On August 24, 1961, a jet streaked over the desert near Edwards Air Force Base. Fast planes were not unusual in that stretch of sky over Southern California, but women pilots were. In the cockpit of Northrop’s new two-seat, twin-engine supersonic trainer, the T-38 Talon, was Jacqueline Cochran. And the 55-year-old pilot was on a mission: reclaim her status as the fastest woman alive.
Eight years before, she had averaged 653 miles per hour over a 100-kilometer (62-mile) course in an F-86 Sabre, setting a world speed record and becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. But the French test pilot Jacqueline Auriol soon bested her record, by 63 miles per hour. Could the T-38 help the seasoned racer get it back?
Cochran was born Bessie Pittman in a Florida Panhandle lumber town and lived with her parents and four siblings in a series of ramshackle houses. “It was bleak and bitter and harsh,” Jackie wrote of her childhood. “But it taught me independence and the necessity of fending for myself.” Freedom had its horrors: As an 8-year-old working 12-hour shifts in a cotton mill, she would hide from the constant threat of molestation in a cart carrying spools of thread. Some adults saw her potential. One woman hired a 10-year-old Bessie to work in her beauty shop. By 15, Bessie was a skilled hairdresser working in Montgomery, Alabama, where she bought herself a Model T. Bessie also kept a secret: She’d had a baby at 14 and was married for a few years to the father, a man named Cochran, whose name she took. Her son lived with her parents and died as a child.
When a determination to reinvent herself led her to New York City in 1929, she changed her name from Bessie to Jackie and also claimed to be an orphan. At 23, she got a job at Antoine’s salon at Saks Fifth Avenue; in the winters she drove south to work at Antoine’s Florida outpost. At a 1932 dinner in Miami, she was seated next to a financier and industrialist named Floyd Odlum. He was smitten—and married. Still, they began a relationship. Odlum encouraged her interest in learning to fly; her talent soon became obvious. “Flying got into my soul instantly,” she wrote. Odlum also financed her dream of starting a cosmetics business, which thrived. After Odlum divorced, they married, and his devotion never seemed to waver until his death in 1976.
Cochran began racing in 1934 and steadily racked up flying trophies, broke records and, during World War II, organized the training of female pilots to transport warplanes in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Not everyone was a fan. Cochran could be arrogant, abrasive and demanding. Wealthy thanks to Odlum, she traveled with heaps of luggage and jewelry and was impossibly exacting with her household staff. But she commanded respect, attaining national fame as a fearless and extraordinarily skilled pilot. She and Chuck Yeager, the famed military ace and test pilot, became friends. Each was the type to push an aircraft until alarms blared and red lights flashed—and then to keep right on pushing.
The T-38 Talon was created to train a new generation of pilots, who would go on to fly a wide variety of aircraft, from supersonic fighters like the F-15 Eagle to subsonic bombers like the B-52. Between 1961 and 1972, almost 1,200 T-38s were produced, and more than 72,000 American pilots trained in them. The T-38 also became a trainer for astronauts; during the space shuttle era, it escorted the returning shuttle on its approach for landing.
The jet was brand-new when Cochran persuaded Northrop to lend her one. Yeager trained her on it for several weeks before she began her record attempts and was flying as her wingman that day in August 1961, when she averaged 844.20 miles per hour over a straightaway, besting Auriol’s record by 129 miles per hour. Over the next seven weeks, Cochran set seven more records in the Talon, including one for absolute altitude at 56,071 feet and another for speed over a 100-kilometer closed course. “She flew one of the most perfect runs that has ever been flown,” Yeager later wrote of that feat.
Jackie Cochran’s fastest flight came in June 1964 at the age of 58 in an F-104G Starfighter that she pushed to 1,429 miles per hour, exceeding Mach 2 and setting a new record for a female pilot.
She died in 1980, age 74. The plane etched on her gravestone in Indio, California, has the unmistakable swept wings and glass cockpit of a T-38 Talon.