A Mirage III jet plane whirled over Istres Airfield near Marseilles a fortnight ago, guided by voice radio over a 100-kilometer closed course. Leveling off from its steep bank, the French army fighter glided down and braked to a stop on the Istres runway. Out of the cockpit clambered chic, handsome Jacqueline, daughter-in-law of the former President of France, Vincent Auriol. A well-wisher who had been clocking the flight rushed to the plane. "You flew 2,030 kilometers an hour!" he shouted. "You've pulverized Cochran's record! Bravo, Jacqueline!"
Jacqueline Auriol had just become the first woman to fly faster than 2,000 kilometers an hour (1,243 mph). More important to the dedicated aviatrix, she had recaptured the world's airspeed record for women, a mark she has been trading for 12 years of intense personal rivalry with tough, skillful Jackie Cochran, a cosmetics executive who lives in Indio, Calif.
As she eased out of her flight helmet, however, Jacqueline met the news of victory with a gentle melancholia. "When I realized I had reconquered the women's world speed record," she said later, "I had an odd feeling of letdown. As if there was nothing left for me to do."
On the day her women's speed record fell, Jackie Cochran was close at hand, visiting the Aeronautical Salon at Le Bourget Airfield, near Paris. "Well, I guess I didn't keep my record very long this time," she said offhandedly. Jackie's record, set in May with a Lockheed TF-104G Super Starfighter, was 1,203.94 mph. Eleven months before that Jacqueline had set a record with 1,149.65 mph. This, in turn, had beaten Jackie's record of 784.34 mph set in April 1961 in a Northrop T-38 Talon jet trainer. In all, the women's 100-kilometer closed-circuit speed record has passed back and forth seven times between these two, and despite her cozy smiles at the aeronautical salon, Jackie Cochran was going to waste no time trying to snatch back the title of world's fastest woman. "I'd love to take a crack at Jacqueline's new record," asserts Jackie. "I'm just waiting for Lockheed to furnish the plane."
Besides the Starfighter TF-104G, Lockheed has furnished Jackie with a Jet-Star transport for assaults on long distance records. It is fine publicity for Lockheed to have Jackie break records in its aircraft. By the same token, the French military are delighted whenever the French Jacqueline beats one of the American Jacqueline's speed records.
Though the two women have been very close in their rivalry since 1951, they could not have started farther apart. Jackie was born Bessie Lee Pittman, on the wrong side of the tracks in a Florida sawmill town. As a child, she lived in shacks and slept on the floor. At 8, she tried to improve her lot—grits, bare feet and flour-sack dresses—by running away and working 12 hours a night, for 6� an hour, in a Georgia cotton mill. Three years later she was making $1.50 a day in a beauty shop in Columbus, Ga. and at 13 was a full-fledged beauty operator.
"I honestly don't know my real age," she says today. "Some people claim I'm 57—but could a woman of 57 pilot a TF-104?"
Blonde, blue-eyed Jacqueline Auriol was born 45 years ago in the town of Challans in west central France. The daughter of a wealthy importer of timber, Jacqueline spent her early years under the doting supervision of her parents. While Jackie never got beyond the third grade, Jacqueline received her baccalaureate from the university in Nantes and then attended the Ecole du Louvre in Paris to study art.
Jackie first climbed into a plane in 1932, when she went to Roosevelt Field, on Long Island, to take flying lessons. She has a vivid memory of her first solo—after a 30-minute lesson. "I was getting ready to land," she recalls, "when suddenly the motor quit. I can remember thinking how considerate it was of my teacher to have arranged for the motor to stop while I was up there so I wouldn't have any trouble landing."
Her first solo convinced Jackie she should be a flyer. "You'd have to search for the reason in my childhood. I was born in a hovel, but I was determined to soar up among the stars. What I love about flying is being up there all alone with nobody to help you but yourself."