Adventure is always just around the corner, and I can turn that corner mighty fast. —Jacqueline Cochran
When Jackie Cochran died in 1980, she held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other pilot in aviation history, she had founded a successful cosmetics company that she ran for twenty-eight years before selling it, and she had been awarded honorary degrees from four different universities (despite having less than two years of formal education).1 One would never know that her life had begun in the harsh sawmill camps of the southeastern United States. Her journey from “sawdust to stardust” is inspiring to all who want to achieve great things and “enjoy life to the brimful, every minute of it,” as she did.2
Cochran, who never knew her biological parents or precisely when she was born, started working in a cotton mill when she was about eight years old. But unlike her foster family, she wanted to do more than just survive—the only existence possible in that dreary, often dangerous environment. She told the children she worked with that she was going to be rich and travel the world when she was older, and she meant it. But she also knew it wouldn’t happen on its own: “In every well-blended recipe for success, you’ll probably find honesty, determination, some skill and experience, as well as a lot of courage.”3
At thirteen, Cochran left the cotton mill and her foster family and got a job working for a woman who owned three beauty parlors. She worked her way up in the beauty industry, eventually becoming part owner of a hair salon. She then trained as a nurse and worked as one for a year or two but decided it wasn’t for her. So, she moved to New York City and returned to the beauty industry, working in glamorous salons there. In the early 1930s, Cochran developed an interest in aviation, and in 1932, she made a decision that changed her life forever: She used her savings and vacation time from the beauty parlor to learn to fly—and earned her pilot’s license in three weeks.4
Soaring among the Stars
Cochran loved flying and was determined to become an excellent pilot. She trained with experienced pilots at multiple schools, studied aircraft manuals, and flew every chance she got. But she didn’t want merely to fly—she wanted to push the limits of flight. . . .
For example, Cochran understood that taxes and regulations stifle innovation. In her own words, “opportunity and incentive are the true heartbeats of happiness. They are kept by letting the other man hold on to the benefits of his enterprise and not by taking it away from him through a false will of the so-called people spoken on the political platforms.”28
In contrast to her rational, observation-based political views, Cochran did hold some questionable beliefs: She was a lifelong Catholic and unashamedly superstitious. For example, she insisted on painting her lucky number, thirteen, on her planes and believed she had extrasensory perception. This, however, does not seem to have had much impact on her incredible work ethic; she held that “God helps those that help themselves.”29
Cochran was known for her perseverance and adventurous spirit. One WASP pilot who served under Cochran, Margaret Boylan, explained, “She’d go at her goal with an intensity that wouldn’t stop. . . . When she made up her mind, Jackie Cochran was like a steel [train] going right down the track.”30 She wanted to live her life to the fullest, stating, “Adventure is a state of mind—and spirit. . . . I ended up living a life of continuous adventure.”31
Cochran’s determination, ambition, adventurousness, and work ethic helped her soar to unprecedented heights—in some cases, literally. In Brinley’s words,
Jackie never lost sight of her main objectives—living the good life, and always aiming for the very top in any endeavor—nor did she even begin to doubt that if she tried hard enough and fought hard enough and maneuvered hard enough, she would not only achieve what she most wanted, but could even affect the course of history—and have one hell of a lot of fun doing it. As indeed she did.32
Jackie Cochran’s incredible accomplishments and life-loving attitude are inspirational to all who aim for the stars.
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1 D. Cochrane and P. Ramirez, “Women in Aviation and Space History,” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/women-in-aviation/cochran.cfm; “Jacqueline Cochran,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacqueline-Cochran; Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley, Jackie Cochran (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 353–54.
2 Jacqueline Cochran, The Stars at Noon (New York City: Little, Brown, 1954), 6.
3 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran, 52.
4 Cochran, Stars at Noon.
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6 Bryan Swopes, “1 September 1938,” This Day in Aviation, 2018, https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/1-september-1938/.
7 Cochran, Stars at Noon.
8 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran; David Kindy, “Why the P-47 Thunderbolt, a World War II Beast of the Airways, Ruled the Skies,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 24, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-p-47-thunderbolt-world-war-ii-beast-airways-ruled-skies-180976316/.
9 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran, 131.
10 “Women Pilots,” Royal Air Force Museum, https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/americans-in-the-royal-air-force/americans-in-the-british-flying-services-1914-1945/women-pilots/.
11 Cochrane and Ramirez, “Women in Aviation and Space History.”.
12 Cochran, Stars at Noon.
14 “Miss Cochran Tops the Speed of Sound,” New York Times, May 19, 1953, https://www.nytimes.com/1953/05/19/archives/miss-cochran-tops-the-speed-of-sound-she-becomes-first-woman-to.html.
15 Cochran, Stars at Noon, 236.
16 Cochrane and Ramirez, “Women in Aviation and Space History.”; “Pioneering Pilot Spotlight: Jacqueline Cochran,” Hartzell Propeller, April 2, 2018, https://hartzellprop.com/pioneering-pilot-spotlight-jacqueline-cochran/;
Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran, 354.
17 “Jacqueline Cochran,” Veteran Tributes, http://veterantributes.org/TributeDetail.php?recordID=459.
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20 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran, 5.
21 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran.
22 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran.)
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30 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran, 187, 201.
31 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran, 345.
32 Cochran and Brinley, Jackie Cochran, 351.