Army Aviation


Looking Back, May 2024
By Mark Albertson


Her date of birth seems to be an open question, ranging anywhere from 1906 to 1911[1]  Date of death is fixed, though, as of August 10, 1980.  So is the place of origin, a small mill town in Florida, Muscogee.  And so was the name she was born with, Bessie Lee Pittman.

The Pittman family was mired in poverty.  Mr. Pittman, a journeyman worker, moved his family of seven from town to town throughout Florida and Georgia.

However Bessie, by the time she was eight, was working in a cotton mill, “where by the age of nine, she supervised the other children and earned five dollars a week.”[2]

By the age of ten, Bessie had quit school and, commenced working at a beauty shop that was family owned; to which her employers owned several such establishments.  And so while Bessie’s family moved back to Florida, she remained in Georgia learning the rudiments of the beauty trade.

Bessie moved to Montgomery, Alabama and, found employment in a department store beauty salon.  By fourteen she was married to a Robert Cochran, and within three months had a son, Robert, Jr.  But in need of money, Bessie quickly returned to work, with her son being taken care of by her family in Florida.  But Robert, Jr. died four years later.  Then her marriage to Robert Cochran came to an end.  So, with no immediate family ties to service, Bessie decided to change her life.

* * * * *

Bessie boarded a train bound for New York, arriving at Grand Central Station.  In a new city, she divorced herself from her brief but past life.  The new biography was that of an orphan, a stray who found her name in a phone book.  Her “foster family name” was not really hers at all.  It was a story Bessie stuck with for the rest of her days.  Indeed, for the most part, she never acknowledged her family.[3]  Thus, Jacqueline Cochran had been born.

Jackie found employment with Saks Fifth Avenue and, was soon splitting her time between New York City and winters in Miami.  With a good business sense, she built up a book of clients and contacts.  It was during this time that she met her future husband, Floyd Odlum, a successful venture capitalist who managed to preserve his wealth during the depths of The Depression.  And it was he who planted that seed about flying.  Air travel would open up the field of clients and contacts.

Jackie decided that she wanted to do more than just fly, how about becoming a pilot?  Having little in the way of formal schooling, Jackie enlisted the assistance of a friend who helped sharpen her reading and writing skills.  A willing student, Jackie accomplished in three weeks in what was normally a three month program of flight training.  She was now a licensed pilot as of August 17, 1932.

Jackie found her niche with air racing.  In 1938, she won the Bendix Trophy Race and was twice accorded the Harmon Trophy.  And by 1939, she was rated the top female flyer in the country.  And, with her own cosmetics lines, the enterprising Jackie marketed her products by flying creating, “Wings to Beauty.”[4]

But the resumption of the Great War was gathering momentum.  Beginning in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria; Italy attacked Ethiopia, 1935; the Spanish Civil War, 1936, which proved a tune up for 1939; Japan invaded China, 1937; Germany absorbed Austria into the Reich, 1938; followed by the Sudeten Crisis, 1938; German break up of Czechoslovakia, March 1939 and finally, September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded western Poland, while the Soviet Army crashed into eastern Poland on September 17.

Jacqueline Cochran in the cockpit of a P-40 Warhawk, World War II.

Back in the United States, Jacqueline Cochran had been presented with the Aviatrix trophy by the International League of Aviators for the third year in a row.  But following the combined Nazi-Soviet elimination of Poland as an independent state, America’s premier aviatrix wrote to the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in which she urged that women pilots will be required to take up the slack in a national emergency.

“In the field of aviation, the real bottleneck in the long run is likely to be trained pilots.  Women could be used effectively in all sorts of helpful back of the lines work, as for instance, in flying ambulance planes, courier planes, and commercial and transport planes, thereby releasing male pilots for combat duty.

“This required organization and not at the time of emergency but in advance.  We have about 650 licensed women pilots in this country.  Most of them would be little used today, but most of them could be of great use a few months hence if properly trained and organized.  And if they had some official standing or patriotic objective (rather than just around an airport occasionally for fun) there would be thousands more women pilots then there are now.

“Ms. Cochran noted that Germany, Russia, England and France had already begun to use women pilots in their air forces.  As for the United States, she did not believe that it was ‘public opinion that must be touched, but rather official Washington,’ particularly Army and Navy officials.”[5]

Early skepticism eventually gave way to serious concern and interest in the use of women pilots.  Indeed, Jacqueline Cochran participated in the flight of a Lockheed Hudson bomber to Britain; and once there, engaged in research as to the role of women in aviation in Britain.  She shared her experiences in Britain during a luncheon at Hyde Park with the First Lady.  And soon Jackie was assigned to the office of Colonel Robert Olds, commander of the Air Corps Ferrying Command.  Jackie was billed as the “tactical consultant,” and was assisting Ferrying Command in “collecting necessary data on which to base recommendations . . . relative to the feasibility of forming a corps of women pilots to ferrying military training type aircraft in the continental United States to relieve combat pilots for essential gunnery and bombing training.”[6]

The result will be two organizations:  Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron or WAFS, directed by Nancy Love and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment or WFTD, directed by Jacqueline Cochran.  Then on July 5, 1943, the groups will be combined to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, directed by Jacqueline Cochran.  It will be disbanded on October 1, 1944.

