When we think of great women in aviation, the first to come to mind is probably Amelia Earhart, as she was the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. However, like her, there is another great pilot who was not only in charge of setting endless records in aviation, but her flights even served to improve the experience and safety of the pilots. Her name is Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier.
Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pittman on May 11, 1906 in Florida, into a very humble family. Due to financial problems, she had to start working at the age of six to help her parents with the maintenance of the home.
Little is known about her childhood, as she later denied her origins and assured that she grew up as the adoptive daughter of a family.
Thus, known then as Jackie, she had to earn a living as a hairdresser in an aesthetic in Pensacola and later in New York, in one of the most famous beauty salons at that time, the Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1936, she married Floyd Bostwick Odlum, one of the richest entrepreneurs in the world, who helped her start her cosmetics brand, which she christened Wings.
However, this was not Jackie’s true passion, which she would discover when her husband suggested that she fly the plane that advertised her cosmetics. From that day on, flying became his passion.
From cosmetics to the clouds
By 1938, just two years after marrying Odlum and just short of launching her cosmetics line, Jackie Cochran had already become America’s best female pilot. That year she won the Bendix Race, a competition that had originally been designed for men, but thanks to her and Amelia Earhart herself, women had been allowed to participate in the race.
On March 24, 1939, this woman was 30,000 feet above sea level enduring 45 degrees below zero and breaking the altitude record ever reached by a woman. In her book ‘The Stars at Noon’, published in 1954, the pilot described the experience:
“… I did this in a cloth covered biplane with no heating, no pressurization and no oxygen mask… I almost froze. All this was part of the accumulated evidence that led to the pressurization of the cabin and the mandatory use of the oxygen mask above certain altitudes ”.
In 1940, after realizing the serious consequences of the war on the country’s aviation, Jackie spoke with Eleanor Roosevelt to propose the creation of a division of female pilots that could replace the men who had gone to combat. Thus, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was created, a non-combative domestic flight organization that was run by Jackie herself, who helped train future women in command of airplanes.
But Jackie not only kept the domestic flights, she also volunteered to help in the war. Thus, he joined an organization called Wings for Britain, which was responsible for transporting aircraft built in North America to Great Britain. There she piloted a bomber across the Atlantic and became the first woman to be in command of this type of aircraft.
After the war, on May 18, 1953, Jackie Cochran accomplished the feat for which she would be most remembered in history. On this day, she boarded a Canadair F-86 Saber and took off at a speed of 652,337 miles per hour, becoming the first supersonic woman in history.
From the clouds to politics
Jackie continued to be a milestone in aviation, but she had also taken an interest in other subjects, such as politics. Thus, in early 1952, she and her husband contributed to the candidacy of General Dwight Eisenhower by organizing a large gathering at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was recorded and presented to Eisenhower himself, which was a determining factor for the politician’s interest in participating in the country’s elections that year.
However, his political participation did not end there. Jackie Cochran ran for Congress in 1956 for California’s 29th district, and although he beat five male opponents, he failed to win the election against Democratic Party candidate Dalip Singh Saund. This was his first and last political candidacy.
Still, Jackie continued to fly until at least 1967, and in the meantime, she maintained her determination to influence other women who were passionate about flying, seeking to even the field for men and women to become great pilots alike.
She died on August 9, 1980 at her ranch in California, accompanied by her loving husband, who supported her until the end.