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Jacqueline Cochran: First Woman to Fly Faster than Speed of Sound

On May 18, 1953, Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound and, at the time of her death in 1980, she held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other male or female pilot in aviation history. Included in these are the eight world speed, altitude and distance records she set in 1961 in the Northrop T-38 Talon now in the Museum's collection.

In 1932, she soloed at Roosevelt Flying School on Long Island and received her license after only three weeks of lessons; she then immediately pursued advanced instruction at the Ryan School of Aeronautics and built up flight time. She earned her instrument rating and commercial and transport pilot licenses and entered the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race from London, England to Melbourne, Australia flying a Granville R-6H QED.

In 1935 she established Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics, Wings of Beauty, in Chicago, Los Angeles, and eventually on New York's Fifth Avenue, successfully competing with Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden beauty houses. Cochran flew around the country delivering test products and building up distributors, and she formulated a moisturizer to combat dry skin resulting from high altitude flight. After a flight, Cochran always took time to repair her makeup and comb her hair as a personal preference but also cognizant of the public view of women pilots as non-feminine. But first and foremost, Cochran was an ambitious record setter. She set two women's speed records in her Beech D-17W Staggerwing in 1937, followed by three major (men's and women's) flying records and, after three attempts, she won the prestigious 1938 Bendix Trophy Race flying Alexander de Seversky's P-35 pursuit plane.

As war in Europe approached, Cochran was one of several women who felt women should be utilized in wartime aviation. In 1941, Cochran selected a group of 27 highly qualified U.S. women pilots to ferry military aircraft in Great Britain for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), as most male military pilots were flying in combat. In 1942, Cochran, at the request of Army General Henry "Hap" Arnold, organized the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) to train civilian women pilots in anticipation of a similar domestic shortage of American military pilots during World War II.

Following the war, Cochran earned more speed records including multiple ones in her Lockheed Lodestar. In 1953, she borrowed a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet (because military aircraft were not available to civilian and especially female pilots) to break the sound barrier; she was coached by Major Charles "Chuck" Yeager. In 1961, she received permission to fly a company-owned Northrop T-38 Talon and promptly set straightaway courses, speed over various distance closed courses, and altitude records, including an absolute altitude record of 56,071.80 feet. In May 1964, now 58 years old and allowed to fly a USAF Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, she set three new speed records and flew Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.

Cochran was a two-time president of the women's flying organization the Ninety-Nines and the first female president of the Fédération Aéronatique Nationale (FAI). She was a 14-time winner of the Harmon Trophy, awarded to the best female pilot of the year. She received the Distinguished Service Medal for her leadership of the WASP and three Distinguished Flying Cross awards for other records. She was also a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Cochran authored two autobiographies —The Stars at Noon and, with Mary Ann Bucknam Brinley, Jackie Cochran.