Love of flight unites Cochran, Yeager

  • Published
  • By Dr. Raymond Puffer
  • Air Force Flight Test Center historian
On the face of it, the long friendship between Jackie Cochran (Odlum) and Chuck Yeager seems a little improbable. Mixing two strong-willed overachievers, both of them whom were known public figures, is more like a formula for conflict.

Yet the fighter pilot and the wealthy businesswoman had genuine regard for each other, and over the years the Yeagers and the Odlums saw each other frequently.

The friendship was built on the things that each of the two genuinely respected: flying skill and absolute trust in the air.

Yeager recalled the first time they met in Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington's office, not long after his epic supersonic flight in 1947. Yeager was introduced to a blonde and extremely confident, somewhat older woman. Cochran took charge of the situation at once: she shook his hand, praised him for his feat and hustled him off to lunch. During the meal, he began to learn something about this extraordinary person.

Although she was a cosmetics company executive officer and married to a high-profile industrialist, she was also intimately familiar with first-line fighter planes.

In 1938, while the future X-1 pilot was still in high school, Cochran had won the prestigious Bendix Transcontinental Race, flying a Seversky AP-7. This was the civilian version of Seversky's P-35, a 950-horsepower fighter that was the predecessor of the famed P-47 Thunderbolt.

Then in 1940, she flew an advanced version of the plane with a 1,200-horsepower engine and fully retractable landing gear, setting two international speed records. Even as the two pilots lunched in Washington that day, Cochran was beginning to establish a string of speed records in her own highly modified P-51C Mustang.

She kept abreast of the latest airplane types all through World War II. The month that Yeager graduated from high school, Cochran made a highly publicized flight in a new Lockheed Hudson, delivering the patrol bomber to Britain just three months after the Senate had approved the Lend-Lease bill. In so doing, she became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic.

Over the next year, while Yeager was learning to be an airplane mechanic, she selected women to train as ferry pilots for the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

Cochran eventually persuaded her friend, Gen. H.H. (Hap) Arnold, that American women could do the same: ferry airplanes and do routine tasks in the air that would release male pilots for combat duty. She created and led the Women's Flying Training Detachment and soon the much larger and highly successful Women's Airforce Service Pilots group. During the months that Yeager was in combat, Cochran was recruiting and training female pilots, ending the war as a colonel on the General Staff of the Army Air Forces.

Thus, when she and the young rocket pilot met, they had much to talk about. She boldly told him, "I'm a damned good pilot. If I were a man, I would've been a war ace like you."

Over the years, Yeager was forced to agree.

“We liked each other right off the bat ... Cochran was tough as nails ... (and) she could fly anything. She was always excellent at landings," he said.

Small wonder that Yeager and his wife, Glennis, soon became close personal friends with Cochran and her husband, Floyd Odlum. The friendship lasted until Cochran's death in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1980.