22 December 2006

Aviatrix Books to Read and Enjoy


I've been doing a lot of reading for the Pancho project! It's a lot of fun to immerse yourself in books, and periodically in the production journal I'll write a little review. To come in the next couple months will be mention of books about Bob Hoover, Chuck Yeager, Roscoe Turner, Bobbi Trout, and other friends of Pancho. Today let me mention the book "Jackie Cochran" by Maryann Bucknum Brinley and Jackie herself. Some may think it is sacrilege to mention Jackie C. and Pancho in the same context — the two notoriously didn't like one another! But it is hard not to compare the two. Jackie learned to fly a few years after Pancho did, in 1932, but her career lasted far longer and had a far greater impact than Pancho's. She was the first woman to fly at Mach 1, winner of the Bendix Trophy, fifteen Harmon trophies, president of the 99's, and the organizer and commander of WWII's Women's Air Service Pilots, the W.A.S.Ps. She was arguably the most illustrious female flier of the 20th Century.

Jackie's story is similar in some ways to Pancho's. Both women were absolutely fearless in the air, and both craved speed. While Pancho worked as a motion picture stunt pilot and set speed records in her Travelair Mystery Ship, Cochrane competed in air races around the country, flew in the grueling MacRobertson London-to-Australia endurance race, and tested aircraft for the likes of Sasha Seversky, founder of Republic. They shared many friends in common, including Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle and Hap Arnold. According to friends we interviewed, Pancho and Jackie competed for Yeager's attention in particular. Cochran believed Pancho was "the most uncouth woman alive" according to Gen. Fred Ascani, who got to witness the rare event of the two being in the same room, on the occasion of a party celebrating Cochran's breaking the sound barrier. For Pancho's part, the attractive, accomplished Cochran must have brought out her competitive spirit. What's interesting, and you'll get this if you read the Brinley book, is the subtext that underscored the relationship between the two. Pancho came from an extremely wealthy family and flew for the thrill of it. Her wild, outsized behaviour shocked many of her blueblood friends and her family, and made her an outsider. She ended her life fairly impoverished, her wealth gone, forced out of high society in part because of her love of flying and antics. For Jackie's part, she came from nothing. Adopted as a child, she grew up dirt poor, and strived her whole life to succeed, and to do so with finesse and polish. From a start as a beautician, she became enormously successful as a business person and pilot, a friend of presidents and generals who came to be accepted into high society. The arc of her life, in short, was the opposite of Pancho's. From that standpoint alone, no wonder these two did not get along.