Jackie Cochran: American Athena, Part I

by | Mar 4, 2006 | CULTURE

“[She] was a self-named, self-made phenomenon…an irresistible force.”–Maryanne Bucknum Brinley, biographer “I never asked myself the question: What the heck is this gal doing out here with all these men? That never came up in my mind … [She was] an outstanding pilot. In fact, I’d say she was every bit as good as I […]

“[She] was a self-named, self-made phenomenon…an irresistible force.”–Maryanne Bucknum Brinley, biographer

“I never asked myself the question: What the heck is this gal doing out here with all these men? That never came up in my mind … [She was] an outstanding pilot. In fact, I’d say she was every bit as good as I was and I consider myself a pretty good pilot.” –Major General Fred Ascani; Director of Flight Test, Edwards Air Force Base, 1950’s

“She was a remarkable person and she was a competitor. You’ve got to be agressive to do that and you’ve got to have guts to go out and get exactly what you want. [She] was damn well agressive enough and she got what she wanted.” –Chuck Yeager, 1st pilot to break the sound barrier


Born between 1905 and 1908–according to her autobiography she could never pin down a definite date because she was an orphan and her birth records were lost–she grew up along what she called “Sawdust Road” in Northern Florida, between Gainesville and Jacksonville. “There’s a Tobacco Road you may have heard of because of the nasty notoriety it achieved in a movie,” she wrote. “But my Sawdust Road was just as bad.”

She was eight before she had a pair of shoes. She slept on a pallet and took cold-water tub baths to keep clean. When she was 7, she worked in a cotton texile factory–by the time she was ten, she was a supervisor in that factory. She despised both sloth and sloppiness “from as long as [she] could remember.” Her siblings scolded her for “putting on airs.” But she “liked being different from them, stronger in fact.”

When she was nine, she won a doll in a raffle in which she’d contributed her own hard earned money from working in the textile mill. It was a doll she had yearned to own for almost a year–a year of visiting the store; a year of pressing her nose up against the shop window, admiring the beautiful doll; a year of hoping; a year of dropping her pennies into a jar to pay for her chance in the raffle. At the end of that year, against the odds, she won her doll on a Christmas Eve night!

However, her foster parents forced her to give the doll to a destitute neighbor’s daughter. Even at that early age, she insisted, as they wrentched the doll from the grip of her small hands, that what they were doing was wrong–an injustice (!). (Years later, in exchange for helping that very same girl, now an adult (but still destitute), and her baby get a new start in life, she asked for and got back her doll. )

That was the way she was from the beginning–strong–independent–self-contained, like Athena, born fully armed, wrapped in the armor of her own self-assurance. She used her strength, independence and pride, guided by reason, integrity and courage, throughout her life to reach a certain level of achievement in aviation that not even Jimmy Doolittle or Chuck Yeager–both personal friends and admirers–ever achieved.

Her name was Jackie Cochran.

Remember it.

Anyone under 30 today probably has never heard that name. But they’ve heard plenty about Amelia Earhart, one of Jackie’s contemporaries and the pilot poster girl of feminists everywhere as a symbol of female competence and independence. Cochran has been too long ignored by aviation historians in general and by feminists in particular. Why the silence from ther latter? “I’m feminine but I can’t say that I was ever a feminist,” wrote Jackie in her autobiography. Perhaps that answers the question–at least partially.

Those who know of both Earhart and Cochran would be quick to point out that Jackie was just as independent as Earhart–sometimes more so. As for competence, we’ll see just how much later on; but here’s one thing: Jackie never crashed her plane–even during the year in which she had 56 forced landings in her Travelaire. She could dead-stick it with the best of them.

Meanwhile, here’s an example of Jackie’s independence: At first denied entry in the 1937 Bendix LA to Cleveland air race, it was Jackie alone, with her persistence and drive–not Earhart, who was also there–who persuaded race officials to lift their ban on female pilots, allowing them both to compete. (The ban had been instituted following the previous year’s race, during which a woman pilot had fatally crashed her plane.)

Incidentally, in that ’37 Bendix race Jackie cleaned Amelia’s clock, coming in first in the woman’s division and third overall, behind Earl Ortman and first place finisher, Frank Fuller, Jr. The following year, however, Jackie Cochran beat the pants off everyone–female and male–winning the 1938 Bendix trophy. (The best Earhart ever did in any Bendix race, by the way, was fifth.)

During her flying career, Jackie rubbed shoulders with and won the respect of the best in aviation at the time, men like Howard Hughes, James “Jimmy” Doolittle, H. “Hap” Arnold, Charles “Chuck” Yeager and General Curtis Lemay. But even among those giants of aviation, Jackie stood out.

Some–mainly relatives stung by Jackie’s unstinting honesty in her autobiography–dispute Jackie’s revelations of her childhood. None, however, can dispute her record as a pilot.

Jackie began her aviation career as a beautician. She moved to New York in 1929 determined to start her own cosmetics line. There she landed a job in the chic salon at Saks Fifth Avenue. Anyone in the least bit familiar with Jackie Cochran knows that that wasn’t luck.

In 1932, she was in Miami, Florida, where she met the man she would be married to for 47 years, Wall Street financier Floyd Bostwick Odlum. As their friendship developed into something more, she mentioned to him how she’d “need wings” to establish a large enough territory for her cosmetics business to be really successful. Floyd told her that she could be her own wings and encouraged her to learn how to fly. The rest is a matter of record.

Jackie learned how to fly on her vacation, at Roosevelt Flying School, in Westbury, N.Y., taking three weeks when most took eight to twelve. (She soloed two days after first climbing in the cockpit.). From the moment she strapped herself into the plane for her first flight, Jackie Cochran ceased to be a beautician or even a cosmetics tycoon, even though she did keep running her cosmetics business. She became a pilot.

Establishing her notoriety as a pilot didn’t take long.

In 1934, Jackie flew and tested the first turbo-supercharger ever installed on an aircraft engine. The first person to do so. During the next two years, she became the first person to fly and test the forerunner to the Pratt & Whitney 1340 and 1535 engines.

In 1935, she became the first woman to enter the Bendix air race.

In 1936, Howard Hughes called Jackie late one night on the telephone asking to buy her Gamma–the plane that she was going to fly in the upcoming Bendix air race. No way, said Jackie flatly after wiping the sleep from her eyes and making certain it really was Hughes. After weeks of cajoling, Hughes, in one of his rare failures, couldn’t get Jackie to budge. So he offered to rent her plane for as much as it had cost Jackie to buy. That did the trick. “Howard is…very interesting,” remarked Jackie wryly after cutting the deal.

In 1937, Jackie flew from New York to Miami in 4 hours, 12 minutes, 27 seconds, setting a national air speed record. That same year she smashed the women’s air speed record by tearing across the sky at 203.895 miles per hour. Because of her achievements that year, Jackie received the Clifford Harmon Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding woman pilot of the year. Before her career was over, Jackie would win a total of 15 Harmons.

In 1938, the year she won the Bendix race, Jackie became the first individual to test-fly an aircraft with a wet wing installed. (A wet wing is an aircraft wing that doubles as a fuel tank.) That year she was awarded the William Mitchell Memorial Award–named after Billy Mitchell, the famous general. The award honored the individual–not just the woman–who had made, in the aviation experts’ opinions, the most outstanding contribution to aviation during the year.

In March of 1939, Jackie set the national women’s altitude record at 30, 052 feet–over 5 miles above the earth–in an unpressurized cabin, with no heater and only a tube to feed her oxygen. That led to Jackie helping design, with Dr. Randolph Lovelace, an oxygen mask, which she then tested on herself–at 20,000 feet. The first person to do that, too. Her altitude record breaking flight also led airplane manufacturers to require pressurized cabins and the use of an oxygen mask above a certain altitude. That same year, as well, Jackie set new world’s records for fastest times over 1,000 and 2,000-kilometer courses.

In 1940, Jackie became the first pilot to fly the Republic P-43. Her recommendations led to a redesign of the tail wheel installation. That design was later utilized on the P-47 Thunderbolt, perhaps, along with the p-51 Mustang, the greatest of all the WWII fighter planes.

From 1935 to 1942, Jackie flew as a test pilot for the Sperry Corporation.

World War II saw Jackie persuading General H. “Hap” Arnold to let her establish and organize the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). During that time, she recruited female pilots for the British Ferry Command, herself becoming the first female trans-Atlantic bomber pilot. A year later, Jackie Cochran was appointed leader of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots–the WASPS. Under Jackie, the WASPS, which included over 1,000 women pilots, flew 60 million air miles and delivered 12, 650 planes throughout the continental United States.

The WASPS were disbanded in 1944–so Jackie, to take up the slack in her schedule, became a press correspondent. Jackie was present on the battleship Missouri for the surrender of Japanese General Yamashita to General Douglas MacArthur. She then became the first U.S. woman to set foot in Japan after the war. Her reporting also took her to China, Russia, Germany and eventually the Nuremberg trials.

Because of her war service, Jacqueline Cochran received the French Legion of Honor–France’s highest award–and the United States Distinguished Service Medal, the first civilian to ever receive the DSM.

The war may have been over and the WASPS disbanded, but Jackie Cochran was just getting started.

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Steven Brockerman, who has a Masters degree in English education, is the owner of WrittenWord Consulting, an education consulting company that contracts with businesses and colleges, develops 1-8 grade curriculum for the home education market and does contracted research. In addition, Mr. Brockerman has been an assistant editor of Capitalism Magazine and is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Post, Florida Today, Salt Lake City Tribune, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Bangkok Daily News, Tallahassee Democrat, Charlotte Capitalist, Mideast Newswire, Free Republic and Jerusalem Post, among others.


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