When Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran was born in 1906, girls were supposed to be “wives in waiting,” raised with the goal of finding a husband and having kids. By the time she died in 1980, she held more aviation records for speed and distance than any other pilot in history, alive or dead.
Contrary to the legend she later created, or at least encouraged, Jackie, born Bessie Lee Pittman, wasn’t an orphan. She lived with her parents and four siblings in the Florida Panhandle. She also didn’t take her last name from the phonebook as she often said; rather, she took it from her first husband, Robert, whom she married at the then below average and now appalling age of 13. She adopted the name Jacqueline around the time that marriage ended following the tragic death of her five-year-old son.
Jackie went to work as a hairdresser, eventually finding her way to New York and talking her way into a job at Saks Fifth Avenue. Then, in 1932, having been swept along into the “air-minded” era that began with Lindbergh’s flight in 1927, Jackie decided to learn to fly. Ostensibly, she was doing this to support her new cosmetics business, but it was something she’d thought of for years, something that appealed to her adventurous and independent spirit on a more visceral level.
She started flight training at Lindbergh’s New York departure point, Roosevelt Field on Long Island. After her first lesson in a Fleet biplane, she was hooked.
“I had just scratched the surface,” she said later, “but I was less beautician and more flyer already.” She earned her license — yes, they were still called licenses back then, not certificates — in just three weeks, after only 18 hours of instruction. Over the next two years, she earned her commercial license, and then spent four months training to fly on instruments, eventually becoming the first woman to make a truly blind landing. From there, she joined the Johnny Livingston Air Circus and performed as an aerobatic pilot, and also logged a few hundred hours in various airliners, albeit unofficially and allegedly without the passengers’ knowledge.
Now that she could fly well, she wanted to fly fast.
In 1934, Jackie entered the MacRobertson Centenary Air Race, planning to fly a Northrop Gamma with one of her former instructors, Wesley Smith, along the grueling 11,300 mile course from London, England, to Melbourne, Australia. The Gamma was grounded due to mechanical problems, so Jackie bought a Gee Bee, the sole Q.E.D. model. Like her British counterpart, Amy Johnson, Jackie didn’t finish the race, the Gee Bee’s flaps having been damaged during a landing incident in Bucharest.
In spite of this somewhat ignominious start, Jackie was committed to racing. She entered the national Bendix race annually starting in 1935, and, in 1937, placed third, flying a Beech Staggerwing. The following year, just six years after her first flying lesson, she won, flying a Seversky P-35 at an average speed of nearly 250 mph from Los Angeles to Cleveland in 8 hours and 10 minutes, 18 minutes faster than the previous year’s winner.
Jackie continued racing while also developing and flying for her increasingly successful cosmetics business. Around this time, the New York Times christened Jackie the “Number One Woman Flier.”
And then, war.
In 1941, before the U.S. had formally entered World War II, Jackie organized a group of women to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary Service, and began ferrying bombers across the Atlantic. The next year, Jackie came back to the U.S. and Gen. Hap Arnold put her in charge of the newly formed Women’s Flight Training Detachment (WFTD). The WFTD was created at about the same time as the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Service (WAFS), and the two were merged in 1943 to form the legendary Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), with Jackie at the helm. The WASP grew to more than 1,000 pilots, who reportedly flew a combined 60,000,000 miles throughout the war.
After the war, in 1948, Jackie joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve with a rank of lieutenant colonel, almost certainly becoming the first female pilot in the U.S. Air Force. In 1953, Jackie borrowed an F-86 from Canadair and became the first woman to break the sound barrier. Her friend and mentor Chuck Yeager said “When Jackie Cochran set her mind to do something, she was a damned Sherman tank at full steam.”
Later, while working as a consultant for Northrop, she set a staggering 73 speed, distance and altitude records in the company’s T-38 Talon supersonic jet trainer.
In the early 1960s, after an unsuccessful foray into politics, Jackie financed the selection and testing of a group of women who later became known as the “Mercury 13.” The program was the brainchild of a NASA flight surgeon who wanted to see if a group of women could pass the same grueling battery of tests used to select the original Mercury astronauts. The program was not officially part of NASA’s astronaut corps — ultimately, only one woman, Jerrie Cobb, passed all three phases of the tests — so none of the group ever flew into space. Still, it stood as a bold challenge to the status quo, and helped pave the way for Sally Ride’s historic flight as the first American woman in space some 20 years later.
In 1963, Jackie started flying the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, and, true to form, set a number of speed records, becoming the first woman to fly faster than Mach 2 in the process, just as she had been the first to exceed Mach 1 10 years earlier.
Over the years, Jackie has been honored by induction into various halls of fame, has had her face on a postage stamp, and her name on a crater on Venus. Throughout her amazing career, she established all manner of aviation milestones. While some of them — the Bendix victory, the blind landing, her Mach 1 and Mach 2 flights, in addition to taking off from and landing on an aircraft carrier — were women’s firsts, the overwhelming majority of her records were absolute. Flying the F-104, she wasn’t the fastest woman on a 100 km closed course, for example; at more than 1,300 mph, she was the fastest person, period, and this holds true for many of the records she set during her remarkable career.
“I never really wanted to copy men or do what men do or should do better,” she wrote. “I only wanted to be myself. And for me that meant flying.”