Daredevil record-breaker and women’s flight pioneer Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Cochran was the first female pilot to break the sound barrier. Yet the trained beautician had never even planned to become a pilot.
Jackie Cochran’s life changed dramatically when she met millionaire Floyd Odlum in Miami in 1932. Odlum, the founder of investment firm Atlas Corp., was fascinated by the 26-year-old beautician, who had grown up in poverty in Florida. He convinced her to learn how to fly to gain an edge over her competition as a cosmetics saleswoman. It marked the beginning of a groundbreaking career. “When I paid for my first lesson, a beauty operator ceased to exist and an aviator was born,” Cochran later said about the beginning of her career as a pilot.
She completed her training in just three weeks. Shortly afterwards, she also trained with US Marine pilots in California, quickly picking up the skills to fly bombers and fighter aircraft, as well as civil and passenger planes.
Cochran and Odlum went on to marry in 1936, although this did nothing to hold her back from tenaciously pursuing a career in aviation. In 1938, she became the first woman to win the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race. In her 1,200-horsepower Seversky AP-7 long-haul prototype, she flew 3,286 kilometres in eight hours, 10 minutes and 31 seconds. Just a year later, she set a new altitude world record for women.
Appeal to Eleonore Roosevelt
Cochran had gone from beautician to famed record-holding pilot in just a few years. But this was not enough for the ambitious woman. Shortly before the United States entered the Second World War, she became a strong advocate for women in the military.
When I paid for my first lesson, a beauty operator ceased to exist and an aviator was born.
In a letter to First Lady Eleonore Roosevelt, she wrote: “We have about 650 licensed women pilots in this country. Most of them would be of little use today, but most of them could be of great use a few months hence if properly trained and organized. And if they had some official standing or patriotic objective (rather than just fly around an airport occasionally for fun) there would be thousands more women pilots than there are now.”
The military initially rejected Cochran’s proposal; however, the shortage of personnel during the war eventually led in 1943 to the formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), headed by Cochran. With more than 1,000 members, the programme was the largest unit of female pilots in the Second World War.
Breaking the sound barrier
After the war, Cochran again devoted her time to setting records. She was encouraged by Major Chuck Yeager, who in 1947 became the first person to break the sound barrier. On 18 May 1953, Cochran performed a dive with an F-86 Sabre from 14,000 metres, reaching a speed of 1,042.5 km/h and breaking the sound barrier twice. In doing so, she broke the women’s speed record set by pioneering French aviatrix Jacqueline Auriol, as well as the established men’s speed record for jet aircraft over 100 kilometres.
As a consultant for the Northrop Corporation, Cochran set a series of records for speed, distance and altitude with a Northrop T-38 Talon. This included two official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world records: achieving an altitude of 16,841 metres in horizontal flight and a maximum altitude of 17,091 metres.
Between 1961 and 1964, Cochran regularly traded places with Auriol: first one earned the title of ‘fastest woman in the world’, then the other. But Cochran’s speed record of 2,300 km/h, which she set in 1964 with an F-104G Starfighter, remained unbroken.
In 1971, Cochran took off from Paris as a pilot for the last time. Due to a heart condition, she was forced to give up her great passion at the age of 65. Though she died in 1980, the American aviatrix still holds more speed and distance records today than any other woman.
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