Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Straighten up and fly right...


           There once was a female pilot who broke more distance and speed records than any other pilot in history, male or female. In fact, she holds many of these records to this very day, more than any pilot living or dead. A woman who helped found the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots – the WASPs in WWII. She was the first woman to enter Japan after WWII and witnessed General Yamashita’s surrender  in the Philippines. She was far and above the best and most famous female pilot in American History. Can you guess her name?  Bet you think I’m going to say Amelia Earhart aren’t you. Well I’m not. I’m talking about Jackie Cochran.  Wait, you don’t know about Jackie Cochran? You say you’ve never heard of her? Well, until about four months ago neither had I. It took a trip to California with a friend for me to learn about this amazing woman.
            A close friend and I (actually she is my sneaky partner in crime)  traveled to Disneyland a few months ago for a dose of fun, Mickey Mouse, and literary labeled lunches at the Sidewalk Café in Venice Beach. While in Disneyland we headed over to the California Adventure side of the park and got in line for the Soaring Over California ride. (I love this ride like some kind of six year old on a pixie stick bender) The ride is a huge Imax type floaty chair ride that leaves your feet dangling and the wind in your hair. Seriously, that’s the technical name. Look it up. Anyway, in the “hangar” in which you queue, the walls are lined with pictures and blurbs about famous figures in aviation history. Familiar names like the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager, and Earhart are there but what caught my eye was the picture of a smiling, blonde woman climbing out of the cockpit of a 1940s fighter plane in heels no less. In a word – BADASS.  It was Jackie Cochran.
            I love chicks in history who kicked some serious male booty. This chick was wicked cool. Jackie was born Bessie Lee Pitman in Mobile, Alabama to a relatively middle class family. She married airplane mechanic Robert Cochran in 1920 when she was only 14. She gave birth to her son, Robert Jr only four months later. (Read whatever you like into that) The family moved to Miami where they lived for four years until Jackie filed for divorce. Along the way she lived in several cities and held down several menial jobs. She also changed her name to Jackie. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that Jackie first set foot in an airplane. She was hooked and immediately began flying lessons.
            Her contributions to the field of aviation are amazing to say the least. She was the only woman to compete in the 1937 Bendix Air Race, which she won, with less than a gram of gas left in her tank when she crossed the finish line. She worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race for women. Also that same year she set a new woman’s speed record. (see what I mean..BADASS)
            Jackie Cochran was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She served in the “Wings of Britain” before the U.S. entered WWII. This group was responsible for flying American made aircraft, bombers and fighters, from the States to British Air Force bases. She recruited women pilots in the States to head over to England and fly in their ATA (British Air Transport Authority) in addition to offering her services to the Royal Air Force.
            The war was raging by 1940, so Jackie took it upon herself to write First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt about establishing the need for women’s branches of the Armed Forces. Enter the WACs, WAVs, and the WASPs. (My Great Aunt was a WAC because my grandpa was a turret gunner in the Army. I’ve been told I look like her and have her gumption and drive. I should be so blessed.)
            Jackie was instrumental in the setting up and use of female pilots in the war efforts. She was a real go getter and refused to have a door slammed in her face or told no. By the end of the war she was considered the best female pilot in the country. (I would wager the world at the time, but that is solely my opinion)
            She was the first woman to break the sound barrier (Chuck Yeager was right on her tail) The first woman to fly a jet across the ocean, and she received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Flying Cross. All by the age of 42. Not bad!
            After the war, Jackie continued to show some serious girl power mentality. In the 60s, she sponsored the Mercury 13 program, an early effort to the test the ability of females to be astronauts. She ran for Congress in 1956, losing to the first Asian American to win, Dalip Singh Saund.
            Jackie Cochran left a huge legacy for the American people, yet little is really known of her outside the aviation community. She was a contemporary of Amelia Earhart and achieved so much more in her career then Earhart did. Yet, school children know Earhart and not Cochran. It is because of our love affair with the tragic nature of a life cut short.
            There is a line in the movie “Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian” in which the Tuskegee Airmen thank Amelia Earhart for clearing the skies for them. I think they should be thanking Jackie Cochran as well. She blazed a trail that was hotter and faster than any other flyer in history. Take that, Amelia Earhart.
            Jackie died in 1980 at the age of 74. God speed, Jackie Cochran, you “have slipped the surly bonds of Earth  and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”  (High Flight by John Magee as quoted by President Ronald Reagan.)


  1. Hi, good write up about Jackie :)

    You're right that she never received the recognition she deserved, but I don't think she really sought it. I think she was the kind of person who was satisfied just to get things done, and boy did she get things done.

    She was a big friend of Chuck Yeager. She had her own aircraft and used to convince the Air Force to let him go on trips to Europe and Russia with her. Her husband (crippled with arthritis) owned GD, Atlas, RKO and several other companies. There's a load of great stuff about her in Chuck Yeager's Autobiography.


    1. Thanks so much for stopping by the blog! I'm completely enamoured with this woman right now so I will certainly by checking out the Chuck Yeager Autobio!


  2. She sounds pretty awesome, but Pancho Barnes is still my badass flying favorite. It's funny, but it feels like all the women pilots BUT Amelia Earhart deserve her fame. Pancho broke Amelia's air speed record, was the first female stunt pilot for Hells Angles, started the stunt pilot's union to make the job less deadly and ensure assistance if injured on the job, and did some test piloting herself. Plus she has a load of inappropriate quotes that are both insightful and hilarious. Pancho should also be mentioned in Yeager's Autobiography.

  3. Thanks for stopping by :) I will have to look into Pancho Barnes for sure.