Bessie Pittman was born in Florida in 1906. When she was in her early teens (13 or 14) she married Robert Cochran and gave birth to a son. Her son died when he was 5, and her marriage ended. She changed her name to Jacqueline Cochrane. She was embarrassed by her background and invented stories to reinvent herself. Little was known about her early life until she passed away.
It was the offer of a ride in an aircraft when she was in her 20s that changed her life. She only took three weeks to learn to fly, and she became a licensed commercial pilot within two years. Few women were pilots, so Jacqueline used her fame as a pilot to start a cosmetics company.
Jackie became famous for aircraft races competing with men. With the start of World War II, she became involved in flying airplanes to England. The idea of women pilots was opposed by the military. She contacted the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to help take advantage of women pilots to do non-commercial flying duties. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was formed. Jacqueline was honored with the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat medal at the time.
Following the war, she became the first non-Japanese woman to enter Japan. She was a reporter covering post-war Japan as well as the Nuremberg Trials. She continued to fly and became the first woman to fly supersonic. She was also the first woman to take off and land in an aircraft carrier.
With the start of the U.S. space program, she led an effort to test women’s ability to go into space. NASA never approved of the effort, and it was eventually canceled. NASA imposed qualifications on astronauts that none of the women could meet (military pilot service and an engineering degree). Two of the men selected for the Mercury program did not meet the qualifications.
Jacqueline Cochrane is little-known today; however, she was a pioneer in the acceptance of women who wanted careers in aviation and space. She is a true hidden hero.
“I might have been born in a hovel, but I determined to travel with the wind and the stars.” – Jacqueline Cochran