When she was a young first-grade teacher learning to fly out of an airfield in Spearfish, S.D., in the early 1940s, her students always knew when she had been flying because she was so happy.
World War II. And although her career as a pilot ended after her wartime service, her enthusiasm for flying never let up.
Indeed, Cowden gleefully co-piloted a World War II-era P-51 Mustang with dual controls and flew from San Bernardino to Orange County last year when she was 93.
As she put it in a 2010 documentary about her life in the sky: "I always say the worst thing about flying is coming back to earth. That's the hardest thing for me. I would stay up, I would — but you do run out of gas."
Cowden, a former president of the WASP veterans organization whose experiences and indomitable spirit inspired later generations of female pilots, died April 10 of congestive heart failure at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, said her daughter, Kim Ruiz. She was 94.
Cowden was 26 when she earned her WASP silver wings in 1943.
"I joined because of love for the country," she told The Times in 1993, "and I thought maybe I could contribute something to the war effort."
Of the 25,000 women who applied for the WASP training program, 1,830 were accepted and 1,074 graduated.
As civilian pilots under contract to the military, the WASP fliers freed up male pilots for combat missions.
Members ferried pursuit aircraft (fighters), bombers and transport planes from factories to military bases and points of embarkation within the United States — and performed other duties, such as towing targets for antiaircraft gunnery practice and flying as engineering test pilots.
Cowden flew 19 different types of aircraft, including fighters. The P-51 Mustang was her favorite, she said in the 1993 Times interview.
Once, she recalled, she got a P-51 up to more than 400 mph when she raced a Navy pilot from Columbus, Ohio, to Newark, N.J. "I just stayed ahead of him all the way," she said.
Cowden also delivered the first P-51 to the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military air unit.
The dangerous work of the WASP — 38 pilots died during training and on active duty — wasn't always appreciated.
"I landed an AT-6 in Kansas City," Cowden recalled in a 2010 interview with the Orange County Register. "The commanding officer at the field heard that a woman had flown it in and wouldn't accept it. I just ignored it. That's all you can do."
Cowden later figured she logged enough miles to have flown around the world 55 times during her wartime service.
One of the saddest days of her life, she said in the 1993 Times interview, was when the WASP was deactivated in December 1944.
"The war was winding down and the men were coming back and wanted their jobs back," she said. "I felt a lot of resentment."