War heroine, astute business woman, pioneer in aviation and journalist are just a few descriptions of Lt. Col Jacqueline Cochran. Little is know about Lt Col. Cochran’s childhood because she hid her past from all her friends and family by saying she was adopted.
What we do know is that she was born Bessie Lee Pittman around the turn of the 20th century to Mary and Ira Pittman of Pensacola Florida. Bessie Lee Pittman changed her name to Jacqueline Cochran after she moved to New York City and became a hairdresser at Saks Fifth Avenue. Even though Jacqueline denied her family she still funneled money and support to her parents and siblings.
During the 1930s Jackie will encounter two loves that will dominate her passions for the rest of her life — after getting a ride in an aircraft with a friend she started taking flying lessons in Long Island and she met the love of her life Floyd Bostwick Odlum an older man whom was one of the 10 most riches people in America at the time. Odlum’s was the founder of Atlas Corp and CEO of RKO Studios and gave Jackie the start-up capital to start a cosmetic company called “Wings” Marilyn Monroe endorsed their lipstick line. During her hard work as a business woman in the 1930s she was quickly becoming a gender/rule breaking phenomenon in aviation.
She was the first woman to compete in the MacRobertson Air Race and the only woman to compete in the Bendix race. She won many aviation awards in her lifetime and won the “Outstanding Pilot in the World” Trophy five times and became known as “The Speed Queen.” Jackie worked with her contemporary Amelia Earhart to try and open more aviation races up to woman pilots. Jackie’s sense of honor and duty struck home when she volunteered for “Wings for Britain” a group that ferried American built aircraft and supplies to England before American join the fight in World War II. Here she set another recored and became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. She worked with the Royal Air Force for several months recruiting women pilots to fly non-combat missions.
Once the United States joined the Allies in WWII Jackie returned home and helped develop and run Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross for her contributions. At the end of WWII Jackie worked for different magazines reporting on postwar events from around the globe. She was present during Japan's surrender and the Nuremberg Trials in Germany.
Her pioneer spirit did not leave after the war and with her life-long friend Chuck Yeager support she was the first woman to break the sound barrier and to reach Mach 1. She was the first woman to take off from an aircraft carrier and holds more distance/speed records than any pilot on record. She was one of thirteen women to pass all the preliminary test for astronauts and was part of the Mercury program before it was cancelled.
Jackie pushed herself to be the best in whatever endeavor she pursued but her love of flying and breaking stereotypes is two of the many reason Lt Col Jacqueline Cochran is a History Hero. To find out more about Jackie Cochran go to your local library and check out: Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley and Jacqueline Cochran: Biography of a Pioneer Aviator by Rhonda Smith-daugherty.