Flying high at 92

Flying high at 92

WWII veteran says anybody can make every day the best day they’ve had.

On Dec. 20, 1944, Violet “Vi” Cowden thought she would never fly a fighter plane again.

Cowden spent World War II as one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, who helped fly 80% of the non-combat air missions in the United States during the war. The WASP program was deactivated in late 1944.

But Friday, Cowden found herself back inside a P-51 Mustang, one of several World War II-era fighter planes that flew from San Diego to Long Beach as part of the national Wings of Freedom plane tour.

“It was unbelievable,” Cowden, 92, said. “It’s been 65 years since I’ve flown in that airplane, and when I got in it, it was like the 65 years had just disappeared.”

Cowden’s flight Friday was but the latest in a lifetime of adventures for the Huntington Beach grandmother and World War II veteran, who has flown 19 different types of aircraft.

The urge to be airborne was a lifelong quest for Cowden, who spent her childhood in a tiny farming town.

“Back in South Dakota, I used to see the hawks flying, and I didn’t even know there were airplanes — but I knew I wanted to be up there,” said Cowden, wearing red toenail polish and blue jeans at her home on Tuesday.

Born Violet Thurn, Cowden grew up in a farming family and went to a university before working as a teacher. She didn’t have a car, but rode a bicycle to take piloting lessons at a local airport before and after work.

“I had my private pilot’s license before war was declared,” she said. “I knew how to drive an airplane, really, before I learned how to drive a car.”

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Cowden enlisted in a volunteer women’s emergency service program. But before basic training, she was contacted and agreed to become a WASP. She and her female comrades were hired by the Army Air Corps as civilian contract employees; they took military orders but received no ranks, benefits or insurance.

The women were given the same training as male cadets. Cowden trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. She then began ferrying planes from factories to training fields or debarkation points, and racked up enough flight miles to circumnavigate the globe dozens of times.

“I was the first woman to deliver a P-51 to the Tuskegee Airmen,” Cowden said.

She also attended pursuit school in Brownsville, and served as a WASP until the program’s deactivation.

Out of 1,074 WASPs, 38 were killed in flight accidents from 1942 to 1944, Cowden said. About 300 are alive today.

After the WASP program was disbanded, Cowden lived briefly in New York City before moving to California. She married her beloved husband Scott — a fellow WWII veteran from the Merchant Marines — at the age of 39; they were married for 54 years before he passed away in 2008, she said.

Cowden has one daughter and three grandchildren. She has lived in her downtown house for 34 years, and she and her husband purchased it when it was the only home on the block. Cowden worked for the last 10 years of her professional career in the Huntington Beach City School District’s teachers’ resource center after owning her own ceramics business.

Cowden lived another of her dreams when she was 89, when she performed a tandem skydive with a member of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, she said. After the jump, she was in free-fall for several minutes over Yuma, Ariz.

“I could hardly wait to get out of the plane,” Cowden said.

Cowden had made her first jump in her 70s, but dreamed of being a Golden Knight. The Knights honored the WASPs when they belatedly granted them their veteran’s benefits in 1977, decades after their service.

A few weeks ago, the country’s female senators presented a bill that would give the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Cowden is now seeking signatures to help pass the bill.

Cowden has been the WASP national president and vice president, and is active in the Southern California chapter of the group. She and her fellow WASPs have attended several Women in Aviation conferences.

“When the WASPs go to Women in Aviation, it’s like we’re rock stars,” Cowden said.

Attendees, she said, thank them for their service and tell them their efforts were integral in helping future women get into the air.

“None of us felt that way, because we were just having such a good time,” Cowden said. “I didn’t think that it made that big of an impact, because I was just doing a job.”

Longevity runs in Cowden’s family — her parents lived to be 94 and 93 — but she says attitude is another key to a long life.

“I don’t think a day ever goes by that there isn’t something good happening, or that there isn’t something to learn,” she said. “You have control over so much of your life. Make every day the best day.”

NEVER TOO LATE

Some of Cowden’s post-retirement-age accomplishments:

Backpacking around the world for months

Working on the restoration of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Having American flags installed on the Pier for Veteran’s Day

4th of July Parade Citizen Grand Marshal

Paragliding

Hiking the Great Wall of China


Reporter CANDICE BAKER can be reached at (714) 966-4631 or at candice.baker@latimes.com.

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