Friday, May 18, 2007

Heroine Den, part 3

May 18th's heroine: Jackie Cochran, who on this day in 1953 became the first women to break the sound barrier.

Most people have heard of Amelia Earhart - the first person (note person not woman) to fly across the atlantic from Honolulu to Oakland.

Jackie Cochran was another pioneering aviator who, as well as holding a bushel of woman's records was also the first ever pilot to acheive an instruments only ("blind") landing. She still holds more records than any pilot, living or dead, male or female.

Inspired by the British pilot Pauline Gower and her "First Eight", Cochran helped run the ATA. She then returned to the States to run the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, a "women's air army". At the same time, pilot Nancy Harkness Love ran a civillian women's auxilliary, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, to ferry bombers between the factories and the front lines.

The sad coda: by the middle of the 20th century, attitudes were once again becoming reactionary. Cochran's WASP program was wound up and her application to join NASA's spaceflight program as an astronaut was blocked on political grounds. She eventually became one of the Mercury 13 - a group of 13 women tested for their aptitude for spaceflight:

In the end, thirteen women passed the same physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed for NASA’s astronaut selection process (although the original number of male candidates was much larger, fewer men passed the tests).

The attitudes of male astronauts lead to the dropping of the Mercury 13 however: Jerrie Truhill recalls that
The male astronauts referred to the women as "98 pounds of recreational equipment,"

Two years later, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

Today's heroines are the women pioneers of aviation, who pushed back the barriers of flight as well as the barriers of society. Future heroines: the female space pioneers fighting the same battles half a century on.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

Unfortunately Cochran was not supportive of the women who were accepted into the Mercury 13 program at the Congressional hearings after the program was scrapped. From this article:
Instead, she arranged her papers, listed off her hundreds of qualifications, and bluntly made her point: "I do not believe there has been any intentional or actual discrimination against women in the astronaut program to date." Since there was no pressing need for more astronauts, "and there is no shortage of well-trained and long-experienced male pilots," there was no need for women.

Ms. Cochran had testified to Congress before: In 1943 she defended her WASPs, when critics alleged, among other things, that it was a waste to train them to fly since they just went off and got married anyhow. But now she invoked the exact argument she had once fought: "You are going to have to, of necessity, waste a great deal of money when you take a large group of women in, because you lose them through marriage."

I don't know if Cochran's views shifted after the war or if she was embittered by not having been selected for the program. It's a shame that she didn't support her fellow female pilots.

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