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The greatest woman pilot in the world

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis
The greatest woman pilot in the world

Who knew that the greatest woman pilot in the world was born and raised in the Florida Panhandle? Mother did. Mother was then known as Retilla Miller, and she seemed to know everybody in the county and at least a few from sea to shining sea. This never ceased to amaze me. I had been writing a paper about Amelia Earhart when Jackie’s name popped up in Amelia’s story. As everyone already knew so much about Amelia, I decided to write about Jackie instead. 

I told Mother about my subject, and she breezily remarked, “Oh, I’ve met Jackie, and I know her family. She was a Pittman, you know.”

No, I didn’t know, but I soon learned that Gordon Pittman, who lived near our house on Pine Street, was Jackie’s nephew. He was a little older than my brother, Wilton, and was better known as Pee-Wee Pittman, for the perverse reason of being tall for his age.

“His Aunt Jackie was tall too,” Mother offered. “I first saw her when she was getting out of her red convertible across the street from the newspaper office. Everybody in the office ran to the window to get a look at her, she was a gorgeous blonde with the longest legs I’ve ever seen.”

Jackie was also wearing slacks, a daring thing for women to do in those days, but Jackie was nothing but daring. If life is a stage, Jackie insisted on having the center seat on the front row. Her childhood gave no hint that she would ever be in such a position, but when WW II broke out, Jackie was the right person in the right place at the right time. 

Writing a paper about her was difficult, because one of Jackie’s varied talents was that of being a great story teller. It was hard to know what information was true and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, her tall tales about her life were exaggerated or simply fabricated, having nothing to do with reality. She paid family members to keep quiet about the truth, which was not fully revealed until after her death. 

My hunch is that she didn’t want her passed discussed, because it was too painful to think about, much less to think about. In a hurry to grow up, she married Robert Cochran in Blakely, Georgia at the very unripe age of fourteen. She was already pregnant. The couple lived in Miami for four years, after which she divorced Cochran and moved back to DeFuniak Springs, where she had spent most of her childhood, and where some of her family were still living. Her five-year-old son escaped her notice, and hid in an outhouse, where he began playing with matches. The outhouse caught on fire, and her son died in the fire. Her family reported that his death caused Jackie to “go crazy.”

She soon left for New York City where she re-invented herself. Bessie became Jackie. She had dropped out of school in the third grade, but learned something from everyone she encountered. Robert Cochran was a mechanic who worked in the naval yards at Pensacola, and from him, she learned enough to be able to handle mechanical problems with her own airplanes. 

While living in Pensacola, she worked as a hair dresser, so when she fled to New York, she talked her way into a job to the Antoine’s, the most high-end salon in the Big Apple. Her gift as a story teller endeared her to clients. One client included Jackie in her social activities, including taking them to Miami, where she manipulated an opportunity to be seated at a dinner next to Floyd Odlum, ranked as one of the ten richest men in the world at the time.

To be continued:

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