By: Captain Nancy Aldrich
Jacqueline Cochran, nee Bessie Lee Pittman, is a bit of an enigma. It is close to impossible to find out much about her early life. It seems every article you read contradicts every other article. Most agree that her birth date is May 11th, but the year varies from 1905 to 1915. She was born in either DeFuniak, Pensacola, or Muscogee, Florida. Some say she was orphaned in infancy, others talk about her relationship with her parents when she was a young adult. Some say her family was destitute, others say that they were about average for the time and place. Some say she chose the name ‘Cochran’ from a phone book, others say she married Robert Cochran in 1920 and had a son who died in a fire while playing in the backyard. There is just no way to pinpoint much about her early life, so let’s just move on to her early adult life.
She did attend school, and in the third grade had a teacher who mentored her and treated her kindly, Miss Bostwick. When Miss Bostwick left the school, so did she, never to return. At the age of 8, she began working. She would move into homes where the woman had just given birth and help out with the housekeeping and childcare. She also worked in the kitchens and became an excellent cook.
At age 14, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and began working as a permanent wave machine operator in a beauty salon. (Most women under the age of 60 have no idea what a permanent wave machine is, but I remember them, and they were torturous devices). At age 20, she moved to New York and worked for the prestigious Antoine Salon, in Saks Fifth Avenue. She enjoyed the work, and her customers raved about her. Some even paid her to travel with them. While working with a customer in Miami, she met millionaire Floyd Odlum. He found her very attractive, and he eventually asked her to marry him, which she did in 1932.
When Odlum realized that she was interested in airplanes, he encouraged her to learn to fly. She was also quite interested in starting her own line of cosmetics, and he suggested that she would “need wings” to cover the country selling her cosmetics. Jackie took his advice and was able to qualify for her pilot’s license after only three weeks of instruction. While she was still interested in her cosmetics business, she said, “a beauty operator ceased to exist and an aviator was born!”
Odlum had a ranch in California. While there, she continued honing her pilot skills at a flight school. Flying was her main interest in life, and she decided to enter the MacRobertson Race from London to Melbourne, in 1934. She, and her co-pilot, Wesley Smith, had to drop out of the race due to mechanical problems with the airplane’s flaps. However, her appetite for racing, speed, and competitive flying was just beginning. She entered the famous Bendix Cross Country Race, in 1935, from Los Angeles to Cleveland. Again, she was forced to drop out due to mechanical problems. It turned out that her major accomplishment of 1935 was the launch of her very successful cosmetics company, Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics.
In 1937, her luck in the air changed dramatically. She again entered the Bendix Cross Country Race, and this time came in first in the Women’s Division, and set a national air speed record from New York to Miami of 4 hours, 12 minutes and 27 seconds. Then in 1938, she won the Bendix outright, flying a Seversky Fighter. She won first overall, with a speed of 8 hours, 10 minutes, and 31 seconds from Los Angeles to Cleveland. She won the William Mitchell Memorial Award, an award given to the person making the most outstanding contribution to aviation during a given year. All this publicity was a boon to her cosmetics line.
After that win, she began setting records. In March 1939 she set a women’s national altitude record of 30,052 feet. She then set speed records for the fastest time over a 1000 kilometer course, and also over a 2000 kilometer course. By the beginning of 1940 she had set many altitude and speed records. Her name was well recognized in both aviation and cosmetics circles. With World War II on the horizon, she began wondering what women could bring to the war effort. She traveled to England to observe women pilots there. She joined “Wings For Britain,” and helped ferry American built airplanes to England. She became the first woman to fly a bomber, a Lockheed Hudson V, across the Atlantic. She volunteered her services to the Royal Air Force, and worked for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). She recruited qualified women pilots in the states and took them to England to join the ATA.
1n 1940, Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, suggestion that women could be used here to start a women’t flying division in the Army Air Corps. She knew that qualified women could relieve the men from non-combat duty. She wanted to be in command of these women, and on an equal footing with Oveta Culp Hobby, who was in charge of the Women’t Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC).
It was about this same time that Nancy Harkness Love was working toward the same end. Both wrote letters to Lt. Col. Robert Olds, who seemed to like the ideas of the women. It was not his decision, however, and when the suggestion was made to Gen.Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, it was adamantly turned down! He did recognize that women were being used successfully in England, and suggested that Cochran take qualified women to Britain to see how the British were doing. He promised her that he would make no decision regarding women flying for the USAAF without consulting with her.
She asked 76 of the most qualified women she could find to come with her to Canada for training. The training was stiffer than most expected and only 25 made it through and went with Cochran to join the ATA.
It was about this same time that Nancy Love was trying to get approval for women to begin ferrying military airplanes here in the states. In 1942, while Cochran was still in England, Nancy was able to convince Col. William Tunner that women could do the job. He was able to talk Gen. Arnold into authorizing the formation of Nancy’s Women’s Auxiliary Flying Squadron. When Jackie heard about that, she was more than a little upset. Arnold had promised her not to make any decisions without consulting her. She immediately returned to the U.S. Her experiences in Britain had convinced her that women could do more than just ferry airplanes. She began lobbying Arnold for more opportunities for the women, and he agreed to the creation of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, with Cochran heading it up. Then in 1943, the WAFS and WFTD merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.
Cochran was named Director, and supervised the training of hundreds of women at Avenger Field, in Sweetwater, Texas. Love headed up the Ferrying Division. For her efforts, Cochran received the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In my next article, I will go into more detail about the WASPs. They were, and are, heros. There are many stories about them, all worth the reading. I will not go into all the stories, but will give you a better idea about who they were and what they did to earn my respect, and yours also, I hope!
Capt. Nancy Aldrich © Oct. 2012
“FREEDOM is never more than ONE GENERATION away from extinction!” – Ronald Reagan
Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer www.captaingramma.com