Where to begin when describing the numerous aviation feats of this one-time Saks Fifth Avenue beautician born as Bessie Lee Pittman in 1906 in Muscogee, Fla.? A trophy-collecting contemporary of Amelia Earhart often referred to the “Speed Queen,” Jacqueline Cochran held more distance, altitude and speed records than any other pilot, male or female, at the time of her death in 1980.
To start, Cochran was the only woman to compete in the 1937 Bendix race (she won the race the following year), the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic (1941), the first female pilot to break the sound barrier (1953), the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first female president of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (1958-1961) and the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet without an oxygen mask.
She was also the first aviatrix to also run a Marilyn Monroe-endorsed cosmetics company (her line was aptly dubbed “Wings”) and the first female pilot to run for Congress (a close friend of Dwight Eisenhower, she was the Republication nominee for California’s 29th Congressional District in 1956, losing in the generation election to the country’s first Asian-American congressman, Democrat Dalip Singh Saund). Phew. And get this: Cochran, a bona fide celebrity, successful businesswoman and an instrumental figure in recruiting and training women to fly noncombat aircraft during World War II, received her pilot’s license after only three weeks of instruction.