Jackie Cochran rose from a poverty-stricken childhood to become one of history’s most accomplished female aviators. Beginning work in a cotton mill at the age of six, Cochran labored at a series of jobs before answering her call to the air. She learned to fly in 1932 while working as a cosmetics saleswoman. Her future husband Floyd Odlum had told Cochran that flying would help her surpass her competition.
- Flew in the London, England to Melbourne, Australia race in 1934.
- In 1935, she became the first woman to fly in the Bendix Trophy Race, which she won in 1938.
- Became the first woman to make a blind instrument landing in 1937.
- Set new women’s records during 1939-40, in altitude and open class speed.
- During World War II she was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean, leading to the formation of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) program for which she received the Distinguished Service Medal.
- Received the Harmon Trophy in 1950 as the Aviatrix of the Decade.
- In 1953, she became the first woman to exceed the speed of sound.
- In 1962, subsequently setting 73 records in three years. She exceeded Mach 2 in 1964.
When Jackie Cochran published her 1953 autobiography, The Stars At Noon, its cover sported a mosaic portrait featuring Jackie as a young girl at the center, flanked by photos of the grown Jackie in a variety of poses and personas. Her husband, Floyd Odlum, observed that the cover art went beyond graphic design and into the realm of psychoanalysis. “It’s the little girl, surrounded by some of the women she made herself into in her lifetime,” he noted.
Indeed, Jackie Cochran’s ability to invent and reinvent herself was, perhaps, a more compelling quality than her innate piloting skill-which was substantial – or her legendary commanding personality. Born into abject poverty and raised by a detached and destitute foster family, Jackie Cochran refused to allow her bad experiences in youth define her. Rather, she set out to mold an identity that was both flexible and unforgettable.
Keenly aware that evolution is essential to survival, Jackie recognized that every person and every experience that touched her life could, and should, change her. And she enjoyed that change, never fearing that she would lose herself. Cochran was always eager to discover the person evolving just below the surface.
Although Jackie’s ultimate success in life was surely aided greatly by her marriage to a man of wealth and influence, her determination to leave poverty began years before fate seated her next to the wealthy Floyd Odlum at a Miami dinner party.
At the age of six, Jackie went to work in a Georgia cotton mill, earning six cents an hour for a 12-hour day. She instinctively knew that somewhere beyond the gritty hand-to-mouth existence of her childhood lay a world of endless opportunity and adventure. She longed to explore that world and embrace its opportunities. When a schoolteacher named Miss Bostwick took Jackie under her wing, the young girl’s confidence grew. She began to plot her escape from squalor.
By age seven, she was cooking and cleaning – and occasionally midwifing – for pregnant women around town. At ten, she presented herself to a local beauty parlor owner and begged for a chance to do odd jobs. Jackie wasn’t one to hide her light under a bushel. In fact, she would eagerly claim expertise at jobs or projects unfamiliar to her. “I added and subtracted information at will, as it suited me,” she said years later. “I didn’t see it as lying, so much as survival.” And survive she did.
At the beauty parlor, Jackie made it her business to absorb everything. She learned to operate the brand new permanent wave machines and quickly established herself as one of the first competent permanent wave specialists. She parlayed her skill into more money and better jobs. Struggling to connect meaning and direction in her life, she attended nursing school and accepted a position with a doctor’s office in Bonifay, Florida. But she was never fully comfortable with the idea of a career in medicine, Jackie quickly realized that she could not face the emotional demands of nursing in a depressed Southern community. “In the beauty shop customers came in looking for a lift…and unless I really screwed up, they left with that lift,” she recalled.
Her skill as a beautician eventually lead her to try her luck in New York City. Whatever Jackie lacked in life experience, she made up for in audacity and iron will. Hard-driving and intense, she would make a career of proving her detractors wrong when they argued that her objectives were unachievable. By 1932, she ranked among the top hairdressers in New York, frequently accompanying her devoted customers as they vacationed in Europe or wintered in Miami.
And it was in Miami that Jackie Cochran, and aviation history, would change forever.
The young woman who sat down next to Floyd Odlum at a society dinner party was a strange amalgam of cocky bravado, passionate intensity, and childlike innocence. She was tough and determined, yet oddly vulnerable. And this whirling dervish of contrasts was wrapped in a stunning package.
