“I might have been born in a hovel, but I am determined to travel with the wind and the stars.” —Jackie Cochran
“Capacity never lacks opportunity. It cannot remain undiscovered because it is sought by too many anxious to use it.” —Jackie Cochran
“Earthbound souls know only the underside of the atmosphere in which they live . . . but go higher—above the dust and water vapor—and the sky turns dark until one can see the stars at noon.” —Jackie Cochran
A bit over 5’ 2” and probably all of 90 lbs. soaking wet, Jackie Cochran was tiny compared with the typical male fighter jockey; but once having established a goal for herself, she’d blast past everyone—and through anyone who stood in her way—like a supersonic jet to reach her goal.
For instance, during her stint leading the WASPS, Hap Arnold sent a message that he needed to see Jackie posthaste in D.C. She, at the time, waste deep in organizational problems with the WASPS in Fort Worth, Texas. So she grabbed a B-25 Mitchell medium range bomber—she was bomber qualified by that time on everything the Army Air Corps had, from B-29’s on down—and with a green-as-green-could-be male co-pilot, flew the Mitchell nonstop to D.C. through a raging, crackling thunderstorm raining sheets of water across the entire Mid-Atlantic region. (She’d sold her plane to the army for a buck, which they would then sign back to her; but it wasn’t available at the time.)
She arrived the next morning, impeccably attired, in Hap Arnold’s office at 7 a.m. sharp.
“ ‘How’d you get here so fast,’ he asked”
“This better be important,” Jackie rejoined.
Bear in mind, “Hap” Arnold is a major general, West Point Class of 1907 and a pilot himself who was flying planes while Jackie was still in diapers. (He learned to fly at the Wright Bros. Dayton flying school.) Oh, and pugnacious as hell, despite the nickname, “Hap,” which came from him always “appearing” to be happy. He wasn’t, of course, as the men under him could attest.
“How would you like to have your girls become part of the WACS?” (Arnold was being pressured from above to consolidate the WASPS with the WACS.)
“How would you like to be back in basic training…Those women will become part of the Woman’s Army Corps over my dead body.
Needless to say, Hap never got his new WACS (and he was, for once, happy about that); Jackie’s WASPS stayed WASPS. More than just an anecdote detailing Jackie’s audacity and tenacity, Cochran’s chutzpah in keeping the women’s army and air force wings separate may have helped to play a small role in the eventual establishment of a separate U. S. Air Force. That’s speculation, of course; but with Jackie, you’d probably get even odds in Vegas on it being true. (Indeed, in her autobiography she wrote: “I wanted to be part of the Air Corps, of course, because I saw plans down the road for a separate Air Force.” And, indeed, after the war, she played an integral role in establishing a separate United State Air Force. Afterwards, as one general put it—paraphrasing—Jackie Cochran became a goddess to every Air Force pilot from Edwards to Eielson.)
Her frankness with Arnold should not be mistaken for flippancy or disrespect. Theirs was a unique relationship, to be sure; but it’s clear from what she wrote about him in her autobiography that Jackie lionized the man—this just one excerpt:
General Hap Arnold was really something. That man was a powerful, strong, intelligent, forceful, unbelievable human being and he would get so mad that he would beat on the desk and yell, “Goddamn it” and I would say to him, “Shut up, you are going to hell if you keep talking like that.”
Further, she backed up her respect and admiration of Arnold with action. Jackie declined being awarded her DSM by the President of the United States, insisting that Hap Arnold present it to her, because, paraphrasing, he was the one who gave me my chance; he supported me, and without Hap Arnold, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities or the success that I did. Jackie got her request (as if there was ever any doubt). In a Pentagon ceremony, with admiring generals and smiling admirals standing rows deep, General Hap Arnold—recently recovered from a heart attack—pinned the DSM on Jackie’s uniform.
After WWII, Jackie re-engaged in racing and test piloting with a vengeance. More on that in a minute; first, mention should be made that while Jackie was doing all that racing before the war, along with test piloting before and during—she was among those who gave the Mitchell, dubbed the “Baltimore Prostitute” (one flight could kill you), its shakedown—and while she was leading the WASPS into history, Jackie was still running her cosmetics business.
In planes like her souped-up Beechcraft—dubbed by her, Wings to Beauty, which she had painted on the side—the prop clearing the ground by only six-inches, Jackie roared around the country, from Sweetwater, Texas, site of the women’s flight training facility for the WASPS, to her cosmetic offices at 630 Fifth Avenue in New York, a block from Rockefeller Center, and to her company’s factory across the Hudson River in Roselle, New Jersey.
Few are aware that Jackie’s company still exists today, although she sold it in 1963. Indeed, her cosmetic company’s flagship hydrophilic beauty lotion—Flowing Velvet—is still all the rage, nearly 80 years after she first invented it (one of her many cosmetic breakthroughs, which also included, by the way, Lipsaver). The success of Jackie’s company is apparent from it’s clientele—Arlene Dahl, for instance, had Jackie’s cosmetics shipped directly to her home; and in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it was Jackie who designed the lipstick worn by Marilyn Monroe.
“We’re not selling cars,” she used to tell her models, “we’re selling beauty.” She performed that task so well that two years in a row, 1953 and 1954, Jacqueline Cochran was chosen by the Associated Press as “Businesswoman of the Year.”
