RAF Upper Heyford remembers American woman ATA pilot

A total of 56 TAB-V or Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), proof against a direct hit from a 500 lb high explosive bomb, were built at RAF Upper Heyford as part of a scheme to upgrade the base so that it could continue to operate after attack by conventional, biological or chemical weapons, or after contamination by radioactive dust.

Each HAS was intended for a single General Dynamics F-111E nuclear-capable strike aircraft, although two aircraft could be accommodated by making use of the F-111’s variable geometry (swing) wings.

The first batches of HASs were originally open ended weather shelters, made from interlocking metal parts and held together with 24,000 nuts and bolts. Later these were ‘hardened’ by adding a thick concrete skin and doors.

‘HAS 20’ was completed in January 1981 and handed over to the 55th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

In 1986 personnel of the four squadrons based at Heyford were asked to nominate names for each shelter. HAS 20 was  named in memory of Air Transport Auxiliary pilot ‘Jacqueline Cochran’.

Jacqueline Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pitman on 11 May 1906. In about 1920 she married Robert Cochran, and they had a son, who was to die at the age of 5. The marriage was not a success, but the change of surname and the adoption of ‘Jacqueline’ or ‘Jackie’ as a first name allowed Bessie to rewrite history and refer to the Pitmans as her adopted family.

Working as a hairdresser in Pensacola and New York, Jackie met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, founder of the Atlas Corporation and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. Odlum was believed to be one of the world’s ten richest men. He financed Jackie’s cosmetics company, and promoted it through Jackie’s new interest in aviation by suggesting the renaming of ‘Wings to Beauty’ cosmetics and aviation advertising tours across America. Odlum and Jackie married in 1936.

In 1934 Jackie was one of only three women to take part in the England-Australia MacRobertson Air Race which started at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Concentrating on speed records, Jackie entered the famous Bendix Race in 1937 and worked with Amelia Earhart to open more aviation competitions to women. By 1938 Jackie was considered the best women pilot in the USA, and went on to establish speed, altitude and distance records, still holding more than any other pilot at the time of her death.

In September 1939 Jackie began agitating for a women’s division of the US Army Air Corps. Before the USA entered the Second World War, in December 1941, Jackie worked for Wings for Britain, ferrying American-built across the Atlantic. She became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic when she delivered a Lockheed Hudson. In March, 1942, Jackie led a party of 25 American women pilots to join the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain, and report back on the ATA’s successful employment of women.

The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron was created in September 1942 and Jackie returned from Britain to lobby for the creation of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment so new pilots could be trained. In August 1943 the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) was formed with Jackie as director. The Distinguished Service Medal was awarded to Jackie in 1945 in recognition of her achievements.

Postwar Jackie continued to set aviation records, becoming the first woman to fly supersonic, in 1953. She joined the USAF Reserve in 1948 and retired as a Colonel in 1970.

A sponsor for the Mercury 13 space programme, Jackie campaigned for women astronauts, but later admitted that winning the ‘Space Race’ against the USSR was the priority.

Colonel Jacqueline Cochran, possibly America’s greatest woman pilot, died on 9 August, 1980.

International Womens Day

On March 8th, International Womens Day, we salute the women of 10 different countries who flew for ATA and make inspiring role models for women of the 21st century. Beside the British pilots, the largest contingent came from the USA in 1942, recruited by Jackie Cochran. The other nations were Australia, Canada, Chile, Eire, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and South Africa. They all contributed immensely to the success of ATA. Apparently crew room conversations at Hamble often included Spanish voices (Margot Duhalde from Chile and Maureen Dunlop who grew up in Argentina) and Polish voices (Anna Leska and Stefania Wojtulanis – known as Barbara!) along British, American and South African voices.