953 and 1954. In March 1961 she relinquished direct supervision of the business.
Cochran’s marriage in 1936 enabled her to spend much of her time flying. She set three speed records in 1937 and was awarded the Harmon trophy as the outstanding woman aviator of the year. In 1938 she again entered the Bendix air race and this time won, setting another speed record. In 1939 she set an altitude record of 33,000 feet and won the New-York-to-Miami air race.
In 1941 Cochran became the first woman to ferry a B-17 bomber to Britain. At the request of the U.S. military, she recruited twenty-five other female pilots to ferry bombers across the Atlantic Ocean, freeing male pilots to fly front-line missions. She overcame attempted sabotage of the program by unknown persons, and the success of the group and Cochran’s administration of it led to her appointment in the summer of 1943 as head of the Woman’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). One thousand women worked to fly aircraft across the Atlantic for service in Europe as well as fly training missions in the United States. The WASPs continued their efforts until December 1944. She received the army’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1945 for the work she accomplished as head of the WASPs. At the end of World War II Cochran served as a reporter for Liberty Magazine. She interviewed and published reports on Chinese leaders Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung and observed and sent articles to Liberty on the Nürnburg war crimes trials in 1946. Finally, in 1954, she published her autobiography, The Stars at Noon.
Cochran returned to record-setting flights in May and June 1953 when she arranged with a Canadian manufacturer of U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabrejets to become a test pilot for them. Working at Edwards Air Force Base in California with Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier in 1947, she became the first woman to do so. Cochran also set an altitude record of 55,253 feet that year. For these accomplishments she received the Gold Medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She later went on to become the first woman to fly at twice the speed of sound (6 June 1960), and the first woman to take off and land a jet from an aircraft carrier at sea. In 1962 she set the final two speed records of her career. In 1971 Cochran was elected to the Aviation Hall of Fame. She died in Indio.
Jacqueline Cochran held more aviation records at the time of her death than any other pilot in the United States. Her stated interest in aviation was the advancement of knowledge about flying and she certainly contributed in a major way to acquiring that knowledge.
K. Leish’s 1960 interview with Jacqueline Cochran is stored in microfilmed, transcript form in the Columbia University Oral History Collection, pt. 2, no. 39. Marquita O. Fisher, Jacqueline Cochran: First Lady of Flight (1973), supplements Cochran’s own 1954 autobiography. A later autobiography is Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, with Maryann Bucknum Brinley (1987). Two volumes of Florida history that provide focused treatment of Cochran are Rodney F. Allen, Fifty-five Famous Floridians (1985), and Gene M. Burnett, Florida’s Past: People and Events That Shaped the State (1986). Robert A. Searles, “The Leading Lady of Aviation,” Business and Commercial Aviation, May 1988, p. 94, examines her effect on the development of aviation.