Bessie Lee Pittman (1906 - 1980) MP

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Jacqueline Cochran's Geni Profile

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Nicknames: "Jacqueline Cochran"
Death: Died
Managed by: Doug Robinson
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Bessie Lee Pittman

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacqueline_Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran (May 11, 1906 – August 9, 1980) was a pioneer American aviator, considered to be one of the most gifted racing pilots of her generation. She was an important contributor to the formation of the wartime Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).


Early life

Jacqueline Cochran, born Bessie Lee Pittman in the Florida Panhandle, was the youngest of the five children of Mary (Grant) and Ira Pittman, a skilled millwright who moved from town to town setting up and reworking saw mills. While her family was not rich, Cochran's childhood living in small-town Florida was similar to those in most other families of that time and place. Contrary to some accounts, there was always food on the table and she was not adopted, as she often claimed.


Bessie Pittman married Robert Cochran, a young aircraft mechanic from the nearby naval base at Pensacola, at an early age. They were married in Blakeley, Georgia on November 13, 1920. She gave birth to Robert Cochran Jr. four months later. The couple and child moved to Miami where they lived for four years. Filing for divorce, Cochran moved back to northwest Florida, settling in DeFuniak Springs, where her parents were then living. Not quite five years old, Robert Cochran Jr. died a tragic death after he set his clothes on fire while playing alone in the backyard.


Cochran then became a hairdresser and got a job in Pensacola, eventually winding up in New York City. There, she used her looks and driving personality to get a job at a prestigious salon at Saks Fifth Avenue. Somewhere along the line, she chose to change her name from Mrs Bessie Cochran to Miss Jackie Cochran.


Although Cochran denied her family and her past, she remained in touch with her family and provided for them over the years. Some of her family even moved to her ranch in California after she remarried. However, they were instructed to always say they were her adopted family. Cochran apparently wanted to hide from the public the early chapters of her life and was successful in doing so until after her death.


Only later did Cochran meet Floyd Bostwick Odlum, founder of Atlas Corp. and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. Fourteen years her senior, he was reputed to be one of the 10 richest men in the world, Odlum became enamored with Cochran and offered to help her establish a cosmetics business.


After a friend offered her a ride in an aircraft, Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Airfield, Long Island in the early 1930s. She learned to fly an aircraft in just three weeks. She then soloed and within two years obtained her commercial pilot's license. Odlum, whom she married in 1936 after his divorce, was an astute financier and savvy marketer who recognized the value of publicity for her business. Calling her line of cosmetics Wings, she flew her own aircraft around the country promoting her products. Years later, Odlum used his Hollywood connections to get Marilyn Monroe to endorse her line of lipstick.


Contributions to aviation


Known by her friends as "Jackie," and maintaining the Cochran name, she flew in the MacRobertson Air Race in 1934. In 1937, she was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race. She worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race for women. That year, she also set a new woman's national speed record. By 1938, she was considered the best female pilot in the United States. She had won the Bendix and set a new transcontinental speed record as well as altitude records (by this time she was no longer just breaking women's records but was setting overall records).


Cochran was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She won five Harmon Trophies as the outstanding woman pilot in the world. Sometimes called the "Speed Queen," at the time of her death, no other pilot held more speed, distance or altitude records in aviation history, than her.


Before the United States joined World War II, Cochran was part of "Wings for Britain", an organization that ferried American built aircraft to Britain, becoming the first woman to fly a bomber, (a Lockheed Hudson V) across the Atlantic. In Britain, she volunteered her services to the Royal Air Force. For several months she worked for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), recruiting qualified women pilots in the United States and taking them to England where they joined the Air Transport Auxiliary. In September 1940 Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to introduce the proposal of starting a women's flying division in the Army Air Forces. She felt that qualified women pilots could do all of the domestic, noncombat aviation jobs necessary in order to release more male pilots for combat. She pictured herself in command of these women, with the same standings as Oveta Culp Hobby, who was then in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). (The WAAC was given full military status on July 1, 1943, thus making them part of the Army. At the same time, the unit was renamed Women's Army Corps [WAC].)

