Vi Cowden spent her childhood and adolescence on a South
Dakota farm where she would watch hawks fly high, and moments
later, zoom down to capture a chicken. As she says, “that’s
when, as a seven year old child, my dream to fly like a hawk
October 1st, 1916, Vi Cowden was born in a South Dakota sod house. She
attended Black Hills University, and taught primary grades there. During
these years, Vi would join her friend, and friend’s boyfriend to watch
him shoot landings at the airport. Passively observing this young man fly
simply wasn’t enough for Cowden. She couldn’t just watch anymore. She
approached the owner, and said clearly, “I want to learn to fly.”
Having no car, Vi rode her bike six miles to the airport before school, taught
all day, and returned for ground school at night. She received her private
pilot’s license before the December 7th Pearl Harbor Bombings, and resolved
to serve her country. She joined the Navy. She said she liked the hats,
but when she received a telegram from Jacqueline Cochran to join the class of
43-4 for pilot training, her fashion interests fell. She was going to fly.
The WASPs experienced the exact training as the male cadets. She admits the male
instructors showed surprised when a class of all girl pilots walked in. They
flew in the morning and took ground school in the afternoon. Jacqueline Cochran
pinned her wings, and after this, Cowden headed to Love Field, Dallas Texas in
the Air Transport Command. She picked up planes at the factories and transported
them to training fields or points of debarkation, such as Long Beach, California
or Newark, New Jersey.
Vi Cowden was then chosen to attend Pursuit School in Brownsville, Texas. She
had ten hours in the back of an AT-6 with an instructor that had never flown
with a woman. He dominated the controls. When he was about to wash her out, telling
her she had given him the lousiest landing he had ever experienced, she retorted, “That
was not my landing. It was yours.” He let her fly after that.
Cowden’s first P-51 experience was nearly lost. She had orders to
pick up a P-51 at North American, where every plane was to have been tested and
flown an hour. Her plane had not. The mechanic simply wrote down
that it had, and it made her nervous, but, she followed orders, and claims apprehension
lurked until she pulled back on the stick and that P-51 charged into the sky.
How thrilling to be the plane’s first pilot! How lucky to conquer
the nerves and gain this amazing experience.
Vi also had orders to fly a P-51 to Montgomery, Alabama and upon landing, found
the press was there to take pictures of her and the plane. This was all
because she was the first woman to fly a P-51 to the Tuskegee Airman.
December 20th, 1944 remains one of the saddest in Vi’s history. This
is when the WASP program ended, and she knew she would never again fly a P-51. She
comments, “This plane was like having your own wings… It was an
honor for me to fly the P-51 and be one of the Legends.”
After the service, Vi worked at the TWA ticket counter, and
was in the ceramic business for ten years. She’s
been married for fifty years, has one daughter, and three grandchildren. She
has had a wonderful life, and claims, “flying the P-51
is the best thing that ever happened to this farm girl that
had a dream of flying like the hawks.”