“Jackie Cochran was one of the prettiest women I ever saw,” recalled journalist Adela Rogers St. John. “I doubt if her pictures ever did her justice, because pictures can’t reproduce those big, soft brown eyes, the shimmering hair or the lovely clear skin.”
Fourteen years her senior, Floyd Odlum was everything Jackie longed to be: successful, fun-loving and confident. He was also married with children, but Jackie was unaware of that complication as she launched into a dinner conversation with him. She earnestly regailed Floyd with her ambitions and convictions; bubbling over over with hopes, dreams and opinions. Her energy and enthusiasm were contagious and highly appealing to a man bored by the idle chatter of society women. When Jackie confided that she was considering selling cosmetics on the road, Floyd warned that the economic depression would make success a tall order. He advised that she might get an advantage over her competition by learning to fly.
Jackie returned to New York some weeks later, her mind reeling with two new obsessions…flying and Floyd.
“He was rare. He was unique,” she later said of the man who would guide her career and change her life. “We had a lot in common. I felt sure I had met my destiny.” Indeed, the chance meeting and the ensuing friendship would complete Jackie’s panicked flight from poverty and obscurity. As her relationship with Floyd simmered quietly, her passion for aviation exploded in a very public way.
Jackie stormed into the aviation arena in 1932, earning her pilot’s license in three short weeks. Even in her first moments at the stick, she displayed an immediate feel for the airplane. Her comfort level was such that she wondered how she could have survived for so long without this reason for living. But Jackie’s joy of flying was balanced by her fear of written tests. A lack of formal education left her terrified of the written phase of her pilot’s exam. She pleaded with former boyfriend Mike Rosen to help her prepare for the challenge. By the time Jackie began her hands-on flight training, she and Rosen had invested countless hours in study and discussion. The budding pilot’s next hurdle was convincing the examiner to allow her to take the test verbally. As would be the case again and again in her life, by sheer force of will, Jackie prevailed.
Her first course of action, two days after gaining her license, was to fly solo to a Canadian sports pilots’ meet. It was an eventful trip during which Jackie flew by the seat of her pants, learning to read air maps and the compass as she went. By the trip’s end she knew two things for certain: she never wanted to stop flying and she had much to learn if she hoped to make it a career.
Aviation became Jackie’s life. She found the home and family that she had missed as a child in airports and among the fraternity of pilots. It didn’t take Jackie long to realize that she had spent her life thus far as a pilot in search of a plane. Now, finally, she had assembled both sides of the equation. The fact that aviation was still very much a male-dominated industry did not daunt the ambitious beautician. If anything, she thrived in the masculine atmosphere.
“We all accepted Jackie. But it wasn’t because she wasn’t feminine when she wanted to be. She could be very soft, very feminine,” said Air Force Major General Fred Ascani. “Some women resented Jackie. Why? Because she was a man’s woman. Where the men were talking war stories, that’s where Jackie Cochran would be. I think at times she was somewhat wistful that she wasn’t able to have better associations with women. But, obviously, it would have taken a lot of time away from the things she wanted to do. She was always so busy. She even drove her cars like fast planes. She played so many roles well. She could be very, very feminine and she could be very hard and critical.”
Helen LeMay, wife of Air Force General Curtis LeMay was one of Jackie’s few female confidants. She valued her friendship with Jackie precisely because “Jackie wasn’t a woman who had many close female friends. I remember how she used to drive like the wind…and insist on doing it. We had a lot of fun together, even when she was creating a crisis a minute…which was something she’d do all the time!”
Senator Stuart Symington once noted that he had never met anyone as competitive as Jackie. “She was right there up front. Tremendously competitive. She had to win, but that’s what made her so great.” And yet Jackie was equally comfortable with her feminine side, as Symington discovered at their first meeting.
“I had heard about her…I had anticipated a tomboy, so when she walked in I was surprised. Attractive and very well dressed, she was obviously proud of her physique. She could be a seducer,” he recalled. “Years later when we were closer friends, she said to me ‘Senator, the first time we met, you were looking at my legs.’ I guess I was. We laughed about it.”
Indeed, Jackie’s balance between feminine charm and hard-driving masculine ambition was such that she would push her aircraft relentlessly through air races and competitions…but refused to emerge victorious from the cockpit until she had carefully checked and reapplied her makeup!
