Meet Jacqueline Cochran, America’s “Speed Queen”


Meet Jacqueline Cochran, America’s “Speed Queen”

A retired Air Force fighter pilot details how Jackie Cochran, a woman of firsts, rose from second-grade dropout to international fame as an aviation pioneer.

Photo of Jacqueline Cochran in plane

At the tender but tough age of 13, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran became a beauty operator in the salon where she first cleaned. Eventually, she rose to the top of her profession, owning a prestigious salon, and established her own cosmetics company.

When it came to flying, Jacqueline Cochran was a natural. A second-grade dropout, in 1932 Cochran talked the examiner into letting her take the written exam orally and passed. She had been told it would take three months to earn a pilot’s license; she did it in three weeks.

Racing was soon in her blood. In 1934 she entered the MacRobertson London-to-Melbourne competition but was forced to drop out due to mechanical problems.

Cochran helped open the door for female racers. In 1935, she became the first woman to compete in the prestigious Bendix Transcontinental Air Race. She finished third in 1937 and was the first woman to win it all in 1938.  In total, she won the Harmon Trophy, awarded to the best female pilot of the year, 14 times.

She was a test pilot from 1934 to 1938 and was associated with the development of the first turbocharger and the first wet wing. In 1937, Cochran became the first woman to make a “blind” (instrument) landing.

In June 1941, she overcame male pilot opposition to become the first (and only) woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic in that era.

During World War II, Cochran lobbied the government to recruit female pilots to ferry military aircraft to airbases and points of departure. This led to the eventual formation of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). She supervised their training and their service until the WASPs were disbanded in December 1944. Cochran was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

After the war, Cochran continued her amazing aviation career. In 1953, she was the first woman to break the sound barrier, and in 1963 the first woman to exceed Mach 2. In that same year, she was also the first woman to land a jet on an aircraft carrier and to pilot a jet across the Atlantic.

Between 1958 and 1960, Jacqueline Cochran was the President of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the most prestigious international organization in aviation.

In 1964 she was an F-104 Starfighter test pilot, where she broke even more speed records. Her test flights assisted in clearing the plane’s reputation as a dangerous aircraft.

In 1971, Cochran was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and admitted to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. The US Post Office honored her with a 50 cent stamp. The International Astronomical Union named a large crater on Venus “Cochran.”

Cochran reached the rank of colonel in the United States Air Force Reserve. Her aviation achievements are honored with a permanent display at the United States Air Force Academy.  Yet another first for a woman.

She retired from a powered flight at the age of 70…and took up flying gliders.

At the time of her death in 1980, no other pilot held more speed, distance, or altitude records in aviation history than did Jacqueline “Speed Queen” Cochran.

Not a bad life for a second-grade dropout.

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