Jacqueline Cochran (May 11, 1906 – August 9, 1980) was a pioneer in the field of American aviation and one of the most prominent 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 was one of three women to compete in the MacRobertson Air Race in 1934. In 1937, she was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race and worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race to women. That year, she also set a new women'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.
Cochran was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She won five Harmon Trophies. Sometimes called the "Speed Queen", at the time of her death, no other pilot held more speed, distance, or altitude records in aviation history than Cochran.
AIR TRANSPORT AUXILIARY
Before the United States joined World War II, Cochran 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 ATA. Cochran attained the rank of Flight Captain (equivalent to a Squadron Leader in the RAF or a Major in the U.S. Air Force) in the ATA.
WOMEN AIRFORCE SERVICE PILOTS
In September 1939, 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 Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, who was then the director of the Women's Army Auxiliary 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).) That same year, Cochran wrote a letter to Lieutenant Colonel 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 (USAAF) 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, 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 ATA in England so 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 Arnold asked Cochran to go to Britain to study the ATA, Cochran asked 76 of the most qualified female pilots – identified during the research she had done earlier for 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. Those who made it to Canada found out that the washout rate was also high. A total of 25 women passed the tests and, two months later in March 1942 they went to Britain with Cochran to join the ATA. 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 New Castle Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware, with a 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 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 WASP, Cochran supervised the training of hundreds of women pilots at the former Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas from August 1943 to December 1944.