Want to buy or sell something? Check the classifieds
  • The Fedora Lounge is supported in part by commission earning affiliate links sitewide. Please support us by using them. You may learn more here.

RIP WASP Violet Cowden


I'll Lock Up
DeleteStreet, REDACTCity, LockedState


April 23, 2011
Violet Cowden, Wartime Plane Pilot, Is Dead at 94
The problem was simple, but would have disastrous consequences if left unsolved. The United States had entered World War II, and military aircraft were barreling off the assembly lines. But with many military pilots deployed overseas, or soon to be, there was no way to transport the planes from the factories to the airfields where they were urgently needed.

Then someone remembered an untapped source of aeronautic talent: the thousands of American women who were licensed pilots. And so, in 1942, the Women Airforce Service Pilots — as the contingent of more than a thousand would be named — was born, freeing the men for service overseas.

Attached to the Army Air Forces, the WASPs, as they were known, were the first women to serve as United States military pilots. They performed duties formerly done by men: some ferried new planes to their destinations, others towed targets for aerial gunnery practice, still others were flight instructors.

By all accounts, the women did their jobs capably and ardently — until the men came home and suddenly the Army had no need of them. Then, unable to work as peacetime pilots, they faded into the 1950s, receiving recognition as military veterans only decades after the war ended.

Violet Cowden, who died at 94 on April 10, was one of those women. In 1943 and 1944, assigned to the Army’s Air Transport Command, she flew some of the country’s most sophisticated planes, transporting them from factories to domestic airfields or to coastal debarkation points for shipment to foreign theaters.

She was the subject of a documentary, “Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story,” released last year.

A past president of the national WASP veterans’ group, Mrs. Cowden was among about 200 WASPs (fewer than 300 are now living) presented in 2010 with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country’s two highest civilian awards.

Mrs. Cowden, who flew a plane as recently as last year, lived in Huntington Beach, Calif. Her death, in nearby Newport Beach, was confirmed by her daughter, Kim Ruiz.

Ever since she was a child, watching hawks swoop over the family farm, Mrs. Cowden had yearned to fly. She was not quite sure how one went about it, until she discovered a marvelous thing called the airplane.

Violet Clara Thurn was born on Oct. 1, 1916, in a sod house in Bowdle, S.D. In 1936, she earned a teaching certificate from what was then the Spearfish Normal School, in Spearfish, S.D., and stayed in Spearfish to teach first grade. There, she rode her bicycle six miles each way to a local airfield for her first flying lessons. (She had no driver’s license.)

She knew immediately that she had found her calling. “The air is such a comfortable place for me,” Mrs. Cowden said in a 2007 interview with the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “I feel so in oneness with life and with the world and everything when I’m in the air.”

After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mrs. Cowden, by then a licensed pilot, asked to join the Civil Air Patrol but got no reply. “Everybody was joining something,” she said in the interview. “So I joined the Navy, because I liked their hats.”

She soon heard about the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, an early incarnation of the WASPs. Of the 25,000 women who applied, she was one of 1,830 accepted. She had lived for a week on a diet rich in bananas and malted milk to raise her weight from 92 pounds to 100, the required minimum.

She reported to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Tex., then a place of dust, desolation and rattlesnakes, for six months of rigorous training.

The women banded together through shared ritual. “They’d have picnics in the sky,” Mark C. Bonn, who with his wife, Christine, directed “Wings of Silver,” said in an interview. “If there was a group of girls picking up two or three planes from the same factory, they would have their lunch on their long trip at the same time. And so they would talk on the radio. ‘O.K., I’m having my apple.’ ‘I’m having my sandwich.’ ”

Because they were civil service employees and not military personnel, the WASPs had to pay for their own food, lodging and often capacious attire. There were no flight suits for women then, and Mrs. Cowden, barely more than 5 feet tall, was installed in a men’s Size 44 for the duration.

Mrs. Cowden, one of 1,074 women to complete training, was assigned to Love Field in Dallas. She logged hundreds of thousands of miles in a variety of planes, including the P-51 Mustang, the swift single-seat fighter she called “the love of my life.”

She once delivered a P-51 to the Tuskegee Airmen, the black military squadron. (There were also black women who had graduated from the Tuskegee Institute’s pilot training program; they were denied admission to the WASPs.)

Mrs. Cowden worked seven days a week, sleeping on commercial flights that ferried her to and from assignments. She flew in all weather, came down on runways without lights and sometimes took the controls of planes so fresh from the factory that they had never been tested. To fly such a plane, she often said, was like making footprints in soft virgin snow.

Her plane once caught fire on landing; thinking quickly, Mrs. Cowden saved her important papers and her makeup.

Thirty-eight WASPs died in accidents during training or while on duty; others were injured, some seriously.

By late 1944, male pilots began coming home, and they wanted their jobs back.

“We had defeated the Luftwaffe by then, and so our pilots were not dying at the rate that they had been,” said Katherine Landdeck, a historian at Texas Woman’s University who is an authority on the WASPs. “The whole purpose of the WASP program was to release male pilots for combat duty. By December of ’44, the WASPs were no longer releasing them, they were replacing them. And that was the argument that was used against them.”

That December, on a day Mrs. Cowden recalled as one of the worst in her life, the Army dissolved the WASPs.

Few airlines would hire a woman as a commercial pilot then. Mrs. Cowden went to work in New York in the only aviation job she could get — behind the ticket counter at Trans World Airlines. It was painful, she later said, to be so close to planes yet so far from the cockpit, and she soon left.

She became a partner in a California ceramics studio, married and had a child. She let her pilot’s license lapse, though friends who took her aloft over the years gladly ceded her the controls.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill granting the WASPs recognition as veterans, which allowed them limited benefits.

Besides her daughter, Mrs. Cowden is survived by two sisters, Betty Niese and Lillian Riede, and three grandchildren. Her husband, Warren William Cowden, known as Scott, whom she married in 1955, died in 2009.

Though Mrs. Cowden and her colleagues were consigned to the recesses of history, during the war their work was considered so vital that the airlines were ordered to displace any passenger if a WASP needed to be shuttled to an assignment.

This status was brought home to Mrs. Cowden one day after a place was made for her on a commercial flight to Memphis. Disembarking, she faced a throng of women huddled on the tarmac, looking unaccountably disappointed.

Mrs. Cowden had bumped Frank Sinatra.

Forum statistics

Latest member