Jacqueline CochranJacqueline Cochran, born Bessie Lee Pittman (May 11, 1906 - August 7, 1980) was a pioneer American aviatrix.
Bessie Lee Pittman was born in Muscogee, Florida, the youngest of the five children of Mary (Grant) and Ira Pittman, a poor mill worker who moved from town to town in search of work. As a child, Bessie possessed an unusual amount of drive and ambition and at age 14 left her home in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, working as a hairdresser until she wound up in New York City. There, she used her looks and driving personality to obtain a job at a prestigious salon in Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
The impoverished Bessie Pittman became the beautiful and talented Jacqueline Cochran who met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, the middle-aged founder of Atlas Corp. and CEO of RKO Studios in Hollywood. Widely reputed to be one of the 10 richest men in the world, Floyd Odlum quickly became enamored and offered to help her establish a cosmetics business. Despite her lack of education, Ms. Cochran had a quick mind and an affinity for business and the investment proved a lucrative one. Later, in 1951, she would be voted one of the 25 outstanding businesswomen in America by the Boston Chamber of Commerce and in 1953 and 1954 the Associated Press named her "Woman of the Year in Business."
After a friend offered her a ride in an airplane, a thrilled Jacqueline Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Airfield on Long Island. A natural, she was quickly flying solo and within two years obtained her commercial pilot's license. Her companion, Floyd Odlum, whom she married in 1936 after his divorce, was an astute financier and savvy marketer who recognized the value of publicity for her business. Calling her line of cosmetics "Wings," she flew her own airplane around the country promoting her products. Years later, her husband used his Hollywood connections to get Marilyn Monroe to endorse her line of lipstick.
Known by her friends as "Jackie," and maintaining the Cochran name, she began competing in both American and international air races, at first being denied entry at home in the Bendix Los Angeles to Cleveland race because officials restricted entrants to men only. Cochran pressed the issue until officials relented and allowed her and fellow aviatrix Amelia Earhart to participate. Cochran would go on to win the event. With her growing fame, and association with the wealthy elite, she was frequently interviewed by the press and she made up a story about being adopted to avoid dealing with the reality of her estranged and impoverished family.
In 1939, she set a new altitude and international speed record, receiving the Clifford Burke Harmon Trophy as the outstanding woman flier in the world fifteen times. During World War II, she was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic, going there to volunteer her services to the Royal Air Force. For several months she worked for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, recruiting qualified women pilots in the United States and taking them to England where they joined the Air Transport Auxiliary. Following America's entry into the War, in 1942 she was made director of women's flight training for the United States. As head of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) she supervised the training of more than a thousand women pilots. For her war efforts, she received the Distinguished Service Medal.
At war's end, she was hired by a magazine to report on global post-war events. In this role, she witnessed Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita's surrender in the Philippines, then was the first woman to enter Japan after the War and attended the Nuremberg Trials in Germany. Following the end of the War, she pursued flying the new jet engine aircraft going on to set numerous records. She still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female. In 1948 Cochran joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve where she eventually rose to the rank of Colonel.
From numerous countries around the world, she was given citations and decorations. In 1949, the government of France recognized her contribution to the war and aviation, awarding her the Legion of Honor and again in 1951 with the French Air Medal. She is the only woman to ever receive the Gold Medal from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She would go on to be elected to that body's board of directors and director of Northwest Airlines in the U.S. At home, the Air Force awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit.
Encouraged by her pilot friend, Chuck Yeager, on May 18, 1953, at Rogers Dry Lake, California, Jacqueline Cochran flew a Canadian F-86 Sabre jet at an average speed of 652.337 mph, becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier.
Politically ambitious, she ran for Congress in her California home district as the candidate for the Republican Party. Although she defeated a field of five male opponents to win the Republican nomination, in the general election she lost to the Democratic candidate. Her political setback was one of the few failures she ever experienced and never attempted another run. It has been said by those who knew Jacqueline Cochran that the loss bothered her for the rest of her life. However, as a result of her involvement in politics and the military, she would become close friends with General Dwight Eisenhower. In the early part of 1952, she and her husband helped sponsor a large rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in support of an Eisenhower presidential candidacy. The rally was documented on film and Cochran personally flew it to France for a special showing at Eisenhower's headquarters. Her efforts proved a major factor in convincing Eisenhower to run for President of the United States in 1952 and she would play a major role in his successful campaign. Close friends thereafter, Eisenhower frequently visited her and her husband at their California ranch and after leaving office, wrote portions of his memoirs there.
Blessed by fame and wealth, she donated a great deal of time and money to charitable works, especially with those from impoverished backgrounds like her own. In 1971 she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and became the first woman to be honored with a permanent display of her achievements at the United States Air Force Academy.
Her aviation accomplishments never gained the continuing media attention given those of Amelia Earhart, but that can in part be attributed to the public's fascination with those who die young at the peak of their careers. Too, Cochran's use of her husband's immense wealth reduced the rags-to-riches nature of her story. Nonetheless, she is deservedly a famous women in history as one of the greatest aviators ever, and a woman who frequently used her influence to advance the cause of women in aviation.
Books and Articles:
- (2001) : Superwoman Jacqueline Cochran: Family Memories about the Famous Pilot, Patriot, Wife and Businesswoman : by Billy Jean Pittman Ayers (niece) and Beth Dees - forward by Chuck Yeager
- (1999): A WASP Among Eagles by Ann Baumgartner Carl
- (1997) : Jacqueline Cochran America's Fearless Aviator: America's Fearless Aviator - by Nina McGuire and Sandra Wallus Sammons.
- (1987) : Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Maryann Bucknum Brinley
- (1961): Reminiscences of Jacqueline Cochran - Aviation Project, Oral History Research Office, Columbia University
- (1954 re-issued in 1979): The Stars at Noon - by Jacqueline Cochran