Jackie Cochran was the first woman to fly faster than Mach 1.
Cochran was born in 1906 and became one of the pioneering women of aeronautics.
She originally worked in the cosmetics industry but was encouraged to pursue a pilot’s license by her husband.
Always a quick learner, Cochran managed to complete her pilot training in 1932 in just three weeks!
She quickly realized that flying was her passion and set about becoming one of the most accomplished pilots in history.
In 1935, Jackie was the first woman ever to enter a prestigious annual event known as the Bendix Transcontinental Race, and in 1938 she was the first woman to win it.
She also set several aviation records before 1940, including three speed records and a world altitude record.
Life As A Test Pilot
Jackie’s successes allowed her to become an accomplished test pilot and she set many more firsts.
Among these was the first pilot to ever fly an airplane fitted with a turbo-supercharger in 1934.
The first person to fly an aircraft with wing fuel tanks in 1938.
The first person to fly above 20,000 ft (6,100 m) while wearing an oxygen mask.
Cochran was also employed by the Sperry Corporation between 1935 and 1942 to conduct test flights of gyro instruments that would soon become vital in navigation equipment.
Cochran Goes To England
By July of 1941, almost two years into the war, England was desperately short of pilots, and the flight schools couldn’t keep up with demand.
The Royal Air Force’s solution was to use trained female aviators to ferry planes around the British Isles and the women’s contribution was invaluable.
They were moving planes around by the thousands with just a few minor accidents and in the summer of 1941, Cochran spent some time in London studying how that operation worked, and when she returned to the U.S., President Roosevelt asked her to research ways of using female pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
The following summer, Cochran returned to Britain, this time with twenty five hand-picked American women recruits who would help ferry planes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary.
While Cochran was in Britain, another renowned female pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, suggested the establishment of a small ferrying squadron of trained female pilots and the proposal was quickly approved.
Almost simultaneously, General Hap Arnold asked Cochran to return to the U.S. to establish a program to train women to fly.
In August of 1943, the two schemes merged under Cochran’s leadership and they became the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
What Did The Wasps Do?
Cochran was soon thrilled at the success of her experiment.
Her female pilots were no longer just ferrying planes around the states; some were training B-17 turret gunners, others were working as test pilots at repair depots, some were training staff pilots at navigator schools, and yet others were tow-target pilots.
In January 1944, the War Department announced that the Army Air Forces women’s fatal and non-fatal accident rates were lower than the men’s.
In March 1944 Cochran presented a report of the WASPs achievements to General Hap Arnold hoping that it would help convince Congress to bring the WASP formally into the Army Air Forces.
Congress Declined And Worse
Cochran’s hopes were dashed by the end of the year however.
WASPs had proved vital to the war effort, and Cochran helped to train over a thousand auxiliary pilots for the military services and after the war, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her contributions.
Continuing Service After WW2
Jackie remained committed to the defense effort after the war and earned the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves.
She continued to pursue her passion for flying and became a close friend of Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier.
Yeager helped Cochran make the transition to jet-powered aircraft, and she wasted little time setting new records.
In 1953, Jackie flew an F-86 Sabre past Mach 1 becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier.
She went on to set a world speed record of 1,429 mph (2,300 km/h) in 1964.
And broke eight speed records in 1967 when she was over 60 years old!
Jackie Cochran’s Early Life
Cochran’s earliest memories are of life with a foster family on what she called, "Sawdust Road’, but what was, in fact, a lumber mill town in northern Florida.
In her autobiography she remembered having no shoes until she was eight years old, sleeping on a pallet on the floor and wearing dresses made of cast-off flour sacks.
As a child she was hired by a beauty shop owner, and by the time she was thirteen, she was cutting hair professionally.
In the 1920s she became one of the first women to master the newly invented permanent wave, but one of the customers, noting Cochran’s spark, encouraged her to do something more serious with her life and with very little formal education, Cochran enrolled in nursing school.
Cochran completed three years of training to be a nurse, but never quite adjusted to the profession.