Violet Cowden, 1916–2011

The female aviator who longed to return to the sky

When she was 7 years old, Violet Cowden watched a hawk swoop down and snatch a chicken from her family’s farm. Awestruck, she instantly realized, “I wanted to fly like that.” And as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, Cowden fulfilled that dream. One day during flight training, an instructor told her she could do whatever she wanted in the sky. So when Cowden spotted a bird farm below, she zoomed down, sending feathers flying everywhere. Afterward, the instructor asked what she’d been up to in the air. Cowden proudly replied: “Sir, I bombed a chicken yard.”

Cowden was born Violet Thurn in a sod house on her parents’ small farm in Bowdle, S.D. She started taking flying lessons while working as a first grade teacher, and “her students always knew when she had been flying because she was so happy,” said the Los Angeles Times. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, in 1941, Cowden wanted to serve her country and, as she’d already earned her private pilot’s license, signed up to the Army Air Corps’ new WASP program.

The 1,074 women who served as WASPs “did not fly combat missions, but ferried planes from factories to training fields or debarkation points,” said the Huntington Beach, Calif., Independent. Cowden flew 19 different types of aircraft after earning her wings, in 1943, but her favorite was the P-51 Mustang. She once got the fighter plane up to 400 mph while racing a Navy pilot from Columbus, Ohio, to Newark, N.J. “I just stayed ahead of him all the way,” she said.

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In December 1944, the WASP was disbanded as men returning from the front demanded their old jobs back. “I felt a lot of resentment,” said Cowden, who last year was belatedly awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her wartime service. Unable to find work as a pilot, she moved to Southern California, married, and became a co-owner of a ceramics factory. But she never lost her love of “thrill seeking,” said the Orange County, Calif., Register, and in 2006, at 89, Cowden took part in a tandem skydive with the Army’s parachute team, the Golden Knights. Christine Bonn, who made a 2010 documentary about Cowden, declared that the veteran embodied “all the aspects of the WASP—their spirit of adventure, courage, and can-do spirit.”

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