Violet Thurn Cowden, “Vi”, courageously served her nation during WWII with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (W.A.S.P.). She served from early 1943 until the W.A.S.P. were disbanded in December 1944. As the pilot of nineteen different aircraft including the P-19, B-26, P-39, and her favorite the P-51, she flew primarily as a ferry pilot, but later qualified as one of only 114 women to be selected for pursuit training. Ms. Cowden was born in Bowdle, South Dakota on October 1, 1916, as the oldest of four children. Her fascination with flying began from her early days as a small girl on her family’s South Dakota farm. When a barnstormer landed his small aircraft in the middle of a nearby picnic ground, Ms. Cowden borrowed five dollars from her boyfriend and experienced her first flight. From that moment on, flying became her obsession. While she went on to earn her teaching credentials in college, Cowden’s first love was always flying. She diligently saved her salary to take regular flying lessons and traveled nearly six miles every morning on her bicycle to take flying lessons. Eventually she earned her private pilot’s license and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, selflessly volunteered for service to her nation. A few months later, Ms. Cowden was in California with her sister when she got a call from Jaqueline Cochran, who was forming a flying organization for women pilots interested in assuming duties to free male pilots for overseas combat. Ms. Cowden volunteered immediately. As part of her initial interview process, she met with Cochran’s Hollywood “elite,” who grilled Cowden about her background and flying experience. After a successful interview, only one more hurdle stood in the way: the flight physical. Weighing only 92 pounds, Cowden was eight pounds below the 100 pound minimum weight requirement. Determined to let nothing keep her from her dream of flying, Violet gained the additional weight in just one week’s time. She became one of only 1,800 women accepted out of over 25,000 applicants. Ms. Cowden began her training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas in March 1943 and earned her wings with the class of 43-(W)-4, the fourth W.A.S.P. class overall. While most of the graduates went on to assignments ferrying aircraft, Cowden was later selected for pursuit training, a highly competitive program that, at the time, had been primarily reserved for male pilots. Once again, Ms. Cowden’s “spunk” and relentless determination paid off and she successfully completed pursuit school in Brownsville, Texas. Her first assignment was to ferry a P-51 Mustang from Dallas, Texas to Long Beach, California. Ms. Cowden spent the next several months ferrying many different types of aircraft to cities throughout the country. Overall, she logged enough air miles to circle the world nearly 55 times while serving her nation. Cowden continued flying until the W.A.S.P. was disbanded on December 20, 1944. After the war, Cowden returned to the field of education. Additionally, she played a key role in lobbying congress for the recognition of the W.A.S.P. as veterans. She was married to Scott Cowden for 52 years before he passed away in 2008. In 1983, she retired from education and is now co-owner of a pottery store in California. Always young at heart, “Vi” celebrated her 89th birthday by parachuting with the Army Golden Knights, and her 90th birthday by hang gliding with her daughter. She is an active member of the Southern California W.A.S.P., the National W.A.S.P. Organization, and the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California. She currently lives in Huntington Beach, California near her daughter and three grandchildren.
Years Honored: 2010
Aircraft/Specialty: P-51 Mustang
During World War II the US Army Air Force faced a dilemma. While America's military pilots were critically needed for combat missions in two theaters, aircraft were being produced by the thousands and needed to be delivered to military airfields nationwide. Jacqueline Cochran and General Hap Arnold launched an experimental program to train women to fly military aircraft in an effort to free male pilots for combat.