women in aviation and space history

Jacqueline Cochran

Jaqueline Cochran
National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Jacqueline Cochran

Golden Age of Flight (105); World War II (205)

At the time of her death in 1980, Jacqueline Cochran held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other male or female pilot in aviation history. She grew up in poverty in the Florida panhandle and left her job in the cotton mills when she was ten for a live-in position at a beauty salon. By the early 1930's, Cochran worked her way up to beautician at fashionable Antoine's in the Saks Fifth Avenue stores in New York City and Miami. Cochran then established her own cosmetics company and learned to fly at the suggestion of her future husband, millionaire Floyd Odlum. In 1932, she received her license after only three weeks of lessons and immediately pursued advanced instruction. Cochran set three major flying records in 1937 and won the prestigious Bendix Race in 1938. In 1941, Cochran selected a group of highly qualified women pilots to ferry aircraft for the British Air Transport Auxiliary. In 1942, Cochran, at the request of Army General Henry "Hap" Arnold, organized the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) to train civilian women pilots in anticipation of a shortage of military pilots during the war. The WFTD was merged with Nancy Love's Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS) to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) with Cochran as director. From 1943 to 1944, 1,074 women trained and flew over 96 million kilometers (60 million miles), ferrying aircraft, towing targets, and performing other administrative flying duties. The WASPS were disbanded in 1944, but were given retroactive military status in 1977. Following the war, Cochran continued to establish speed records into the 1960's. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier, doing so in 1953 in an F-86 Sabre jet. She was a 14-time winner of the Harmon Trophy, awarded to the best female pilot of the year. Cochran flew the Beech Staggerwing and Lockheed F-104, examples of which are displayed, respectively, in the Golden Age of Flight and outside the planetarium. Cochran authored two autobiographies — The Stars at Noon and, with Mary Ann Bucknam Brinley, Jackie Cochran.

(information compiled by D. Cochrane and P. Ramirez)