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Also in 1940, Cochran wrote a letter to Lt. Col. Robert Olds, who was helping to organize the Air Corps Ferrying Command for the Air Corps at the time. (Ferrying Command was originally a courier/aircraft delivery service, but evolved into the air transport branch of the United States Army Air Forces as the Air Transport Command). In the letter, Cochran suggested that women pilots be employed to fly non-combat missions for the new command. In early 1941, Olds asked Cochran to find out how many women pilots there were in the United States, what their flying times were, their skills, their interest in flying for the country, and personal information about them. She used records from the Civil Aeronautics Administration to gather the data.


In spite of pilot shortages, Lieutenant General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold was the person who needed to be convinced that women pilots were the solution to his staffing problems. Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, continued as commanding general of the Army Air Forces upon its creation in June 1941. He knew that women were being used successfully in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in England. Also in June 1941, Arnold suggested that Cochran take a group of qualified female pilots to see how the British were doing. He promised her that no decisions regarding women flying for the USAAF would be made until she returned.


When Arnold asked Cochran to go to Britain to study the ATA, Cochran asked 76 of the most qualified female pilots – identified during the research she had done earlier for Olds – to come along and fly for the ATA. Qualifications for these women were high – at least 300 hours of flying time, but most of the women pilots had over 1,000 hours. Those that made it to Canada found out that the washout rate was also high. A total of 25 women passed the tests, and two months later, in March 1942 they went to Britain with Cochran to join the ATA.


While Cochran was in England, in September 1942, General Arnold authorized the formation of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) under the direction of Nancy Harkness Love. The WAFS began at Castle Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware, with a group of female pilots whose objective was to ferry military aircraft. Hearing about the WAFS, Cochran immediately returned from England. Cochran's experience in Britain with the ATA convinced her that women pilots could be trained to do much more than ferrying. Lobbying Arnold for expanded flying opportunities for female pilots, he sanctioned the creation of the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), headed by Cochran. In August 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD merged to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director and Nancy Love as head of the ferrying division.


As director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, Cochran supervised the training of hundreds of women pilots at the former Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. For her war efforts, she received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.


Postwar, Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier (with Chuck Yeager right on her wing), the first woman to fly a jet across the ocean, as well as setting many other aviation records.


Postwar


At war's end, Cochran was hired by a magazine to report on global postwar events. In this role, she witnessed Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita's surrender in the Philippines, then was the first (non-Japanese) woman to enter Japan after the War and attended the Nuremberg Trials in Germany.


In 1948, Cochran joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve where she eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel..


Flying records


Postwar, she began flying the new jet aircraft, going on to set numerous records; most conspicuously, she became the first woman pilot to "go supersonic."


Encouraged by then-Major Chuck Yeager, with whom Cochran shared a lifelong friendship, on May 18, 1953, at Rogers Dry Lake, California, Cochran flew a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet borrowed from the Royal Canadian Air Force at an average speed of 652.337 mph, becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier.


Cochran was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first woman to reach Mach 2, the first woman to pilot a bomber across the North Atlantic (in 1941), the first pilot to make a blind (instrument) landing, the only woman ever to be President of the Federation Aeronautique International (1958–1961), the first woman to fly a fixed-wing, jet aircraft across the Atlantic, the first pilot to fly above 20,000 ft with an oxygen mask, and the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Race. She still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female.


Because of her interest in all forms of aviation, Cochran flew the Goodyear Blimp in the early 1960s with Goodyear Blimp Captain R.W. Crosier in Akron, Ohio.


Mercury 13


In the 1960s, Cochran was a sponsor of the Mercury 13 program, an early effort to test the ability of women to be astronauts. Thirteen women pilots passed the same preliminary tests as the male astronauts of the Mercury program before the program was cancelled. It was never a NASA initiative, though it was spearheaded by two members of the NASA Life Sciences Committee, one of whom, William Randolph Lovelace II, was a close friend of Cochran and her husband. Though Cochran initially supported the program, she was later responsible for delaying further phases of testing, and letters from her to members of the Navy and NASA expressing concern over whether the program was to be run properly and in accordance with NASA goals may have significantly contributed to the eventual cancellation of the program. It is generally accepted that Cochran turned against the program out of concern that she would no longer be the most prominent female aviator.


