As a girl, Cowden liked watching hawks fly over the family’s farm in South Dakota, and once she got her first job (as a first-grade teacher), she used part of her wages to learn how to fly. Then World War II broke out, and the call went out for women pilots; Cowden joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, in 1943, when she was 26. The WASPs freed up male pilots for combat duties, and ferried planes from factories to air bases. “I joined because of love for the country,” she said later, “and I thought maybe I could contribute something to the war effort.” During her WASP career she flew 19 different kinds of planes. Her favorite: the P-51 Mustang, a fighter; she delivered the first P-51 to the Tuskegee Airmen. She flew so much, she estimated she could have circled the Earth 55 times.
But in 1944, the WASPs were deactivated. “The war was winding down and the men were coming back and wanted their jobs back,” she said. “I felt a lot of resentment.” She was granted a commercial license, and “if the airlines would have hired women at that time I probably would have been flying the rest of my life.” The WASPs were not given veteran status until 1977, and in 2010 about 200 surviving WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. For her 76th birthday, Cowden performed a tandem skydive, and when she was 89, jumped with the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team. And last year she was given the opportunity to take the controls of a vintage P-51 again, flying it from San Bernardino to Orange County — at 93. Cowden died April 10 from congestive heart failure. She was 94.