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Cochran paved the way for women pilots

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

At her death in 1980, Jacqueline Cochran held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot in aviation history.

Along the way, she talked her way into the famous Bendix air race (and won it one year), helped develop oxygen masks and pressurized cabins, and led the WASPs (Women’s Air Force Service Pilots) in World War II. In the 1950s, she lobbied to become an astronaut.

But it wasn’t her precociousness that turned Cochran into a force in American history. It was her guts.

After moving to New York in 1929 to start her own cosmetics line, Cochran landed a job at Saks Fifth Avenue and grew so popular with clients that they took her traveling with them.

On one of those jaunts, she met her future husband. Told that Cochran would “need wings” to cover enough territory for her business, he suggested that she learn to fly. She did.

In 1934, Cochran became the first pilot to test a turbo-supercharger on an aircraft engine. In 1937, she flew from New York to Miami in a little more than four hours, setting a national speed record. In 1938, the year she won the Los Angeles-to-Cleveland Bendix race, she became the first to test a plane with a “wet wing,” or wing fuel tank. In 1939, she set a world record for speed.

As the first pilot to fly the Republic P-43, Cochran’s advice led to a redesign of the tail wheel installation, later used in the P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the greatest World War II fighter planes.

During the war, she persuaded Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of U.S. Army Air Forces, to let her start a women’s flying detachment, which became the WASPs. Under Cochran, they flew 60 million miles and delivered 12,650 planes to battle.

She continued setting records after the war, including eight speed records in 1961. She never crashed, even in one year of 56 forced landings.

“She was a competitor,” says Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier. “You’ve got to be aggressive to do that and you’ve got to have guts to go out and get exactly what you want.”

—Adapted from “Jackie Cochran: American Athena,” Steven Brockerman, Capitalism Magazine.

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