Jacqueline Cochran (Aviator/First Woman To Break Sound Barrier)

jacqueline-cochrane.jpgJacqueline Cochran (May 11, 1906 – August 9, 1980) was a pioneer American aviator, considered to be one of the most gifted racing pilots of her generation.

She was an important contributor to the formation of the wartime Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

Known by her friends as "Jackie," and maintaining the Cochran name, she flew her first major race in 1934. In 1937, she was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race. She worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race for women.

That year, she also set a new woman's national speed record. By 1938, she was considered the best female pilot in the United States. She had won the Bendix and set a new transcontinental speed record as well as altitude records (by this time she was no longer just breaking women's records but was setting overall records).

She was the first woman to break the sound barrier (with Chuck Yeager right on her wing), the first woman to fly a jet across the ocean, and the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She won five Harmon Trophies  as the outstanding woman pilot in the world. Sometimes called the "Speed Queen," at the time of her death, no pilot, man or woman, held more speed, distance or altitude records in aviation history, than Jackie Cochran.

Before the United States joined World War II, she was part of "Wings for Britain", an organization that ferried American built aircraft to Britain, becoming the first woman to fly a bomber, (a Lockheed Hudson V) across the Atlantic. In Britain, she volunteered her services to the Royal Air Force. For several months she worked for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), recruiting qualified women pilots in the United States and taking them to England where they joined the Air Transport Auxiliary.

In September 1940, with the war raging throughout Europe, Jackie Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to introduce the proposal of starting a women's flying division in the Army Air Forces. She felt that qualified women pilots could do all of the domestic, noncombat aviation jobs necessary in order to release more male pilots for combat. She pictured herself in command of these women, with the same standings as Oveta Culp Hobby, who was then in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). (The WAAC was given full military status on July 1, 1943, thus making them part of the Army. At the same time, the unit was renamed Women's Army Corps [WAC].)

Also in 1940, Cochran wrote a letter to Lt. Col. Robert Olds, who was helping to organize the Air Corps Ferrying Command for the Air Corps at the time. (Ferrying Command was originally a courier/aircraft delivery service, but evolved into the air transport branch of the United States Army Air Forces as the Air Transport Command).

In the letter, Cochran suggested that women pilots be employed to fly non-combat missions for the new command. In early 1941, Colonel Olds asked Cochran to find out how many women pilots there were in the United States, what their flying times were, their skills, their interest in flying for the country, and personal information about them. She used records from the Civil Aeronautics Administration to gather the data.

In spite of pilot shortages, Lieutenant General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold  was the person who needed to be convinced that women pilots were the solution to his staffing problems. Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, continued as commanding general of the Army Air Forces upon its creation in June 1941. He knew that women were being used successfully in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in England. Also in June 1941, Arnold suggested that Cochran take a group of qualified female pilots to see how the British were doing. He promised her that no decisions regarding women flying for the USAAF would be made until she returned.

When General Arnold asked Cochran to go to Britain to study the ATA, she asked seventy-six of the most qualified female pilots – identified during the research she had done earlier for Colonel Robert Olds – to come along and fly for the ATA. Qualifications for these women were high – at least 300 hours of flying time, but most of the women pilots had over 1,000 hours. Their dedication was high as well, they had to foot the bill for travel from New York for an interview and to Montreal for a physical exam and flight check. Those that made it to Canada found out that the washout rate was also high. Twenty-five women passed the tests, and two months later, in March 1942 they went to Britain with Cochran to join the ATA.

The women who flew in the ATA were a little reluctant to go because they wanted to be flying for (and in) the United States, but those that went became the first American women to fly military aircraft.

While Cochran was in England, in September 1942, General Arnold authorized the formation of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) under the direction of Nancy Harkness Love. The WAFS began at Castle Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware with a handpicked group of female pilots whose objective was to ferry military aircraft. Hearing about the WAFS, Cochran immediately returned from England.

Cochran's experience in Britain with the ATA convinced her that women pilots could be trained to do much more than ferrying. Lobbying General Arnold for expanded flying opportunities for female pilots, he sanctioned the creation of the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), headed by Cochran. In August 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD merged to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director and Nancy Love as head of the ferrying division.

As director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, she supervised the training of hundreds of women pilots at the former Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. For her war efforts, she received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Related Links:
Jacqueline Cochran on Wikipedia