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89-Year-Old Takes a Fall and Is Up for Another

Vi Cowden, a longtime pilot, has sky-dived with the Army. Next, she wants to para-glide off the cliffs at Torrey Pines.

April 10, 2006|Stephen Clark | Times Staff Writer

Ever since she was a 7-year-old farm girl in South Dakota, Vi Cowden has wanted to fly with the birds.

The 89-year-old Huntington Beach resident got her pilot's license at 24, flew military planes during World War II and just weeks ago became the oldest person to sky-dive with the U.S. Army.

"Just because you're a certain age, it doesn't mean you can't accomplish your dreams," she said. "Sometimes people think at 50 or 60 that their life is over. But there's still a lot to do. And I'm not through either."

Next on her list: para-gliding off 400-foot sandstone cliffs at Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego County.

Though modest about her years in the sky, Cowden was one of 1,074 women picked from 25,000 to ferry combat aircraft around the United States mainland during World War II. They served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as the WASP.

After the war, she moved to New York City, where she took a job at an airline ticket counter, which she hated. It wasn't long before she moved to Southern California, got married and became part owner of a ceramics factory. She had a daughter and worked at a Huntington Beach school district until she retired in 1983. Today, she also has three grandchildren who live nearby.

Still, her passion for flying has never faded.

Cowden's aviation background is on display at her two-story home where she lives with her husband of 50 years, Scott. The welcome mat at their door reads "A Pilot and a Normal Person Live Here."

Those who know her are simply blown away. "Vi is the most incredible 89-year-old on this planet," said Lt. Col. Paul Sinor, a spokesman for the U.S. Army public affairs office, who arranged the jump. "She should be the poster lady for long life and enjoying yourself."

Neighbor Joanne Kessell, a friend of Cowden's for 30 years, agreed. "She has a lot more guts than I do," she said. "You couldn't get me up in a plane and jump out 12,000 feet -- not even if I was 20 years old."

These days, Cowden spends much of her time volunteering at community organizations, attending aviation events around the country and speaking to groups in Orange County about aviation. She wears a WASP uniform from the 1940s and dog tags to all her speaking engagements.

She is a former national president of the WASP veterans group, and in 2001 she was honored at an arboretum and memorial grove in Atchison, Kan., where a plaque with her name was placed among others honoring those who have contributed to aviation and aerospace.

She occasionally copilots a single-engine airplane. At 76, she sky-dived in tandem with an instructor. Her latest parachuting adventure came Feb. 25, when she dived with the Golden Knights, the Army's elite parachute team.

With a team member behind her firmly attached by harness, Cowden plummeted through the sky for about 30 seconds. Smiling ear to ear, she spread her arms out like wings as the wind blew furiously against her face. Once the divers' parachute was released, they floated the rest of 12,500-foot drop.

Her husband, 85, admitted he was "a little bit concerned" for her safety but enjoyed watching her. "It's beautiful floating down like a bird," he said.

The Golden Knights team was established in 1959 to compete in sky diving, a sport then dominated by the Soviet Union. In 1998, they started the tandem orientation program, which takes community leaders and celebrities on jumps as a way to bolster the Army's image and promote sky diving.

Before Cowden, the oldest person to sky-dive with the Knights was former President George H.W. Bush. He jumped in 2004 on his 80th birthday. Cowden is not, however, the oldest person ever to sky-dive. That distinction belongs to Estrid Geertsen, who sky-dived in Denmark at the age of 100, according to the Guinness World Records. "I've got a long way to go," Cowden said.

According to the United States Parachuting Assn., the largest sky diving organization in the world, 6% of its 32,000 members are 60 and over. Executive Director Chris Needels said a 95-year-old member recently parachuted from a plane in Williamstown, N.J.

"Eighty-nine doing anything is good. Getting to 89 is good," said Needels, who is 63. "My hat's off to her."

Born and raised in Bowdle, S.D., Cowden learned how to fly while a first-grade teacher. It wasn't long afterward that the war started and she was chosen to fly with the WASP.

They ferried aircraft from factories to military bases, flight tested experimental warplanes, flew weather missions and night-tracking missions and simulated strafing runs. They flew more than 60 million miles in 78 kinds of aircraft. The only thing they didn't do was fly in combat.

The WASP was disbanded in December 1944, and Cowden calls that day one of the worst in her life. She longed to be a commercial airline pilot, but women were not accepted at the time, she said. "It was a kick in the face. It was just horrible."

For years, WASP contributions to the war effort went mostly unrecognized. It was not until 1977 that Congress recognized WASPs as veterans, making them eligible for veteran medical and disability benefits.

In fact, it was at an air show in Cleveland honoring the WASP that Cowden saw the Golden Knights and set her sights on jumping with them.

When she was asked to jump with them in February, she said she couldn't stop smiling. "It was an honor to be chosen," she said. "I feel lucky to jump at my age -- especially with them."

Parachuting, she said, reminds her most of the hawks she envied as they swooped above her childhood home on the Great Plains. She's looking forward to para-gliding at Torrey Pines and hopes to do it by her 90th birthday in October.

"I'm just so comfortable in the air," she said.

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