Though Jackie never stopped flying, she finished the war as a correspondent.  Her husband, Floyd Odlum, purchased Liberty magazine.  And with use of this literary platform, she traveled the Pacific covering the war.  In Europe, she went to Buchenwald for a better understanding of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.  She covered the Trial of the Century at Nuremberg.  But for her service during the war, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.[7]

In 1946, she was back racing, her mount was a surplus North American P-51 Mustang.  That year she finished second in the Bendix Race.  She also set a new women’s speed record of 428.828 mph.

Jackie proved an ardent supporter for a separate air force, which will become a reality with the National Security Act of 1947.  In 1948, she was a commissioned lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves (seen as a consultant, for women will not be allowed to fly in the Air Force until 1976).

In 1952, Jackie was beginning to pilot jet aircraft.  She readied herself to become the first woman to break the sound barrier.  And her trainer, the man who broke the sound barrier in 1947, Chuck Yeager.  And he schooled her on flying the F-86 Sabre jet.

Jacqueline Cochran, standing on the wing of an F-86 Sabre jet, talking with Chuck Yeager and Canadair chief test pilot, Bill Longhurst.

“On May 18, 1953, Jackie and Yeager took off, each in an F-86.  As Jackie began to near Mach 1 (the speed necessary to break the sound barrier), she saw shock waves roll off of the canopy of her aircraft.  As she hit Mach 1, two sonic booms shook the ground beneath her while the air around her fell silent.  When she landed, Jackie learned the men in the tower had not heard the sonic booms to confirm her feat.  Undeterred, she took to the sky that afternoon and reached Mach 1 again.  That same day, Jackie set another world speed record for a 100-kilometer course.  Jackie was not done with setting records, and with limited time left to use the Sabre, she broke several more records over the next week.  When the week was over, she held all but one principal world speed record at the age of 47.”[8]

In 1964, she “went on to set a world speed record of 1,429 mph.[9]  She also received her helicopter pilot’s license at age 61.  But by the end of the 1960s her long and exciting career was over.  She also retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1970 as a colonel.

In 1976, her husband of many years, Floyd Odlum, died.  Jackie will follow on August 10, 1980.


[1]  Interesting commonality she shares with another famous lady, the Oscar-winning actress, Joan Crawford.  However, different sources have different dates as to Bessie’s birth:

  1. The Florida Division of Historical Resources has her born May 11, 1906.
  2. National Army Museum, United States Army, shows May 11, 1910, based on Air Force records.
  3. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum has the date fixed in 1906.
  4. Yet according to the U.S.A.F. Fact Sheet:  “Jacqueline Cochran,” birth date ranges from 1905-1908.

[2]  See page 2, Profile:  “Wings to Beauty:  Aviation Pioneer Jacqueline Cochran,” The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, March 25, 2021.

[3]  At the same time, she kept in touch with her family and provided for them financially.  Apparently the professional career was kept separate from her family roots.

[4]  The Bendix Trophy Race, a long distance competition from Los Angeles to  Cleveland, was won by Jacqueline Cochran in 1937, to which she covered the distance in eight hours.  See page 4, “Women with Wings:  Legacy of WASP,” National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian, August 5, 2018.

[5]  See page 2, Chapter 1, “Institution of the Program,” Women Pilots With the AAF, 1941-1944, AAF Historical Office, Headquarters, Army Air Forces, March 1946.

[6]  See page 6, Women Pilots With the AAF, 1941-1944.

[7]  See Fact Sheet, “Jacqueline Cochran,” United States Air Force,

[8]  See page 7, Profile:  “Wings to Beauty:  Aviation Pioneer Jacqueline Cochran,” The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, March 25, 2021.

[9]  See Fact Sheet, ”Jacqueline Cochran,” United States Air Force,


Cochrane, Dorothy, “Flying on the Homefront:  Women Airforce Service Pilots [WASP],” 75th Anniversary of World War II, National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., May 20, 2020.…

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home, “Jacqueline Cochran and the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs),

Fact Sheet, “Jacqueline Cochran,” United States Air Force,

Florida Division of Historical Resources, “Jacqueline Cochran,”…/women-in-history/jacqueline-cochran

Johnson, Caroline, “Women with Wings:  The Legacy of the WASP,” 75th Anniversary of World War II, National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., August 5, 2018.…

National Army Museum, United States Army, Biographies:  Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran,…/jacqueline-jackie-cochran

Profile:  “Wings to Beauty:  Aviation Pioneer Jacqueline Cochran,” The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, March 26, 2021,

Women Pilots with the AAF, 1941-1944, Army Air Forces Historical Studies:  No. 55, AAF Historical Office, Headquarters, Army Air Forces, Washington, D.C., March 1946.  Air Force Historical Research Agency, Chennault Circle, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.