A Brief History
On May 18, 1953, 46-year-old Jackie Cochran, a world famous female racing pilot, while flying a Canadian Air Force F-86 Sabre over Rogers Dry Lake, California at a record speed of 652.3 mph, took the plane in a dive, causing the tell-tale “sonic boom,” thereby becoming the first woman to pilot an airplane at a supersonic speed. Not only was she the first woman to fly supersonic, in 1961, while piloting a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, she became the first woman to fly at Mach II (twice the speed of sound)!!!
Born in 1906 as Bessie Lee Pittman, Jackie Cochran, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, was one of the groundbreaking pioneers of aviation. Her actual date of birth is unknown as is the reason for why she changed her name. She was the first female pilot to take part in the Bendix Air Race (and won) and won 5 Harmon Trophies as the premier female pilot, earning the nickname the “Speed Queen.”
At the time of her death in 1980, she held more aviation records than any other pilot in history, male or female. She was much more than a racing and record-setting pilot, she had also been instrumental during World War II in organizing women pilots to fly bombers to Britain and, in the process, was the first woman to fly a bomber to Britain. She also organized the “Wings for Britain” campaign. A supporter of the U.S. female flying corps known first as WAAC and then WAC (Women’s Army Corps) she helped the female pilots to fly in the Air Transport Auxiliary (a British flying division) as well as the U.S. Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). For her wartime contributions, she received a Distinguished Service Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit honor.
Cochran did join the Air Force Reserve herself in 1948 and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. She later was part of the early space program that studied the fitness of women to become astronauts. Surprisingly, she ended up counseling against certifying women for the Mercury program as she thought it would slow down the frantic pace of the “space race” against the Soviets in the early 1960s.
Married to the CEO of RKO movie studios and having friends such as Earhart, Chuck Yeager and Ike Eisenhower, Cochran had the clout to back up her many accomplishments and to make things happen. A fascinating woman of many talents, Cochran also had her own line of cosmetics.
Not as famous as Amelia Earhart, Cochran certainly was the most accomplished female pilot of all time, and possibly the most accomplished pilot of either gender. During her life she had been named “Woman of the Year in Business” by the Associate Press (AP) in 1953 and 1954. In California an airport is named after her. Further memorials include a U.S. Air Force Academy display dedicated to her, a large crater on Venus which has been named after her and a play about her called The Fastest Woman Alive. As one would expect, she is in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame as well as the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Cochran has even been pictured on a U.S. Postage stamp.
Trivia: The first man to fly Mach II, Scott Crossfield, did so in a dive. Chuck Yeager was the first to fly Mach II in level flight.
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For more information, please see…
Brinley, Maryann Bucknum and Jacqueline Cochran. Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography. Bantam, 1987.
Rich, Doris L. Jackie Cochran: Pilot in the Fastest Lane. University Press of Florida, 2007.