Encouraged and supported by Floyd, Jackie threw herself into advanced flight training. She knew now that her destiny lay in the cockpit, but she was not content to be among the handful of female pilots peppering the skies over America. She wanted to be the best, male or female.
But Jackie Cochran’s love affair with flying was not without its “pilot induced oscillations.” Indeed, Jackie’s life was never complete without turbulence, almost always self-inflicted.
Two days after earning her pilot’s license, she borrowed an airplane from a highly skeptical M.E. Grevenberg, who demanded that she cover the purchase price of the airplane as a security bond. With the ink barely dry on her pilot’s license and no practical cross-country experience, Jackie took off from New York and headed toward a sport pilots’ meet in Montreal, Canada.
She was fully aware that Grevenberg never expected to see her – or his airplane – again. That knowledge only reinforced her determination to make a safe, if eventful, journey.
After getting lost somewhere along the Hudson River, Jackie landed at a small airport and asked for directions. The airport attendant was stunned when the novice pilot admitted that she not only didn’t know which way Montreal was, she also could not read a compass.
Jackie shrugged it off when the attendant turned heel and headed away from her, shaking his head in wonder. Several minutes later he returned with a handful of men who began pushing Jackie’s aircraft in circular motions around the field.
“Watch that compass,” he barked. She complied and began to absorb her first lesson in navigation, observing the movement of the compass needle. Still uncertain of her navigational skills she pressed the attendant for landmarks or geographic formations that she might follow to Montreal. He suggested she be on the lookout for two silos that would indicate she had managed to stay on course.
It wasn’t much by which to and Jackie took off fully aware that everyone on the ground strongly questioned both her sanity and the likelihood that she would end up anywhere close to Montreal, if she even managed to survive the trip. But Jackie made it to the silos and, eventually, to Montreal. There she met up once again with Grevenberg, who was sufficiently impressed with her piloting skills that he hitched a ride back to New York with her.
After being a fog forced her down near Syracuse, Jackie decided that three weeks of flight training was not nearly enough. She instinctively knew that the sky would be her second home, and that her safety and efficiency would hinge on a revolutionary concept – blind flight.
When Grevenberg told her she must hone her knowledge of instrument flying, she was dumfounded. Who ever heard of such a thing? But, in typical Jackie style, the seed, once planted, grew voraciously. Fed up with East Coast weather conditions, she decided to take her flying westward to the Ryan Flying School in San Diego. There she struggled anew with her aversion to classroom work until a Navy buddy offered one-on-one tutelage “the Navy way.”
Throughout 1933 Jackie practiced every flight maneuver known to man, mastering spot landings, figure 8s, turns, spins and emergencies. Frustration and embarrassment were constant companions, but Jackie was determined to conquer and control the demons that drove her skyward. Despite the emotional drain of studying, Jackie learned that the intensity of flight served to calm the “can’t sit still buzz” that dogged her throughout her life. She also discovered that she had fallen in love with the California desert.
“I didn’t agree with Jackie about the desert,” recalled Vi Strauss Pistell, who managed Cochran’s household for 30 years, “but there was no disagreeing with Jackie. Nobody was like her. She was an amazing, intelligent woman. She always loved clothes and had beautiful outfits…she’d come in from breaking one of those records, wash her own hair, and be ready to go again. People always said she had a hairdresser, but she usually did her own hair.”
But in 1933 Jackie was not yet in the hunt for world records, or even personal hair dressers. She was, however, winning her battle with flight studies, as well as the heart of millionaire Floyd Odlum, who she had met the previous year in Miami. By the autumn of 1933 Jackie and Floyd were openly discussing the deepening of their friendship. It would be another three years before the couple decided to marry. Even then their relationship would be non-traditional by mid-20th Century standards, with both parties pursuing their own individual projects at break-neck speed.
Glennis Yeager recalled the unique bond shared by the duo. “Jackie never walked through a room if Floyd was there without going over to him to give him a little pat. Jackie and Floyd had a kind of sixth sense about each other. They could always tell when one or the other was in trouble. They just knew, without communicating directly.”
Yvonne Smith, a long-time family friend, remembered both Jackie and Floyd as “so darn independent, so strong willed and so naturally intelligent. Jackie and Floyd communicated constantly during their marriage. They would seem so separate, but they were actually inseparable in a sense.”