So while Jackie was rubbing shoulders with the greats in aviation, she was also making friends with the greats in cosmetics—Helena Rubenstein, for instance, was an acquaintance and Dorothy Gray a close friend. “Blonde bombshell” takes on new meaning when applied to Cochran–she was a human dynamo.
Flying, though, was Jackie’s great love, and in the postwar period, from the late 1940’s through the 1970’s, Jackie soared higher, faster and farther than any other aviator—any other, male or female.
In 1946, she placed second overall in the Bendix LA—to—Cleveland air race, screaming across the continent in a North American P51C at an average speed of 420.95 mph, making the trip in four hours, 52 minutes.
In 1950, Jackie topped that and set a new international speed record for prop driven aircraft, pushing her P-51 Mustang to 447.47 mph.
Then came jets. But Jackie, a civilian, couldn’t just hop into the cockpit of an F-84 Thunderstreak or an F-86 Sabre and fire off into the sky. No civilian woman was flying jets. Indeed, there were no women in the military that were flying jets. Then in her mid to late 40’s, Jackie Cochran was determined not to let the jet age pass her by. Fat chance. Jackie had to overcome the resistance of plenty of people to fly these hot fighters. But, as the line goes, resistance was futile—where Cochran was concerned.
She did it by going to New Mexico via Canada. First, Jackie got hired by Canadair; then Northrop and Lockheed hired her. Because these were the companies building the jets, she had the legal mechanism to fly in the fast lane of military jet fighter aircraft.
Faster than a T-33 trainer could fly, Jackie was in one with Chuck Yeager. Yeager grilled her like a demon. Once trained, she pushed him to fly supersonic. He agreed and along with a fellow named Doolittle—and in secret—made certain that she got her chance. That’s how, in 1953, Jackie wound up over the New Mexico desert in the cockpit of the hottest jet of the time, an F-86 Sabre.
Flying hell out of that F-86 Sabrejet, Jackie dove from 45,000 feet—which was how it was done in those days—and exploded through the sound barrier and into the record books, becoming the first woman to break Mach I—and stampeding a couple of hundred chickens at a nearby ranch in the process. Because the control tower hadn’t registered her flight—Yeager & Doolittle’s scheme to first do it in secret—she did it again that same day to make it official. Two weeks later, she performed a Mach I duet with Yeager for a Paramount film crew, the motion pictures of which were lost because their sonic booms broke the camera.
In May and June of that same year, Jackie set a new world’s record by blazing over a 100-kilometer course at 653 mph, bettering General Fred Ascani’s mark and shattering the woman’s record of 540 mph.
In 1961, 56-year old Jackie set eight major speed records in a Northrop T-38, among which were:
- Speed over a 1000-kilometer closed course: 639. 38 mph
- Distance in a straight line: 1,492.39 miles
- Sustained altitude: 56,071.80 feet or approximately 11 miles high
Working for Northrop, Jackie and Yeager test flew the company’s T-38 throughout the month of August. Putting the plane through its paces, Jackie, in the T-38 at 40,000’ with Yeager in the backseat, “chased” Peterson in the X-15; again with Yeager, she flew Mach 1.3 and reached 51,000’ on August 22; on August 24, with Yeager flying chase in an F-100, Cochran blew away her former speed record with an average speed of 844 mph. In October of that same year, Jackie reached 56,800’ at Mach .93.
On May 4, 1964, flying “the missile with a man in it” over a 15-kilometer straightaway course, Jacqueline Cochran flashed across the sky at 1,429.297 mph in a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, breaking the women’s international speed record.
June 1, same year, same plane: Jackie reached 1,303.241 mph around a 100-kilometer, circular closed course, setting a new international speed record for both men and women.
June 3, ditto year & plane: 1,127.39 mph over a 500-kilometer closed course, setting another women’s international speed record.
She went on to set other records and by the time she was done, Jackie Cochran owned the sky, holding more speed, altitude and distance records than anyone in the history of aviation—that’s anyone. In 1971, Jackie was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame—the first living woman so honored.
From Sawdust Road to Fifth Avenue; from a bobbin girl in a southern textile factory to a pioneer in the development of modern cosmetics for women; from a beautician setting the hair of working girls in Panama City, FL, to the national businesswoman of the year socializing with U.S. Presidents; from cold tub baths to aviation advisor for both the United States Air Force and the NASA Space Program; from being teased for being so conscientious about her appearance to earning the respect, admiration and friendship of the best-of-the-best in civilian and military aviation—the sharpest, toughest, fastest men alive; from lying on her pallet in her foster parents’ hovel to soaring at Mach 2 with “the wind and the stars”— Jacqueline Cochran was an American original who lived life on her terms and in so doing, lived it as a heroine.
When Jacqueline died at the age of 75 in August of 1980 in Indio, CA, the sword she had been presented by the United States Air Force Academy was returned, where it sits in a glass enclosed case, in memory of her and her achievements amid the Jackie Cochran Collection. The doll that she had so loved was, at her request, buried with her.
Oh, by the way, as of 2013, Jackie Cochran is still the holder of more aviation records than anyone, woman—or man. In fact, 37 years after she’d stopped her fast-flying piloting and on the 107th anniversary of her birth (identified as May 11, 1906 by a growing consensus), no one else is even close.