Tuesday, May 12, 2015

From Shampoo Girl to Aviatrix

Entering the world at a time when women were expected to be mothers and homemakers, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran shattered that mold to become a record-breaking aviatrix. Born Bessie Lee Pittman in either 1906, 1909 or 1910, Jackie was the youngest of five children. Seemingly embarrassed about her background, she often claimed the Pittmans were not her real parents.

At a young age, Jackie found a job as a shampoo girl in a beauty parlor then worked her way up to the position of beautician and specialized in giving permanent waves-a new trend in hairstyles. Around this time she changed her name and moved to New York City where she became one of the top-ranked hairdressers in the city.  Her services were in such demand she often accompanied her customers when they traveled.

During a trip to Miami, Jackie met Floyd Odlum. After she revealed her plans to start a cosmetics company and take it on the road, Floyd suggested that learning to fly might give her a competitive advantage.

Jackie jumped at the idea and immediately signed up for lessons. She later remembered, “At that moment, when I paid for my first lesson a beauty operator ceased to exist and an aviator was born.” After obtaining her license in 1932, she entered numerous air races and competitions. She married Floyd in 1936.

Anxious to help England with their war against Germany, in 1939 Jackie became part of “Wings for Britain,” an organization that ferried American-built airplanes to Britain. Once in England, she volunteered her services to the Royal Air Force, and for several months worked for the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Considering that the U.S. might eventually enter the war, she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt proposing a woman’s flying division in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Her letter was turned over the General Hap Arnold who rejected the proposal. She returned home, and for the next two years continued to fly competitively breaking speed records and taking home awards. When staffing shortages reached a critical level, General Arnold asked Jackie to travel back to England to study the Air Transport Auxiliary. To her dismay, while she was gone he created the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and put Nancy Harkness Love in charge. Jackie remained in England with the ATA.

In 1943, the General asked Jackie to return to the U.S. to direct the newly formed Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). In this position she supervised the training of hundreds of female pilots. For her efforts, she was awarded both the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war she flew the new jet aircraft and became involved in the Mercury 13 program, an early effort to test the ability of women to be astronauts.

To this day the former Bessie Lee Pittman still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female. Not bad for a poverty-stricken girl from Florida who never finished school.

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A freelance writer for over twelve years, Linda Matchett also writes historical fiction. She is currently seeking a publisher for her series about war correspondent Ruth Brown. Visit her at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com


  1. A great post to prove anyonecan change horses in midtream to follow your dream

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree - anyone can change!

  2. I had never heard of Jackie Cochran before. Great post!