Jackie Cochran: A Closer Look
Jackie Cochran was a complex, powerful figure in the 1950s and 1960s. She was an aviator, socialite, entrepreneur, failed politician, and celebrity. If she were around today, I feel pretty confident that she’d be a Kardashian-level public figure.
Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics produced all sorts of beauty products, such as lotions, creams, lipsticks and blush. Advertisements for the products played on Cochran’s career as a celebrity pilot, saying they were “created by America’s noted aviatrix and cosmetiste for those smart, active women who can devote only a few minutes a day to beauty care.”  Isn’t that just great? Reading that makes me imagine a woman leaning into her vanity, quickly applying some rouge before darting out to her idling airplane.
Cochran believed strongly that women should appear feminine, delicate, and beautiful. Unlike her long-lost friend, Amelia Earhart, who had favored a bomber jacket and trousers for flying, Cochran was always dressed in glamorous styles. Her blonde hair was perpetually styled and her makeup flawless. She was eternally ready for the cameras. (Again, anyone else getting a Kardashian vibe, here?)
Some people really loved her. Others hated her. Plenty of people feared her. I’ve stumbled upon countless stories of Cochran yelling or bullying or otherwise putting people in their place. I think one of my favorites has to be the time she refused to answer a telephone call from President Roosevelt back in 1938. I’m not entirely sure why she couldn’t be bothered to talk to the leader of the free world, but the excuse she gave was pretty classic: she said she was washing her hair.
At the dawn of the Jet Age, Cochran talked her way into learning to fly a Sabre. This was pretty astounding on its own, but just wait till you find out who taught her how to fly it: Chuck Yeager! THE Chuck Yeager! The guy who broke the sound barrier for the first time back in 1947. He was an absolute star in aviation circles, and a celebrity among land-loving people, too. This is kind of like saying that Cochran wanted to learn how to play basketball, so she installed a hoop in her driveway and asked Kobe Bryant to come play HORSE.
One day while training in a Sabre, Cochran’s fuel line tore wide open. The liquid fuel began dribbling right out of the plane. Yeager, who was flying nearby, saw it and tried to stay calm. He knew Cochran was one spark away from burning up.
He told her to land the jet right away. She wasn’t anywhere near a runway, so Cochran skillfully brought the plane down onto the ground below, which happened to be hard-packed desert sand. Her cockpit clouded with the fumes from the spilling fuel. Cochran climbed out onto the wing and stood there, wondering what to do. If she jumped she feared she’d break both her legs. The wing wasn’t terribly high off the ground, but a history of health issues and plane crashes made Cochran’s legs less than steady.
The seconds ticked by and Cochran’s decision became more urgent. The plane was red hot and coated in flammable fuel. It could burst into flames at any moment. As she scanned the horizon in desperation, she noticed that an Air Force sergeant had arrived on the scene. He stood stock still, his mouth agape. He looked terrified.
“Get over here, boy, and break my fall,” Cochran yelled to him.
“No way, ma’am,” he responded.
Cochran seethed: “What are you? A man or a mouse?” She screamed an expletive into the hot, dry air.
In the next moment, Yeager landed nearby. He scrambled from his cockpit and sprinted to Cochran’s plane. She leapt right into his arms.
This story is a pretty good representation of who Cochran really was. She was forceful and brave—qualities absolutely necessary for getting yourself into a borrowed jet cockpit. She was crass. She was tough. And she knew how to manipulate men to get what she needed.
You’ll learn more about Cochran in my book, but if you can’t wait till it comes out, check out this resource:
Cochran, Jacqueline and Maryann Bucknum Brinley. Jackie Cochran: The Autobiography of the Greatest Woman Pilot in Aviation History.New York: Bantam Books, 1987. Pg. 278