Born Bessie Lee Pittman, she married Robert Cochran, a young aircraft mechanic at a young age. A few years later, Bessie Lee Cochran (1906 – 1980) filed for divorce and moved to northwest Florida where her parents were then living. She, then, became a hairdresser and got a job in Pensacola, eventually winding up in New York City. There, she used her looks and driving personality to get a job at a prestigious salon at Saks Fifth Avenue. Somewhere along the way, she chose to change her name from Mrs. Bessie Cochran to Miss Jacqueline Cochran.
Later on, she met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, the middle-aged founder of Atlas Corp. and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. Widely reputed to be one of the ten richest men in the world, Odlum quickly became enamored with Jacqueline and offered to help her establish a cosmetics business. After a friend offered her a ride in an aircraft, a thrilled Jacqueline Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Airfield, Long Island in the early 1930s. She learned to fly an airplane in just three weeks. A natural, she quickly soloed and within two years obtained her commercial pilot’s licence. Odlum, whom she married in 1936 after his divorce, was an astute financier and savvy marketer who recognized the value of publicity for her business. Calling her line of cosmetics “Wings,” she flew her own aircraft around the country promoting her products.
Known by her friends as “Jackie” and maintaining the Cochran name, she flew her first major race in 1934. In 1937, she was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race. She worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race for women. That year, she also set a new woman’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 (by this time she was no longer just breaking women’s records but was setting overall records).
Before the United States joined World War II, she 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 Air Transport Auxiliary.
In September 1940, with the war raging throughout Europe, Jackie Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt and Lt. Col. Robert Olds suggesting that women pilots be employed to fly non-combat missions for the new command. In spite of pilot shortages, Lieutenant General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was the person who needed to be convinced. In September 1942, General Arnold authorized the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) under the direction of Nancy Harkness Love. In August 1943, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was created using Jackie Cochran as director and Nancy Love as head of the ferrying division. As director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, she supervised the training of hundreds of women pilots. For her war efforts, she received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In 1948, Jackie joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve where she eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Encouraged by then-Major Chuck Yeager, with whom she shared a lifelong friendship, on May 18, 1953, at Rogers Dry Lake, California, Cochran flew a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet borrowed from the Royal Canadian Air Force at an average speed of 652.337 mph, becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. She was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first woman to pilot a bomber across the North Atlantic (in 1941), the first pilot to make blind (instrument) landing, the only woman to ever be President of the Federation Aeronautique International (1958-1961), the first woman to fly a fixed-wing jet aircraft across the Atlantic, the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet with an oxygen mask and the first woman to enter the Bendix Trans-continental Race.