First Air Force aviator bids final goodbye to pioneering WASP

By Angela Pope | AFNORTH Public Affairs | June 08, 2011

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – For most people, attending a funeral is a sad, somber event – a time when an abundance of tears flows and when sorrow more often overshadows happiness.

But on a sunny May afternoon in Chino, Calif., family, friends and even fans paid a glad and uplifting tribute to an American hero during a memorial service at the Yanks Air Museum.

 Violet Cowden, a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots – or WASPs – was laid to rest May 21 at the robust age of 94.

First Air Force officer and RC-135 pilot Maj. Lori Rasmussen was asked to speak at Ms. Cowden’s memorial service after the major and the WWII pilot became friends nearly two years ago.

“While I was attending Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., I was selected to be a member of the ‘Gathering of Eagles’ team – a group of students responsible for hosting an event that honors past heroes who demonstrated excellence in air power,” Major Rasmussen said. “After doing extensive research on Vi and her life, I knew she was the person I wanted to highlight.”

After extensive research about Ms. Cowden and her contributions to the war effort, the major invited the World War II heroine to Air University Headquarters at Maxwell and conducted a personal interview with her in front of the entire ACSC student body and faculty.

“Vi spoke to the class about when she first realized she was meant to fly and what drove her to take flying lessons in the first place,” Major Rasmussen said. “She talked about her training with the WASPs at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, and how she handled the pressure of working with men and trying to prove herself.”

During her service as a WASP, Mrs. Cowden flew 19 different types of airplanes, delivering them to various locations. Her service helped fill an important void created during World War II when hundreds of thousands of men were sent overseas to fight. Ironically, the young school teacher began taking flying lessons even before she had a driver’s license.

“Vi was a real go-getter. She embraced everything in life with grace, dignity and confidence,” Major Rasmussen said. “Even when she was afraid of failing, she told herself to give 100 percent. She really inspired me to not be afraid of failing at things and taught me to just jump right in and try new experiences, regardless of what the outcome may be.”

As the South Dakota native got older, Ms. Cowden continued to embrace life. At the age of 89, she parachuted with the U.S. Army Golden Knights. Last year, at the age of 93, she piloted a P-51 Mustang and pulled almost 3Gs.

“Hearing those stories taught me to not shy away from new adventures just because of age,” the major said. “Vi faced each passing year of life as though it was a gift and never looked at aging in a negative way. This is a great life lesson for all of us.”

In a New York Times article, reporter Margalit Fox described the role WASPs played throughout World War II and their importance to the aviation effort.

“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,” the article stated. “This status was brought home to Ms. 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. Ms. Cowden had bumped Frank Sinatra.”

At the memorial service, Major Rasmussen shared her fond memories of Ms. Cowden and read the poem, ‘High Flight’ by Royal Canadian Air Force officer John Gillespie Magee Jr. A flight of four P-51 Mustangs, Ms. Cowden’s favorite aircraft, soared over the museum and flew the missing man formation.

“It was truly an honor getting to know Vi and her beautiful family, and I will always be grateful that the Air Force allowed our paths to cross,” Major Rasmussen said. “Knowing this wonderful human being has been the highlight of my Air Force career, and it has renewed my energy to embrace the challenges life throws at me.”