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Jackie Cochran (1910-1980): Set More Speed, Distance and Altitude Records Than Any Other Pilot


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This is Steve Ember.  And this is Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Today, we tell about American pilot Jacqueline Cochran. During her time as a pilot, she set more speed, distance and altitude records than any other pilot in aviation history.

Jacqueline Cochran was known as Jackie.  She said she was born in 1910.  She did not really know.  Her parents died when she was a baby.  Another man and woman adopted her.  They became her legal parents.

These people were very poor.  They lived in several towns in Florida and Georgia.  Jackie went to school for just two years. Then she began work in a cotton factory.  She was eight years old.  She earned six cents an hour.

Later, Jackie studied to be a nurse.  But, she decided to be a beautician, a person who cuts and fixes other people's hair.  She went to a special school and worked in several beauty shops in the South.  Then, she decided to move to New York City.  There she worked in a very fine beauty shop.  On a business trip, she met a wealthy financial expert, Floyd Odlum. He urged Jackie to learn to fly.  He also helped her establish what was to become a very successful business.

Jackie had dreamed of selling her own beauty products.  At that time, the United States was in severe economic trouble, the Great Depression.  Floyd told Jackie it would be very difficult to sell enough beauty products to make her company successful.  She would have to sell them all across America. To cover the territory, he said, she would need wings.  She thought it was a great idea.

Years later, Jackie Cochran remembered how she talked with her friends about learning to fly.  They all warned her how difficult it would be.  She did not think so.  So she went to Roosevelt Field on New York's Long Island to learn how.

After two-and-a-half weeks of lessons, she received her official pilot's license.  She immediately flew to Montreal, Canada.  The year was nineteen thirty-two. Three years later, she competed in the Bendix Trophy Race from Los Angeles, California to Cleveland, Ohio.

The race was an important competition for both male and female pilots.  In her first try, Cochran had trouble with her plane. She failed to finish.  Another young female pilot, Amelia Earhart, finished fifth.

In nineteen thirty-six, Jackie and Floyd were married.  She continued to operate her company, Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics. And he continued to support her flying activities.

In nineteen thirty-seven, Amelia Earhart attempted to fly around the world.  She disappeared during that flight.  A group of female pilots held a memorial ceremony to honor her.  Jackie Cochran spoke at the ceremony.  "We can mourn her loss," Cochran said, "but not regret her effort.  We will carry on her goals."

A month after Earhart was declared lost at sea, Cochran flew again in the Bendix Trophy Race.  She was the only female pilot. She finished in third place, ahead of several of America's toughest male pilots.

The winner of that race flew a new kind of military plane.  It was designed by Alexander de Seversky.  He had come to the United States from Russia. Seversky wanted to sell his new long-distance plane to the United States Army Air Corps.  He thought the army would notice his plane if a female pilot flew it in a race and did well.  So he asked Cochran to fly it in the next Bendix race.  She accepted immediately.

Seversky added extra fuel containers in the wings.  He wanted to show that the plane could fly long distances without stopping. Cochran would be the first pilot to use the new system.  Twenty-one pilots flew a test course before the race.  Only ten completed it successfully --  nine men and Jackie Cochran.

The race began in Burbank, California, in the middle of the night.  Forty thousand people were there to watch.  Seversky's plane, with Cochran at the controls, speeded down the runway. Its silver wings and body shone in the lights around the airfield.  The plane lifted off the runway, climbed up and disappeared into the darkness.

Another crowd was waiting in Cleveland, Ohio.  They cheered as the first plane landed and crossed the finish line.  It was the silver plane flown by Jackie Cochran.  She had won the race.  Cochran had flown three thousand two hundred seventy kilometers in eight hours and ten minutes.  She had done it without stopping.  But only she knew there was enough fuel left to fly just a few more minutes.

Jackie Cochran won something else that year -- recognition.  She received the Harmon Trophy, the highest award given to a pilot in America.  She would win the Harmon Trophy thirteen more times.

The next year, nineteen thirty-nine, World War Two started in Europe.  Cochran believed female pilots could help in the war effort.  She thought they should be permitted to fly military transport planes.  In that way, she said, more male pilots would be free to fly combat planes.

In nineteen forty, she tried to get the United States Army Air Force to support her idea.  Cochran wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor.  She said the real problem in wartime was likely to be a lack of trained pilots.  Many women, she noted, already were trained.

Cochran received permission to go to England to observe female pilots in the newly formed British Air Transport Auxiliary.  She stayed there several years.

By nineteen forty-three, the United States realized that it did need more pilots.  The commander of America's Army Air Forces, General Henry Arnold, visited England.  He asked Cochran to come home and organize a program for female pilots.  The group would be known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

The group existed for two years.  During that brief time, the women learned to fly seventy-seven kinds of military planes.  One thousand seventy-four women served as WASPs.  They flew almost one hundred million kilometers.  They were never officially part of the Army Air Forces.  They were considered civilian employees.

At the end of World War Two, the American government gave Jackie Cochran the Distinguished Service Medal for organizing the WASPs. She was the first civilian to receive the honor.  After the war, she worked with General Arnold.  She helped write a bill that created America's Air Force Reserve.  She became the first female member.  She was finally a member of the military.

In the late nineteen forties, Cochran started racing again.  She set many more flying records.  In nineteen fifty-four, she entered the jet age.  The Canadian government agreed to let her test its new fighter plane.  In it, she became the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound.

In the early nineteen sixties, she became a test pilot for the Lockheed Company.  She flew a fighter plane two thousand two hundred eighty-six kilometers an hour.  That was more than two times the speed of sound. It was the fastest speed ever reached by a female pilot.

Jackie Cochran sold her beauty products company in nineteen sixty-four.  She died of a heart attack in 1980.  At the time of her death, she held more speed, distance and altitude records than any other pilot -- man or woman -- in aviation history. She had risen from a lowly beginning to the heights of business and flight.

Jackie Cochran is not as well known as some of the other great pilots.  One history expert said people respected her, but did not really like her.  She led the way for other female pilots. But she did not seek their company as friends.

Jackie Cochran felt very much at home in the sky.  She once described her feelings about flying.  This is what she said: "Earth-bound souls know only that underside of the atmosphere in which they live.  But go up higher, and the sky turns dark.  High up enough, and one can see the stars at noon.  I have.  I have traveled with the wind and the stars."

This program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano.  It was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Steve Ember. And this is Faith Lapidus. Listen again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in VOA Special English.


Voice of America Special English
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Source: Jackie Cochran Traveled With the Wind and Stars
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