Dakota Territory Air Museum’s P-51C Thunderbird, Part 2

Jackie Cochran and Thunderbird, (FAI)
Jackie Cochran and Thunderbird, (FAI)


On Thursday, December 29, 1949 the forecast in the Colorado Desert of California was for high 60’s to low 70’s F, and clear with variable high clouds. A shiny cobalt blue P-51C took off from the Thermal, California Airport into perfect weather for an attempt to set two air speed records. The first, a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Class C-1, and second, a U.S. National record over the 500 kilometer (310.7 mile) course from Desert Center, CA–Mt. Wilson in the southern California desert. The FAI required that the  attempt had to be made at low altitude (500 meters above average elevation of start and finish points).

After the circuit bounded by Thermal airport and Mt. Wilson, the P-51C Mustang “Thunderbird” landed and a smiling woman climbed from the cockpit. She was Jacqueline Cochran, the most famous female aviator of the time.

Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran (May 11, 1906 – August 9, 1980) was considered to be one of the most gifted racing pilots of her generation.

In December of 1949, after the triumph of that year’s Bendix win, Jimmy Stewart (sole owner, for Joe De Bona Racing Co.) sold Thunderbird to Jacqueline Cochran of Indio, California, for “$1.00 and other consideration.”, and the FAI 500 km closed course record was the first of 3 world speed records Jackie set with the aircraft. 

Miss Jacqueline Cochran, Director of WASP
Miss Jacqueline Cochran, Director of WASP in her WASP uniform.” Credit: Image Number 4A-23096-K1210, Record Group 342, National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, College Park, Maryland

In addition to air racing and record setting, Miss Cochran was also well known for being the first woman to pilot a bomber, (a Lockheed Hudson) across the Atlantic. This flight was part of an effort to ferry American built aircraft to Britain before US entry into the war.  However, her most notable accomplishment was perhaps her successful efforts to found and direct the Women AirForce Service Pilots (WASP) during WWII. 

The USAF website relates that “[Jackie] recruited more than 1,000 Women’s Airforce Service Pilots and supervised their training and service until they were disbanded in 1944. More than 25,000 applied for training, 1,830 were accepted and 1,074 made it through a very tough program to graduation. These women flew approximately 60 million miles for the Army Air Force with only 38 fatalities, or about 1 for every 16,000 hours flown. Cochran was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for services to her country during World War II.”1 Jackie was a pilot of many accomplishments who took advantage of each opportunity that befell her.

Capacity never lacks opportunity. It cannot remain undiscovered because it is sought by too many anxious to use it.

Jacqueline Cochran

1 Official Website of the USAF Jacqueline Cochran, accessed 4-21-2021 https://web.archive.org/web/20090727145450/http://www.af.mil/information/heritage/person.asp?dec=&pid=123006481

Silhouette memorial to the WASP at the national WASP Museum, Sweetwater, TX. AirCorps photo
Silhouette memorial to the WASP at the national WASP Museum, Sweetwater, TX. AirCorps photo

 She didn’t hesitate because of her gender, and proved that women had equity with men in piloting skills with every record she set.

“It never dawned on me not to do something because I was a woman… I thought nothing of approaching men like Vincent Bendix, the airplane manufacturer for whom the transcontinental air race was named, to explain my position: ‘I can fly as well as any man entered in that race.’ I didn’t see it as being boastful so much as speaking the truth. I learned through hard work and hard living that if I didn’t speak the truth about myself, no one else would fill in the missing pieces.”Jacqueline Cochran

Colton Courier of December 30, 1949
Colton Courier of December 30, 1949

A contemporary article in the Colton Courier (Coulton, CA) dated December 30, 1949 reported: “The pretty blue eyed wife of financier Floyd Odlum streaked her P-51 Mustang along at approximately 438 miles an hour for a new 500 kilometer closed course record.” It is interesting that the article’s first characterization of the famous women pilot related to her appearance. While statements like these were common for the times, and as an owner and founder of her own cosmetics company, Jackie Cochran certainly took great pains to maintain her appearance, the accomplishment of setting a world speed record would likely have been foremost in her mind.

