Jackie Cochran & the Sound Barrier

The first woman to fly faster than Mach 1 was a famous female aviator named Jacqueline Cochran. Better known as Jackie, Cochran was born in 1906 and became one of the pioneering women of aeronautics. Jackie originally worked in the cosmetics industry and was encouraged to pursue a pilot's license by her husband in order to travel more efficiently. Always a quick learner, Cochran managed to complete her pilot training in 1932 in just three weeks! She quickly realized that flying was her passion and set about becoming one of the most accomplished pilots in history. In 1935, Jackie was the first woman ever to enter a prestigious annual event known as the Bendix Transcontinental Race. Jackie was the first woman to win the Bendix Race in 1938 and also set several aviation records before 1940, including three speed records and a world altitude record.

Jacqueline Cochran
Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran

Jackie's successes allowed her to become an accomplished test pilot setting many more firsts. Among these was the first pilot to ever fly an airplane fitted with a turbo-supercharger in 1934, the first to fly an aircraft with wing fuel tanks in 1938, and the first to fly above 20,000 ft (6,100 m) while wearing an oxygen mask. Cochran was also employed by the Sperry Corporation between 1935 and 1942 to conduct test flights of gyro instruments that would soon become vital in navigation equipment.

As World War II approached, Cochran worked to encourage more women to join the war effort. The British Ferry Command hired Cochran to recruit women to fly planes from factories in the US to bases the UK, and she became the first woman to fly a military bomber on a transatlantic flight in 1941. Jackie also convinced Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, to support efforts encouraging greater participation of women in defense positions. In 1943, Cochran was named director of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). WASPs proved vital to the war effort, and Cochran helped to train over a thousand auxiliary pilots for the military services. After the war, Cochran was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her contributions.

Jackie remained committed to the defense effort after the war and earned the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves. She continued to pursue her passion for flying and became a close friend of Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier. Yeager helped Cochran make the transition to jet-powered aircraft, and she wasted little time setting new records. In 1953, Jackie flew an F-86 Sabre past Mach 1 becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. She went on to set a world speed record of 1,429 mph (2,300 km/h) in 1964 and no fewer than eight speed records in 1967 when she was over 60 years old!

Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager receiving trophies from Pres. Eisenhower
Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager receiving trophies from Pres. Eisenhower

Unfortunately, Jackie began suffering heart problems at the age of 70 and was forced to end her high-speed flying career. Jackie Cochran passed away in 1980 at the age of 74. Over the course of her life, Jackie won the Harmon Trophy for best female pilot of the year fourteen times and had earned more speed and altitude records than any other pilot in the world. Cochran was also named an Honorary Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame.
- answer by Molly Swanson, 27 February 2005

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