In 1939, Jacqueline Cochran wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to promote the idea of women pilots taking over non-combat military flying so that men would be freed to fly into combat if and when the US became involved in the European conflict. The letter strongly implied that she could command this new force.
Although this letter was initially ignored, the concept behind it came to fruition, largely in part to Cochran’s tenacity. She continued writing letters and eventually rallied twenty-five women pilots who went to England (she was first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic 1941) and trained with the Royal Air Forces’ Air Transport Auxiliary. While she was in Britain, General Arnold formed the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) stateside under the direction of Nancy Harkness Love. Cochran hurried home and convinced Arnold that women could do more than just ferry aircraft. He approved the creation of the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), headed by Cochran. In August 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD were combined into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director and Nancy Love as head of the ferrying division.
In 1945, Cochran was the first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. She was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948.
The end of the war did not slow Cochran down.
She was hired by a magazine to report on global postwar events. As such, she attended the Nuremberg Trials in Germany and witnessed Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita's surrender in the Philippines. She became the first (non-Japanese) woman to enter Japan after the war.
In 1949, the government of France recognized her contribution to the war and aviation, awarding her the Legion of Honor and again in 1951 with the French Air Medal. She is the only woman to ever receive the Gold Medal from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
In 1951, the Boston Chamber of Commerce voted her one of the 25 outstanding businesswomen in America. In 1953 and 1954, the Associated Press named her "Woman of the Year in Business."
Early in 1952, she and her husband sponsored a large Republican rally at Madison Square Garden in New York in support of presidential candidate General Dwight Eisenhower. She then personally flew a copy of the film of this rally to France and presented it to Eisenhower at his headquarters. He was convinced and ran for the presidency. They became life-long friends.
Four years later, she herself (listed as Jacqueline Cochran-Odlum) ran for Congress from California’s 29th Congressional District. It was a very close race, but she lost to the first Asian-American Congressman Dalip Singh Saund (51.5 to 48.5 %). She never ran again.
May 18, 1953, Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier. At Rogers Dry Lake, California, Cochran flew a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet she had borrowed from the Royal Canadian Air Force at an average speed of 652.337 mph.
Her autobiography, The Stars at Noon, was published in 1954. There are several editions and reprints currently available.
From 1958 through 1961, Cochran became the first woman to be President of the Federation Aeronautique International.
As Cochran crested the half-way point of life, the nineteen-sixties did not slow the voraciousness of this person who set records all her life. Cochran was the first woman to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier (1960), and to attain a flying speed of 1355 km/hr (842 mph) (1961). She was avidly involved in bringing women pilots into the space program as astronauts. Financing a great deal of the program herself, she partnered with the Lovelace Foundation to find and test women as candidates for NASA. The Lovelace Foundation was run by Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II (head of NASA’s Special Committee on Bioastronautics and an old friend of Jacqueline’s) and Brig. General Donald Flickinger. Despite finding thirteen women who physically and psychologically qualified as astronauts according to the Lovelace Foundation's strict (and often grueling) criteria, NASA refused to accept women candidates on the grounds that NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees. Oddly enough, Cochran spoke against women becoming astronauts out of concern that this might weaken the space program. She later appealed several times to have the women’s training program re-started.
She sold her cosmetics business in 1963, but this was not the beginning of her retirement. The next year, on June 3, 1964 Cochran piloted an F-104G Starfighter at twice the speed of sound. In 1965, Jacqueline Cochran was invested in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.
In 1971, she was the only living woman to be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. "To Jacqueline Cochran, for outstanding contributions to aviation by her devotion to the advancement of the role of women in all of its aspects, and by establishing new performance records that advanced aeronautics, this award is most solemnly and respectfully dedicated."
The last decade of Cochran’s life was filled with pain, sorrow, and disappointment. She was grounded due to the need for a pace-maker. Her husband died in 1976. She passed away Aug. 9, 1980 and was buried in Coachella Valley Cemetery.
Laurels continue to be lifted up to Cochran:
• In 1985, the International Astronomical Union assigned the name Cochran to a large (100 km in diameter) crater on planet Venus.
• She became the first woman to be honored with a permanent display of her achievements at the United States Air Force Academy.
• She was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1993.• In 1996, the United States Post Office honored her with a 50¢ postage stamp, depicting her in front of a Bendix Trophy pylon with her P-35 in the background and the words: "Jacqueline Cochran Pioneer Pilot."
• She is one of the 2006 inductees into the Lancaster, California Aerospace Walk of Honor, and the first woman to be inducted.
• The airport closest to her home near Palm Springs, California was renamed Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport as was the annual air show held there
• The story of her life as well as Amelia Earhart's and others is the subject of the play The Fastest Woman Alive, written by Karen Sunde.
• Cochran is listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the “300 Women who Changed the World”