Congress held hearings to determine whether or not the exclusion of women from the astronaut program was discriminatory, during which John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified against admitting women to the astronaut program. Cochran herself argued against bringing women into the space program, saying that time was of the essence, and moving forward as planned was the only way to beat the Soviets in the Space Race. (None of the women who had passed the tests were military jet test pilots, nor did they have engineering degrees, which were the two basic experiential qualifications for potential astronauts. Women were not allowed to be military jet test pilots at that time. On average, however, they all had more flight experience than the male astronauts.) "NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees. In 1962, no women could meet these requirements." This ended the Mercury 13 program.


Political activities

 

A life-long Republican, Cochran, as a result of her involvement in politics and the military, would become close friends with General Dwight Eisenhower. In the early part of 1952, she and her husband helped sponsor a large rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in support of an Eisenhower presidential candidacy.


The rally was documented on film and Cochran personally flew it to France for a special showing at Eisenhower's headquarters. Her efforts proved a major factor in convincing Eisenhower to run for President of the United States in 1952 and she would play a major role in his successful campaign. Close friends thereafter, Eisenhower frequently visited her and her husband at their California ranch and after leaving office, wrote portions of his memoirs there.


Politically ambitious, Cochran ran for Congress in 1956 from California's 29th Congressional District as the candidate for the Republican Party. Her name appeared throughout the campaign and on the ballot as Jaqueline Cochran-Odlum. Although she defeated a field of five male opponents to win the Republican nomination, in the general election she lost a close election to Democratic candidate and first Asian-American Congressman, Dalip Singh Saund. Saund won with 54,989 votes (51.5%) to Cochran's 51,690 votes (48.5%). Her political setback was one of the few failures she ever experienced and she never attempted another run. Those who knew Cochran have said that the loss bothered her for the rest of her life.


Legacy


Cochran died on August 9, 1980 at her home in Indio, California that she shared with Floyd Odlum. She was a long-time resident of the Coachella Valley, and is buried in Coachella Valley Public Cemetery. She regularly utilized Thermal Airport over the course of her long aviation career. The airport, which had been renamed Desert Resorts Regional, was again renamed "Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport" in her honor.


Her aviation accomplishments never gained the continuing media attention given those of Amelia Earhart, but that can in part be attributed to the public's fascination with those who die young at the peak of their careers. Also, Cochran's use of her husband's immense wealth reduced the rags-to-riches nature of her story. Nonetheless, she deserves a place in the ranks of famous women in history as one of the greatest aviators ever, and a woman who frequently used her influence to advance the cause of women in aviation.


Despite her lack of formal education, Cochran had a quick mind and an affinity for business and her investment in the cosmetics field proved a lucrative one. Later, 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."


Blessed by fame and wealth, Cochran donated a great deal of time and money to charitable works, especially with those from impoverished backgrounds like her own.[citation needed]


Awards


From many countries around the world, Cochran received citations and awards. 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. She would go on to be elected to that body's board of directors and director of Northwest Airlines in the U.S. At home, the Air Force awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit.


An annual air show called the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show is named in her honor and takes place at the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport. Cochran also became the first woman to be honored with a permanent display of her achievements at the United States Air Force Academy. In the play, The Fastest Woman Alive, written by Karen Sunde, Cochran's life is chronicled alongside her husband, Floyd, Amelia Earhart, and others.


Other honors include:

In 1965, Cochran was invested in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.
In 1971, induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1985, the International Astronomical Union assigned the name Cochran to a large (100 km in diameter) crater on planet Venus.
In 1993, induction in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
In 1996, the United States Post Office honored Cochran 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."
In 1999, Cochran was designated a Women's History Month Honoree by the National Women's History Project.
In 2006, Cochran is one of the inductees into the Lancaster, California Aerospace Walk of Honor, and the first woman to be inducted.