By Ch, Col. Shon Neyland, Pacific Air Forces
/ Published April 12, 2019
Lt. Col Jacqueline Cochran poses for a photo. (Courtesy Photo)
Lt Col Jacqueline Cochran greets Women Air Service Pilots. (Courtesy Photo)
As we close out Women's History month, I could not help but once again share the incredible story of Lt. Col. Jacqueline Cochran, reserve officer. This year’s theme for Women’s History month is “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence.” I realize we are in the military, and many would not exactly classify us as nonviolent! I would agree, for after all we are warfighters; however, I submit we are also brokers of peace. Our path to maintain peace, freedom, democracy, and prosperity for the world is born from the strength of our military and power projection. Thus, I believe it to be highly relevant to talk about Lt. Col. Jacqueline Cochran, a woman with a vision to change the world and certainly a champion of peace through deterrence. Cochran became the first female pilot to break the sound barrier in 1953. She was an inspiration to a generation of women and men who defended the United States during World War II and propelled us to victory. Cochran was a visionary because she believed that anything was possible! Despite the limitations of women during those times, she defied the odds and was determined to soar with the wind and stars to do the impossible.
Cochran led the historic and ground-breaking Women’s Air Force Service Pilots training program during World War II when she was appointed to the General Staff of the U.S. Army. She worked with Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold in advocating for women to fly military aircraft during the war and beyond. She went on to receive the Distinguished Service Medal for her contributions to the war and became the first woman to fly a bomber across the North Atlantic. Cochran set records in almost every category of aviation and was a key contributor to tests and studies on women becoming astronauts. There is no doubt Cochran was a pioneer not only for women, but also for all of America. She demonstrated that with a vision and inspiration, one could change the landscape and blaze new trails. She believed it was possible!
Like many of us, Cochran did not always have an easy road in life, but she was resilient. In fact, she started life in abject poverty with little education and had to work her way up to earn a decent living. She would get married early in life to Robert Cochran, an aircraft mechanic, and start a family. They had one son together, Robert Cochran, Jr. Jacqueline filed for divorce a few short years later after the birth of Robert Jr. Tragically, at the age of five years old, Robert Jr. accidently killed himself while playing in the yard alone with fire. Yet through all of the hard times and tragedies she would not stop pursuing her dreams and stepped into her destiny. Cochran would remarry a wealthy business owner and later start her own lucrative cosmetic business line, “Wings.” By 1951 she was voted one of the 25 outstanding business women in America. She would go on to become a great influencer of her era as she was close to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower who would later come President. Cochran said it best, “If you will open up your power plants of vitality and energy, clean up your spark plugs of ambition and desires, and pour in the fuel of work, you will be likely to go places and do things.” Simply put, she believed it was possible!
Cochran knew the mission required an emphasis on vitality, ambition and work. Visionary leaders possess the energy and drive to see the possible and take action to accomplish the mission. She would go on to change the landscape of American history and leave a legacy for all to follow. Her life was full of risks and challenges for she stated, “To live without risk for me would be tantamount to death.” And live she did! Hers was a life full of risks, yet overwhelmingly successful! Her story is a message of inspiration, leadership and hope that no matter where we start in life, greater things are possible.
We should seek to be unwavering in our personal lives and operational mission, blazing new trails with a vision for success. She believed in a strength greater than herself. Her drive and internal resolve to do the impossible was fueled by her faith. Some may call it a strength greater than oneself. Cochran is quoted as stating, “It comes with faith, for with complete faith there is no fear of what faces you in life or death.” Not all will subscribe to a greater power outside of themselves, and I respect that view. Whatever gives you purpose and hope can propel you to new heights and help you envision what is possible. At the time of her death in 1980, Cochran held more records for international speed, distance and altitude than any other pilot (male or female) — purely inspirational! Today her legacy lives on as she is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in the National Museum of the United States Air Force. I close with this final thought from Cochran: “I might have been born in a hovel (shack) but I am determined to travel with the wind and the stars.” What about you?