Premiere of ‘Wings of Silver’ celebrates WWII moxie of Vi Cowden and pioneering WASPs
Reviving memories of a female flier with the right stuff
Published: April 23, 2010, 12:30 am
Violet “Vi” Cowden soared where few other women went.
She was one of barely 1,000 female test pilots during World War II, including a select 114 who tested pursuit planes used to escort bombers on their raids.
Her story — of a girl who grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota dreaming of flying like the hawks she often saw — is captured in “Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story,” a 33-minute documentary by North Tonawanda native Mark C. Bonn and his wife, Christine, who’s from Grand Island.
The film has its East Coast premiere at 9 tonight in the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda, as part of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.
The Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were part of the Army Air Forces in those days before the Air Force was established. Yet they were not considered part of the military.
Cowden, 93, displays a sharp memory as she recalls with great pride how, starting in early 1943, she advanced through primary, basic and advanced training at a desolate Texas training facility, entitling her to be a test pilot and to conduct other missions short of combat.
On several occasions, she ferried fighter planes from the Bell Aircraft plant in Buffalo across country to an Army airfield in Great Falls, Mont.
During scenes at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, Calif., Cowden recalls the differences among many of the 19 planes she piloted. She reserves her fondest memories for the fastest aircraft, the P-51 Mustang, which she calls “the love of my life.”
Cowden, who said she never felt a tinge of fear while flying, calculated that she flew the equivalent of 55 around-the-world flights.
Her service memories weren’t all positive.
Choked up, she recalled that 38 of the women died and received no official recognition. In one case, the government refused to pay for the body of a woman to be sent back to her family in Portland, Ore., because she was of Chinese descent.
And when the WASP program ended without prior notification in December 1944, it turned Cowden’s world upside down. She also had to come up with her own money to return home.
The Bonns said they were disarmed by Cowden’s genuineness and selfless spirit.
“She [enlisted] because she wanted to help the country, not because she thought this would be a cool thing for women to do and that they were going to break down all these barriers,” Christine Bonn said.
“Every single one of them wanted to help this country in a time of need.”
“That’s what I really loved about her,” Mark Bonn said. “She said she just did what she thought was right at the time.”
Cowden told The Buffalo News from her home in Huntington Beach, Calif., that it never occurred to her that she had done something special until her 2003 attendance at an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first Wright brothers flight.
“I was walking up a steep hill, and it dawned on me: I was a little part of aviation history. It had never occurred to me,” Cowden said.
She said she’ll be happy if the film helps keep alive the history of the women with whom she served.
“I just hope it can be seen by a lot of people so that the story of the WASPs and their place in history is known. For so many years, it was swept under the carpet,” Cowden said.
In March, President Obama awarded each of the women the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award a civilian can receive from Congress.
For Mark Bonn, having “Wings of Silver” screen at his hometown theater holds special meaning.
“The first movie I ever saw was ‘Wings’ at the Riviera,” he said. “It’s such a kick to return there with a film that we created ourselves.”
The documentary is the third that the Bonns, who live in Los Angeles, have released for their In Times of War Documentary Project. They have recorded 14 other stories, including those of four Buffalo residents they plan to turn into documentaries.
They hope the film will eventually be shown in schools.
“I think it’s much more easy for kids to relate to what someone was doing at 18 or 19 than a big story like the Battle of the Bulge, or D-Day,” Christine Bonn said.
“We hope that when people see these films, they’ll also take a second look at a much older generation. Instead of seeing somebody who is shuffling along at 86, they might want to realize this is a person who put their life on the line to protect their country.”