Wednesday, January 11, 2012

He Lived Out His Passion

Carl Cochran was passionate about aviation. He was fortunate to be able to live that passion in a career that began by working in an aircraft factory, to training to fly in an open cockpit aircraft, to flying for the Navy in the Great War, learning to fly helicopters, to piloting airliners, to teaching others to fly and in operating an airport in his advancing years.

That passion came to an end last week when he died at his home in Labadie. He was a few months short of his 90th birthday. In the past month or so he was grounded by pneumonia and complications from that illness. He had been confined to a wheelchair in recent months but his mind never left the sky for very long.

He was the retired operator of what now is Washington Regional Airport. That was one of his many careers in aviation. He ran the airport from 1982 to 1997. His aviation career began at age 17 when he left the farm to work in an aircraft factory in Kansas City, Kan. Even though he officially retired at the airport in 1997, his mind never retired from aviation.

Along the way in his career, he met and made countless friends. He became an aviation legend. In talking aviation, he was an endless storyteller since he knew so many people. One thing reminded him of another incident, and the stories flowed as swiftly as did the wind when riding in one of his open cockpit beloved Stearman aircraft.

Carl put the Washington airport on the map due to his tireless efforts to bring pilots and the general public to the airport. He garnered publicity for the airport. He would call The Missourian about many newsworthy stories that had to do with pilots, airplanes, other visitors. He called us one day to inform us that the president of TWA had landed at the airport in his small, private plane. The man lived in St. Louis County and commuted to the New York headquarters of TWA. This visitor was annoyed that a reporter with a camera came for a story. He resisted our efforts for a story. We finally told him we were there because Carl called and it was good publicity for the airport. We really didn’t give a damn about him. After a few more stronger words, he agreed to a story and photo.

Reunions were regular for a while for retired pilots of Ozark and TWA who came here in their private airplanes and in cars with their families. Carl loved to hold “fly-ins” for breakfast or lunch. Barbecues were common. Many told stories about their experiences with Carl or other pilots who attended.

When The Missourian needed air photos, Carl stood ready. It was a memorable experience to fly with him in his beloved “Champ” aircraft. He would take the passenger door off of the old and slow airplane so we could get better angles for photos. He would land the “Champ” on the grass, giving it tender loving care with a “soft” landing. It was an ideal airplane for taking photos.

He was proud of the fact that for a period,Washington was the only airport in the country where lessons were given in a Stearman. Several pilots from foreign countries took lessons here in one of his “fleet” of Stearmans. He promoted flying lessons and had a mechanic or two for routine maintenance, repair work or overhauls.

We never heard Carl complain about the lack of attention given to the airport by city administrations. He would mention improvements that were needed but he was not the “bad mouthing” type. Few fixed base operators of small airports make much money. It’s the love of flying that motivates them. Carl owned a number of airplanes at one time and gradually divested himself of them. We don’t know the number of people he taught to fly in his career, but it probably was in the triple digits. He once operated a flying school in New Mexico and said in those days it was a ticket to starvation. He was proud that many of his “students” became captains for airlines.

Carl’s wife died a couple of years ago and he has two daughters and a son. One daughter is an airline pilot and flies out of Arizona. He enjoyed life on his 130-acre farm off Boles Road in the Labadie area. The last few years he had caregivers and neighbors who helped him.

Carl was a gentleman who in his later years usually was accompanied by his dog “Killer.” He made friends easily and had a sharp memory right up to the end. The memories of Carl all are good. He was in love with aviation, also to the end. He qualified as an aviation pioneer and received a number of honors in recognition of his distinguished career.

The very morning he died, and his death unknown to board members of the Washington 353 Redevelopment Corporation, it again was suggested that Carl be recognized at the airport in some manner. Mayor Sandy Lucy agreed, along with others, and said she would follow through on the suggestion.

An aviation legend has departed on his last flight!


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