In 1953, Jacqueline Cochran became the first female pilot to break the sound barrier when she flew a Royal Canadian Air Force F-86 Sabrejet over Rogers Dry Lake, California. But “going supersonic” was just one of Cochran’s many incredible accomplishments.
After being introduced to aviation at a young age, Cochran learned to fly with just three weeks of training and earned her commercial pilot’s license before she was 30. Soon Cochran began using her plane to promote her hair and cosmetics company, flying around the country to connect with clients and suppliers. Her competitive spirit led her to pursue air racing, and in 1937 she became the first woman to enter the prestigious Bendix Transcontinental Air Race. While she didn’t finish the 1935 race, she earned third place in 1937 and finally took home the first place trophy the following year.
By 1938, Cochran was considered the best female pilot in the United States. Nicknamed the “Speed Queen,” Cochran set numerous world records in speed, distance, and altitude, in addition to achieving several aviation firsts throughout her flying career. She is recognized as the first woman to: fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean; receive the Distinguished Service Medal; make a blind instrument landing; break the sound barrier; takeoff and land from an aircraft carrier; and serve as president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Perhaps one of Cochran’s greatest accomplishments was helping to form the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, a program that expanded flying opportunities for female pilots. The WASP included more than one thousand civilian female pilots, who flew almost every type of military aircraft while ferrying trainer aircraft, delivering equipment, and flight-testing aircraft that had been repaired. In 1943, Cochran was named director of the WASP and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her contributions to the war effort.
After the war, Cochran continued to pursue her successful racing career and began test piloting the newly introduced jet aircraft. After becoming the first woman to exceed the speed of sound in 1953, she went on to shatter aviation records well into the 1960s and set 73 records in a three-year period.
In 1971, Cochran became the first woman inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for her contributions to aviation. At the time of her death in 1980, Cochran held more speed, distance, and altitude records than any pilot in aviation history – male or female. An unstoppable force both in the air and on the ground, Cochran’s dedication, passion, and courage paved the way for generations of female pilots.
Featured image: Public domain: United States Air Force.