“I had just bought the Mustang Joe De Bona used in the last Bendix race,” Miss Cochran said. “I got it from Jimmy Stewart, the actor and I was anxious to try it out.”

The FAI had just reinstated the 500 kilometer closed course that had not been used in several years. The previous record closed course record was set in 1939 at 225 miles per hour.2 The 500 kilometer close course record was just one in a string of records that Jackie Cochran held, and a precursor to many that would follow. 

Thermal Airport where Miss Cochran took off from for her successful record attempt was later renamed Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport, and the weather station she checked before the flight also now carries her moniker: Jacqueline Cochran Regional Weather Station, Thermal, CA.

By the time Jackie purchased Thunderbird and set her speed record in December 1949, she already held a remarkable number of flight records, including the U.S. and international women’s 3 kilometer, 100 kilometer, 1,000 kilometer, 2,000 kilometer, U.S. and international trans-continental women’s west-east record, and the U.S. women’s altitude record. 

The international record certificate for her flight in Thunderbird, now held in the San Diego Air & Space Museum collection reads “International and Feminine International Speed Record for Five Hundred Kilometers in a Closed Circuit, Without Payload. Average Speed was 436.995 Miles Per Hour”3. So for the first time, Miss Cochrane set a closed course record that was not only the fastest for women but also fastest of all time for any pilot. This same flight also set a U.S. national speed record.  

The third record set by Cochran in Thunderbird was another Fédération Aéronautique Internationale record on 9 April 1951, this time over a straight 16 kilometer course at Indio, California. Her average speed was 747.338 kilometers per hour (464.374 miles per hour) over the 9.942 mile course.

2 Colton Courier, Colton CA. December 30,1949
3 National Aeronautic Association Certificate of Record in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. (Bryan R. Swopes)

National Aeronautic Association Certificate of Record for the December 29,1949 record. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archive.
National Aeronautic Association Certificate of Record for the December 29,1949 record. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archive.
Jackie Cochran
Jackie Cochran standing on the wing of her F-86 whilst talking to Chuck Yeager and Canadair's chief test pilot Bill Longhurst. (Photo courtesy Air Force Flight Test Center History Office)

When Jackie began training on jet aircraft In late 1952, she sought out the best instructor she could find for a planned attempt on the speed of sound. Major Charles “Chuck” Yeager was the natural choice. 

Jackie boldly told Yeager, “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. In fact, Yeager has been quoted describing Jackie as “a damned Sherman tank at full steam,” adding that “she was tough and bossy and used to getting her own way.”

Despite his initial appraisal, Major Yeager and USAF Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Jackie Cochran became lifetime friends.“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.4 “She was as good as the guys were, and being a woman, that didn’t make any difference,” Yeager has said.

 Cochran worked with Yeager until the successful attempt on Mach 1 was made on May 18, 1953.5

4 Dr. Raymond Puffer, Air Force Flight Test Center historian,  Love of flight unites Cochran, Yeager, USAF Website a https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/139209/love-of-flight-unites-cochran-yeager, accessed 4/21/2021,

5 Kali Martin, Wings to Beauty: Aviation Pioneer Jacqueline Cochran, National WWII Museum website https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/aviation-pioneer-jacqueline-cochran, accessed April 21,2021

Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager
Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager walk away from a T-38 talon at Edwards AFB in 1962. The remained friends until Cochran’s death in 1982, photo from USAF website, accessed 4-21-2021: https://web.archive.org/web/20090727150026/http://www.af.mil/news/story_media.asp?storyID=123006481

Jackie later went on to set a world speed record of 1,429 mph (2,300 km/h) in 1964, flying the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, and would set no fewer than eight speed records in 1967, when she was over 60 years old!

According to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, “At the time of her death in 1980, Jacqueline Cochran held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other male or female pilot in aviation history.”

No brief article like this one can cover the inspirational life of Jacqueline Cochran comprehensively. Her role in the historic tale of Thunderbird is the purpose here. However, her life is a testament to persistence and determination and that, regardless of a person’s beginning background, station in life, or gender, that person can realize their dreams.

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