With all due respect to sweet Amelia Earhart, the premier aviatrix of our planet was brassy Jacqueline Cochran, who held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot of her time. From 1932, when she qualified for her flying license in three weeks, to the early '70s, when her heart went bad on her, Jackie Cochran flew circles around most of her male contemporaries. She had plenty of "the right stuff," but it was wrapped wrong: Only at the end of her 40-year career was she voted an honorary membership in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, which is the inner circle of aviation pioneers and for which she was if anything overqualified. "She had a personality like sandpaper," said Claudia M. Oakes, curator of the new Cochran exhibit at the National Air ad Space Museum. "She had to be tough to fight her way out of really down-and-out poverty in the Florida Panhandle into the sophisticated and expensive world of aviation. Earhart was affluent and could afford to be demure; Jackie had to be hard." She also had to be damned good, which she proved when in 1938 she won the prestigious Bendix Trophy and the first of her 14 Harmon trophies. Later she became the first woman to break the sonic barrier. Earhart, having disappeared in the Pacific on an attempted round-the-world flight, was canonized; Cochran was patronized. During World War II, for instance, when the Allies had plenty of planes but were short of pilots, she organized the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) to help with noncombat service and ferrying missions. Cochran and other women demonstrated that they could handle even heavy bombers, but the male pilots insisted that men take over during all takeoffs and landings. After the war the flood of demobilized combat pilots washed away any hopes women had for cockpit careers in civil aviation. Only recently, with the retirement of the aging warriors and the rise of women's liberation, have female pilots begun to move into the command chairs. Cochran, who died in 1980, did her best to keep the seat warm for them.
JACQUELINE COCHRAN -- On permanent exhibition in the Pioneers of Flight Gallery, National Air and Space Museum.