March 10, 2016–Jackie Cochran, The Speed Queen
I googled the world’s fastest woman. The results were all the great runners of our gene ratio, all women I admire. But I thought, wait, there are women who know how to go even faster, using not only what their momma gave them, but also the technology of our advanced civilization. So I pushed toward the sound barrier and found Jacqueline Cochran, one of the most gifted aviation racers of her generation.
Cochran was born in 1906 in Pensacola, Florida. She was the daughter of a millwright. Her family was poor and moved from town to town following work. In 1920, when she was 13 or 14 she married Robert Cochran and gave birth to a son, Robert who died 5 years later. Her marriage ended and she kept the name Cochran. She got a job in Pensacola at a beauty salon. Eventually she wound up in New York City, working in a salon in Saks Fifth Avenue.
(Wow, another beauty salon alum! March 1 profile Ramona Barnes also started in a beauty salon and from there launched a lifelong career in politics.–confirming what I already suspected to be true: beauty salons are the true seat of power in this world.)
After a friend gave her a ride in a plane, Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Field, Long Island in 1930. She was solo in three weeks! Within two years she attained her commercial pilot’s license. She formed a relationship with Floyd Bostwick Odlum at this time, owner of a cosmetic company, who marketed a brand of lipstick in her honor called Wings.
Her career took off. She was the only woman to compete in the MacRobertson Air Race in 1934. In 1937, she was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race and worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race to women. That year, she also set a new woman’s national speed record. By 1938, she was considered the best female pilot in the United States.
She became the “Speed Queen.” She set transcontinental speed records, altitude records, was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic and five Harmon Trophies, making her the most outstanding woman pilot in the world.
In September 1940 she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to enlist her help in commissioning a women’s flying unit, flying domestic and non-combat missions to help with the war effort. Her work eventually contributed to the Women’s Auxilliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) in 1942 and later the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, (WFTD) which Cochran commanded. In 1943, the two groups merged forming the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran in command.
It was on May 18, 1953 that Cochran went “Supersonic.” Encouraged by her life-long friend Chuck Yeager, Cochran flew a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet during a course run at an average speed of 652.337 mph. It was during this run she broke the sound barrier.
Cochran was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first woman to fly a jet aircraft on a transatlantic flight, the first pilot to make a blind (instrument) landing, the only woman ever to be president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (1958–1961), the first pilot to fly above 20,000 ft with an oxygen mask. At the time of her death in 1980 she held more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female.
I didn’t even get to the astronaut stuff! If NASA hadn’t cancelled the women’s branch of the Mercury program, she may very well have been the first woman in space.