Jacqueline Cochran and the History of the WASPs

Jacqueline Cochran and the History of the WASPs

Mar 20th 2024

You may have landed here looking for 1911 gun parts (we sell plenty of them) but today we’re taking a diversion down a historic lane in honor of Women’s History Month in general and Jacqueline Cochran in specific.

She may not be as well known as Amelia Earhart, but she was one of the most influential female pilots of all time, was a pioneer in air racing, and was the first woman to break the sound barrier in an aircraft.

She was also instrumental to the WASPs, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, a group of women in non-combat aviation roles in WWII.

About Jacqueline Cochran the WAFS, the WFTD, and the WASPs

Jacqueline Cochran’s life was an interesting one, considering the fact that she was born Bessie Lee Pitman and claimed later in life that she was adopted, which historians dispute. She also managed to hide her early life and family life from public view throughout her adult life.

She got married at a very young age to a Robert Cochran, after which point she adopted her husband’s name and dropped her given name in favor of Jacqueline or “Jackie.”

That marriage did not last long, but she kept the name Cochran and followed her ambition, becoming first a hairdresser in Pensacola and later working at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.

She later remarried Floyd Bostwick Odlum, one of the richest men in the world at the time. It was somewhere around this time that Cochran took a flight in an aircraft, fell in love with flight, and began taking flying lessons. It is said that she learned to fly in as little as three weeks.

With her new husband’s financial help and support, she pioneered a cosmetic line “Wings to Beauty” and flew around the country promoting her products.

By the late 1930s, Cochran was widely considered the most skilled female aviator in the country. She competed in the MacRobertson Air Race, the Bendix Race, and set transcontinental records for both speed and altitude. She also won five Harmon Trophies and was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic.

Cochran was extensively involved in pre-war support for Britain, participating in the “Wings for Britain” program in which the United States transported American-made aircraft to support the British war effort against the Axis Powers.

Even before the United States’ formal entry into the war at the end of 1941, she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt proposing a women-only division of the United States’ Army Air Forces. Her idea was that by allowing women to manage domestic affairs and non-combat duties for the Air Force, more men would be freed to go overseas and serve in combat roles.

She also wrote to Robert Olds, who was then in charge of the Air Corps Ferrying Command responsible for aircraft delivery service. He enjoined her with determining the number of female pilots in the country, what their skills were, and what their interest was in serving the country.

Despite the fact that there was a glaring pilot shortage early in the war (it took far longer to train a new pilot than to build a plane), Robert Olds, as well as Lieutenant General Hap Arnold of the Army Air Force were both not convinced of the idea; the latter charged her to bring a group of experienced female pilots with her to England to gauge the success of women pilots in the ATA, or Air Transport Auxiliary.

Cochran identified 76 qualified female pilots and brought these with her to Canada to train, at the end of which training 25 of whom attended Cochran to England to join and serve in the ATA in early 1942.

While she was overseas, Lieutenant General Arnold formed the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS, to take charge of ferrying military aircraft bound for service.

When she heard of this Cochran returned from England immediately, convinced that women in service could do far more than just ferry military aircraft. Influenced by her urging, Lt. General Arnold formed the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), which merged in mid-1943 with the WAFS to become the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

The WASPs, also referred to as Women’s Army Service Pilots or Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots, consisted of women pilots who not only ferried service aircraft but also served as test pilots and trained other pilots bound for combat roles.

During the WASPs’ tenure of service, each civilian woman who served freed one male pilot to serve elsewhere; the program flew over 60 million miles collectively, transported every type of military aircraft as well as cargo, supported and facilitated live-fire training, and much more.

During the course of the war, the WASPs handled more than 80% of all ferrying missions, freed more than 900 males for military service, and transported more than 12,000 aircraft.

Originally, the WASPs program was classified as a federal civil service organization and so members were not due military benefits or honors; however, after a lengthy “battle,” in 1977 President Carter signed the G.I. Bill Improvement Act (of the same year), reclassifying members of the WASPs as “active duty” members of the United States Armed Forces.

For her service to the country and for her founding role in the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots program, Jackie Cochran was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in 1945. She was the first woman civilian to earn that decoration, which is also the highest non-combat award presented by the United States government.

Even with the end of the war, Jackie Cochran’s ambition was not sated. She went on to test pilot early jet aircraft and helped found the Mercury 13 program which aimed to screen women for spaceflight - otherwise known as the “Women in Space Program.”

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This March, SARCO Inc., is paying tribute to influential women in history by dedicating some of our blog space to their memory - and Jackie Cochran deserves the spotlight as she paved the way for women aviators across the country and subsequently the world.

We’re still your top spot or 1911 gun parts and gun parts kits, though. If you enjoyed this diversion but still can’t find the part you’re looking for, get in touch with us at 610-250-3960 and we’ll help you find it.