Leading the Way for Women in the Air Force: Jacqueline Cochran

Story by MC2 Kayla Jo Finley

Photo: Jacqueline Cochran

A photo of Jaqueline Cochran

Just as Nazi troops began their march across Europe, Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran suggested her plans for using women pilots to fight the war. The initial suggestion was rejected, but her determination and consistency made her the first woman to pilot a bomber across the North Atlantic. Her efforts also made it possible for women to serve in what is today’s Air Force.

Never owning a pair of shoes until she was nine, Jacqueline grew up in poverty.  She was a barefoot girl who stole chickens to feed her family near a small sawmill town in West Florida.

However, poverty couldn’t stop her passion for airplanes and she was determined that one day she would fly. In 1932, she earned her pilot’s license and within a few years had already made a name for herself in the aviation community, winning several aviation awards and becoming the first woman to make a blind landing.

Years later, Jacqueline foresaw America becoming involved with war in Europe, and with that a possible need for women to assist in flying America’s aircraft.  After a suggestion from the First Lady, Jacqueline approached Gen. Hap Arnold with her vision of women pilots which he initially rejected.  Being the persistent woman she was Jacqueline did not stop with her quest for women serving in aviation.

By 1942, there was a severe shortage of male pilots.  Gen. Arnold, now faced with the shortage, asked Jacqueline to put her plans into operation and she was appointed Director of Woman’s Flying Training for the United States.  At the time there were two organizations of civilian female pilots: The Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).  More than 1,000 women participated in these programs as civilians attached to the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying 60 million miles of non-combat military missions.

In August 1943, these two units merged into a single group, the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) program.  Jacqueline directed all phases of the WASP program, covering 120 air bases all over America.  The 1,074 female pilots of the WASP each freed a male pilot for combat service and duties.  WASP pilots flew more than 60 million miles in every type of aircraft.

Photo These four female pilots leaving their ship at the four engine school at Lockbourne are members of a group of WASPS who have been trained to ferry the B-17 Flying Fortresses. U.S. Air Force photo

These four female pilots leaving their ship at the four engine school at Lockbourne are members of a group of WASPS who have been trained to ferry the B-17 Flying Fortresses. U.S. Air Force photo

Although the efforts of WASP pilots were considered civil services, they broke ground for U.S. Air Force female pilots who would follow in their footsteps decades later.  It wasn’t until 33 years after the WASP program was disbanded, that they were granted WWII veteran’s status.

After the war Jacqueline continued her legacy in aviation, participating in air races and still holds more international speed, distance, and altitude records than any other pilot, male or female.

‘If you will open up your power plants of vitality and energy, clean up your spark plugs of ambition and desires, and pour in the fuel of work, you will be likely to go places and do things,” Jacqueline Cochran.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/shelly.friespetruska Shelly Fries Petruska

    I have been reading the “Women’s History Month” highlights on this blog and the AF website, and they have been truly inspirational. This story about Jacqueline Cochran particularly caught my eye as she not only persevered through great odds in her personal life, but broke new ground for women pilots to serve in the armed forces before its time. Her story provides an interesting historical comparison for the “women in combat” discussions even today. Thank you for telling amazing stories about women of courage, strength and dedication in the military. I have already been sharing them with my young daughter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tiffani.b.walker Tiffani Burgess Walker

      Thanks for the comment, Shelly. I think the stories are fantastic, too (I have a little girl that I hope will grow up to do incredible things like these ladies). Best wishes to you and your daughter, LT W

      • http://www.facebook.com/shelly.friespetruska Shelly Fries Petruska

        Thank you Tiffani. My daughter has been asking a lot of questions, so it’s fun to talk about these great women and learn myself as well. Best wishes to you and your daughter as well.