Jacqueline Cochran, successful businesswoman and the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound, never knew quite when she was born, having been adopted at an early age. The best information she could find indicated her birth occurred sometime around 1906, near Muscogee, Florida. She was born Bessie Pittman, but her foster family re-christened her “Jackie”. Some years later, Jackie decided she needed a new surname. A quick glance at a telephone book, and she picked out Cochran, feeling that it "sounded like the type of person she wanted to be".
Jackie and her foster family worked the sawmills of the American South. They were dirt-poor, and each new job meant packing up what little belongings they had and moving again. The family finally settled in Millville, Florida, and there Jackie began her climb up out of what she called “Sawdust Road”.
IN THE SCHOOL OF LIFE
She wasn’t four or five years old before she learned that a little work and initiative could pay off in big dividends. Miss Bostwick, the teacher at the only school Jackie ever attended, needed firewood. She hired Jackie to chop wood and bring it to the rooming house where she lived, for ten cents a week. Jackie received more than that ten cents, though. Miss Bostwick taught her to read and write, fed her at times, and gave her the first real dress she’d ever had. From her teacher, Jackie learned to care about herself and that there was more to the world than just the grimy existence she’d known so far. When the school year ended, Miss Bostwick promsed to return; she didn’t, and Jackie’s formal education ended as well.
Word came to Florida that good jobs were to be had in the Georgia cotton mills. Around 1914-15, Jackie and her family moved to Columbus, Georgia to take jobs at a cotton mill there. Even though still a child, Jackie turned out to be a hard worker and was promoted to supervisor before her tenth birthday. Her wages rose to $4.50 a week – good money for those days. She was soon out of a job again, though, when a union strike shut down most of the mills in the area.
EYES ON THE FUTURE
When the mills reopened, Jackie didn’t return to her old job even though she missed the money. Going back to the mill, she believed, was going back to nowhere. One morning she presented herself to a Mrs. Richler, the owner of three beauty shops in Columbus. After some fierce and feisty negotiations on Jackie’s part, Mrs. Richler took her on as a sort of handy person. Jackie spent her weekdays at the shop, learning every part of the beauty business she could – permanent wave, dyes, hennas, mixing shampoos, even sweeping the floors. She did it all, figuring (as she put it) she was learning a trade for the future. Jackie learned so much that she was made a full-time beauty operator by the age of fifteen.
After a few years, Jackie tried nursing for a while. She quickly discovered she didn’t like nursing, and returned to the beauty business. She moved to New York City and, using her considerable persuasive talents, went to work for Charles of the Ritz. While there, Jackie met her future husband, financier Floyd Odlum. By this time, she was not only using beauty products, but selling them as well. She was working a considerable amount of territory as a salesperson, and Odlum advised her that she’d cover the territory better if she “got her wings”.
BEGINNINGS OF AN AVIATION CAREER
Jackie took Odlum’s advice and earned her pilot’s license in 1932. Almost immediately, Jackie’s competitive spirit drove her to enter air races. She flew in contests in the United States and Europe, setting many speed records along the way. For nearly ten years, Jackie racked up award after award, and was named Outstanding Woman Pilot each year from 1938 to 1941. She developed a close friendship with Amelia Earhart, the (then) most famous American woman pilot. When Amelia’s plane disappeared during a round-the-world flight in 1937, Jackie needed no one to tell her. Jackie believed they’d formed a sort of psychic bond, and she always maintained that she somehow knew when Amelia had passed on.
JACKIE’S WARTIME SERVICE
When the United States entered World War II, it was inevitable that Jackie would be part of the war effort. She began by organizing a group of American women to fly for Great Britain. The program was a success, and she was named, in September 1942, director of women’s aviation training for the United States. This led to the formation of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in early 1943, and Jackie was named its first director. She was also appointed to the general staff of the US Army Air Forces – in that era, quite an accomplishment for a woman.
Jackie later served as a correspondent for (the now defunct) Liberty magazine, traveling the Far East in search of stories. She capped her wartime service by being the first American woman to enter Japan after the war, and was awarded the United States Distinguished Service Medal.
RETURN TO CIVILIAN LIFE
After the war, Jackie returned to competitive flying and to her cosmetics business. She entered a few more air races, but gradually turned to establishing new speed, distance, and altitude records. In 1953, she heard that her friend Major Chuck Yeager had broken the speed of sound during a high-altitude flight. Jackie, determined to be the first woman to hold that record, wrangled some time in a Sabrejet plane. With Yeager as her check pilot, Jackie stretched the plane’s limits, and hers, and became the first woman to break the sound barrier.
Setting aviation records didn’t keep her from her business, though. Jackie continued to research new beauty products, and one (“Flowing Velvet”) became a best seller. Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics became a major player in the beauty market, and Jackie was named Woman of the Year in Business in 1953 and 1954. Her company’s products were soon available in department stores across the country. Jackie would later sell the company in 1963.
Jackie spent the rest of the 1950s, and the 1960s, in much the same way. She worked for Northrop, and later Lockheed, as a test pilot, and set more altitude records in their airplanes. When jet airplanes became common, Jackie set another record as the first woman to fly a jet across the Atlantic Ocean. As better airplanes were made available, she even broke many of her own records in them. Working closely with aviation medical specialists, Jackie helped redesign oxygen-delivery systems for high-altitude flying.
END OF A CAREER
By the 1970s, Jackie’s health, which was never good, finally caught up with her. A series of minor heart attacks effectively ended her career in high-performance aircraft. Undaunted, she took up soaring as a way to stay in the air. The awards didn’t stop, however. She was awarded the Legion of Merit by the US Air Force, and became the first living woman to be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. Jackie was also the first woman to be honored by the US Air Force Academy when, in 1975, her memorabilia was enshrined as a permanent display there.
Jackie began to decline rapidly in the late 70s, especially after Floyd Odlum’s death in 1976. Her health deteriorated to the point she couldn’t even take a glider up. Jackie spent her remaining days at her home in Indio, California, and died there on 9 August 1980.
JACKIE AND ME
Jacqueline Cochran was one of my greatest sources of inspiration when I was doing my aviation training. I heard about her early on, and devoured any and all information I could find about her. On those times I seriously wondered if I “had what it took” to just earn a private pilot’s license, I’d remember the tremendous hardships she overcame. I’d remember how she started with nothing, educated herself, and ended up one of the most accomplished aviators of history. Jackie managed that while simultaneously running a successful business and household (as Mrs. Floyd Odlum).
Many of her aviation records still stand today. I’m proud to regard Jackie Cochran as one of my heroes.
Cochran, Jacqueline. The Stars at Noon
: Little, Brown, 1954.
Yeager, Chuck and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography
. New York
: Bantam Books, 1986.
Cochran, Jacqueline, and Maryann Bucknum Brinkley. Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography
. New York
: Bantam Books, 1987.