Over the years, the relationship would be tested by Floyd’s rheumatoid arthritis, which left him disabled and in constant pain for most of his adult life. In the end, the couple’s mutual love for the desert would give Floyd some control over his crippling condition, according to Jackie.
“The ranch would save Floyd’s life at a time when almost everyone (doctors) told him to go to bed and live from there,” she recalled.
By 1934 Jackie’s competitive spirit is in full blossom, as she tackles the MacRobertson London-to-Australia air race. She opted to do so in one of the most dangerous aircraft of the period, the Gee Bee.
“The cute nickname is a sham,” she recalled years later. “They were killers. There were very few pilots who flew Gee Bees and then lived to talk about it. Jimmy Doolittle was one. I was another.”
She was one of only three Americans in the race, and the only American woman. Despite Jackie’s consuming desire to win and claim the $75,000 cash prize, her first race proved to be a dangerous comedy of errors. It began when Jackie found in flight that the on/off switches for the gas tank were mislabeled. It ended with a thud as the Gee Bee belly flopped onto a Rumanian runway following a life-and-death struggle to force the flaps to operate in tandem. There was no MacRobertson victory, no $75,000, for Jackie Cochran.
But Jackie’s competitive nature would not accept defeat. Air racing became second nature and by 1935 Jackie was testing her mettle in the Bendix transcontinental. Although she didn’t win in 1935, she earned first place in the women’s division (third overall) in 1937 and became the first woman to make a blind landing.
After that, the floodgates opened and Jackie Cochran began to stack up aviation records like cordwood.
She would eventually become the first woman to win the Bendix, the first woman to pilot a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first woman to: receive the Distinguished Service Medal; break the sound barrier; take-off and land from an aircraft carrier; attain a flying speed of 842 mph, and serve as President of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
Jackie would also become the moving force behind “Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics” in 1935. The company, born of her passion for style and beauty, would be a major player in the American cosmetics industry until well after Cochran’s death in 1980.
As the world spiraled toward global conflict in the late 1930s, Jackie grew restless…unable to contain her desire to make a difference, to strike her own personal blow against the Axis powers.
By 1939, Jackie was hatching a plan through which female pilots would “free a man to fight” by ferrying aircraft, towing targets or flying in other non-combat capacities. Never one to hide her vision under a bushel, Jackie took her germ of an idea directly to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although structure and need were not yet firmly established, Jackie seized an opportunity to see her plan in action – through the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which was actively recruiting women. After returning to the states, she developed a detailed proposal on how the U.S. might duplicate England’s success with female pilots.
Although General Henry “Hap” Arnold eventually dismissed the proposal, he later gave Jackie an opportunity to prove that American women could handle the demands of wartime military flying.
With 25 hand-picked female pilots, Jackie returned to England, where she and her girls trained and ferried under the auspices of the ATA. But as Jackie refined and expanded the role of women in wartime support, another American aviatrix was proposing a ferrying plan of her own.
When Jackie arrived home in 1943 she was livid to discover that Nancy Harkness Love had been tasked with training women for the ferrying division of the Army Air Forces. The new program was called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).
Unable to bear the idea of someone else shepherding “her” vision, Jackie mounted a campaign pressing the military to revisit her original proposal, which included military training and a variety of aviation roles above and beyond ferrying.In the end, the WAFS were absorbed into the WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), under the leadership of…Jackie Cochran.
She was, and would forever be, a force to be reckoned with. Volatile, emotional, sensitive, stubborn, relentless and always, always fascinating, Jackie Cochran would have to wait until 1977 to see her hard-won WASPs gain true military status.
In the meantime, she continued to rack up records and achievements that included convincing Dwight Eisenhower to run for office, rescuing Lyndon Johnson from death, becoming the first woman to fly a jet across the Atlantic, and being the first living woman enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
The barefoot girl from the backwoods of Georgia flew higher, faster, and farther than she ever dreamed possible. And when she died in 1980, she held more speed, altitude and distance records than anyone in the world…male or female.
“Jackie was an irresistible force…Generous, egotistical, compassionate, sensitive, aggressive – indeed an explosive study in contradictions – Jackie was consistent only in the overflowing energy with which she attacked the challenge of being alive. Always passionately convinced of any viewpoint she happened to hold (Jackie did nothing by halves), she raced through life, making lifelong friends and unforgetting enemies…” Maryann Bucknum Brinley, biographer
For more information on Jackie Cochran, you may want to visit these websites: