A Winged Salute to Jackie Cochran

Monday, November 1, 2004
A Winged Salute to Jackie Cochran
Desert airport will be named in honor of the first woman to break the sound barrier.
By Barbara E. Hernandez
The Los Angeles (CA) Times

THERMAL, Calif. – In 1953, Jacqueline Cochran soared above the Coachella Valley and tiny Thermal Airport in an F-86 Sabre Jet, becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. More than 50 years later, that airport will be named in her honor.

Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport, one of only a handful of airports in the nation named after a woman, will be dedicated in a ceremony and air show here Saturday.

“It took someone special to come from where [Cochran] did and go as high as she did,” said Dorothy Swain Lewis, who served under Cochran in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.

Born in 1906 or 1910 – accounts vary – and named Bessie Mae Pittman, she claimed to have grown up as a foster child in a family of seven, living in the shadow of Florida’s lumber mills. She quit school in the third grade to work in a Georgia cotton mill and bought her first pair of shoes when she was 8.

As an adult, Cochran chose a new name out of a phone book, became a cosmetics mogul and pilot, married a millionaire industrialist and broke scores of flight records.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Amelia Earhart trying to get around the world [in 1937], but Jackie lived longer and got into the jet age,” said Aldine Tarter, 80, former general manager of the Cochran-Odlum Ranch in Indio.

Cochran and her husband, Floyd Odlum, lived at the ranch after they married in 1936.

Cochran, who lived in Indio for more than 40 years, had never been given a local memorial. It was Connie Cowan, curator of the Coachella Valley Museum and Cultural Center, and Cochran’s friend and fellow pilot, Maggie Miller, 80, who decided that Cochran deserved one.

After an attempt to name an elementary school after Cochran, they turned their attention to Desert Resorts Regional Airport. Cochran often used the airport as she set out to break flight records.

Riverside County supervisors voted 4 to 0 for the name change last April. It was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in July, county officials said.

“We were all kicking ourselves because we didn’t think of her when we named it Desert Resorts Regional Airport six years ago,” said Supervisor Roy Wilson.

During World War II, Cochran initially flew for the Royal Air Force, delivering military aircraft from the United States to England. In 1941, she selected a group of female pilots to ferry aircraft for the British Air Transport Authority. In 1943, she organized WASP, a group of female civilians who flew aircraft around the United States for the U.S. military and served as instructors for male pilots.

Former WASPs Lewis, 89, and Winifred Wood, 85, were members of “Cochran’s Convent,” another name for the WASP training center at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas.

The two now live in nearby Idyllwild and will attend the airport dedication.P

Lewis, now an artist, said Cochran’s honor was long overdue. “She opened up the U.S. Air Force to women, and she was proud of that,” she said, sitting in front of her fireplace. “Many WASPs said those two years of flying were the best of their lives.”

The WASP program was shut down before the end of the war, and Cochran became a journalist for Liberty magazine, covering the surrender of Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita in the Philippines and later the Nuremberg war-crimes trials in Germany. In the 1960s, Cochran was a well-known test pilot and also a consultant for NASA.

Thermal Airport was built in 1942 to train pilots for the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy. In 1948, the airport reverted back to Riverside County, where it stayed relatively undeveloped for 40 years.

About 15 years ago, the county embarked on $20 million worth of improvements, including a runway that could accommodate Boeing 737s.

A $24-million improvement plan for the 1,752-acre airport would create heliports and a control tower by 2013.

Juan De Lara, a member of the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport Authority, said the air show and dedication ceremony Saturday is a way to attract businesses to the airport. “We have come a long way from a small open house to this air show,” he said.

After Cochran’s husband died in 1976, she decided to sell the ranch, Tarter said. The former pilot died at her home in Indio in 1980. Miller said the outspoken Cochran never sought fame like other pilots.

“Years later, Amelia Earhart is still getting all the publicity,” Miller said. “When I said this to Jackie, she told me, ‘Oh, just wait. I’ll get mine after I’m gone.’ “