I guess this is a strange way to start an aviation article…. And I know it’s kinda strange to say something like this about a woman… especially one who’s not your wife or girlfriend (it might help to know I’m an un-repentant male chauvinist pig)…But I’ll never forget the first time I saw her.
It was at the first Tico Air Show I ever attended. I was climbing out of my T-34 when a Mustang taxied by… what really attracted my attention was the long black hair of the pilot… flowing from underneath the crash helmet like a scarf. I was sorta fresh out of the Marine Corps… and even though I’d spent a great deal of my adult life in Southern California and was used to eccentric human beings… I still wasn’t used to long haired pilots. I thought about it for a second as the Mustang wheeled around and parked… and the big Merlin barked and sputtered as it shut down… In my musing… I was thinking, “What the hey… this is Florida… life in the fast lane and all that… the guy’s probably a doper… or some rich kid living the Miami Vice Life”. I almost turned away, but for some reason, I continued to stare.
As the pilot threw off the shoulder harnesses and kinda slid up against the back of the seat… stopped halfway and took off the crash helmet and shook her head… I was stunned, dumbstruck… gob smocked as the Brits say! The pilot was not only a woman… but a strikingly beautiful one at that! As she stood up in the seat and placed her hands on the canopy rail and the slider… she gracefully pivoted 90 degrees and vaulted backwards down to the wing.
I think the proper word is Lithesome… but in the back of my mind… I was already hearing that wonderful little soft country song… “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” … It was the first time I ever laid eyes on Connie Bowlin.
Over the years I got to know her and her husband Ed well… Two of the nicest, kindest folks I’ve ever known… both destined to become legends in the “Warbird” community. Connie would prove to be as beautiful inside as she was out… Confident but not arrogant and she flew as gracefully as she walked. It is a friendship I’ve always cherished. How can you not love someone who rubs elbows with the elite of the aviation world… and yet always remembers your birthday with a card or email?
There are times in life when you look at others and wonder how they ended up being the people they were? As I got to know Connie and Ed… some things became readily apparent… her grace and demeanor came natural… the product of a loving family and a solid southern upbringing… other things were more subtle… and the missing link was answered at an Air Show in Macon, Georgia, one day. I was a late arrival, getting in and shutting down just as the show started. As I got out of my airplane, I saw Connie’s smiling face and went over to greet her. We’re standing together when a T-6 started its’ act.
Now I’m gonna admit something here. I’ve never been a fan of the Pitts’s, the Extra’s and all that crowd. Flying aerobatics in an airplane like that requires little skill as far as I’m concerned… it’s more what you’re willing to put your body through than finesse. Based on experience… and to my way of thinking, it’s much harder to fly a graceful, coordinated routine in a slow military trainer with sluggish controls or a P-51 with high wing loading and torque… than flying around in flitting little gnats… that can do anything you want with the flick of a wrist. It just isn’t the same. They have a lot in common with some of the more exotic R/C modelers. I know I’ll catch some flak about this… but that’s just the way I think.
As Connie and I watched the T-6 go through its’ routine, I realized I was watching a master at work. The routine was fluid, smooth and graceful. No herky-jerky, manhandling and brutal abuse of the sky and plane… just a wonderful display of skill and coordination. I turned to Connie and opined, “I don’t know who that guy is… but he’s my kind of pilot… he’s the best I’ve seen in a long time”. Connie turned and looked down at me, half smiled and said, “It’s Ed”. Her mentor… her man, her mate… and a hell of a man he is.
I know Ed is a wonderful instructor and mentor…but in Connie’s case… he had a lot to work with. She started at Delta as a Flight Attendant and that’s where she and Ed first met. After dating for a while, she indicated an interest in learning to fly and Ed started her out at the bottom of the heap… making her help overhaul an engine for the Piper Cub she’d learn to fly in (the girl has no problem getting her hands dirty, more on that later)… once soloed… she moved rapidly on to more complicated aircraft… getting her tickets along the way.
In what I consider a short time… she became a pilot for Delta and started flying Warbirds as well… Before her Delta career was over, Connie was a Captain on the 757/767 and had flown just about every other type in the fleet. And her Warbird career is just as impressive… having flown an impressive number of different military aircraft.
But there is so much more to her than that… If ever the EAA or the Warbird community in particular… needed an ambassador or representative of someone who cares… who paid their dues… does it right and continues to sacrifice and support whenever called… it is Connie Bowlin. Where Sue Parrish left off… Connie picked up the baton and ran with it.
For years, many of the well known aviatrixes… weren’t really aviators at all… but products of a P.R. machine… or some gimmick campaign (The wonderful WASP’s excluded). Few… very few… started out at the bottom and worked their way up, tirelessly and uncomplaining… paying their dues if you will. Connie has done it all.
And she has given unselfishly of herself and her time (not to mention a ton of money) to support the EAA and the Warbird Community at large. She has flown air shows… she has written articles… she has made appearances and served on boards. And she has done it all with good cheer and humility… asking nothing in return. In addition to this, she and Ed have given incredible support to the Annual Gathering of Eagles over at Maxwell AFB… giving rides to future aviators of the next century… and doing anything else they are asked to do. I have often wondered… what inspires others to give so selflessly. Thank God our community and country still produces folks such as this.
Two stories I love to tell about Connie… in the mid-eighties, I was culling a junk yard in Macon, Georgia… about 65 miles south of where Connie and Ed lived. It was dirty, filthy work and my labor pool was generally comprised of street types that hung around the local welfare office. I was an equal opportunity employer… including one fella whose name was Henry, but preferred to be called Henrietta… I’ll let Connie tell you about Henrietta.
One day, I’m standing on a pile of rubble over looking the workers and all of a sudden, they stopped… all of them staring behind me… as I looked over my shoulder, there stood Connie, blue jeans and all. I had to smile to myself, because their reaction was much like mine when I first saw her. She walked up and said, “how’s it going”? I explained to her it was slow… that there was so much stuff to look through… that it took all my attention just to identify things and separate the good from the bad… she then said, “I’ll help”. One minute later, she’s down in the rubble with the rest of the workers… picking, sorting and getting dirty as hell… Henrietta was beside himself… he couldn’t believe this graceful beauty was willing to get down in the dirt just like the rest of the guys… all of them, to say the least, were impressed.
A couple of days later she shows up with a work party… Ed and the irascible Sam Bass and his saintly, incredibly, beautiful wife… Patricia. All four of them spent the majority of the day digging in the pile right alongside the men… I had to laugh at one point… here I’ve got five guys off the street…whose biggest goal in life were to stay out of jail and get their next bottle or meal… and working right along side of them were four people whose net worth was in the millions… Gawd… I love aviation!
And Henrietta… well… I’ll let Connie tell you about Henrietta and Mr. Ed…
The other thing I’ll always remember…
One fall many years ago… the blond and I went up to Griffin (actually I think it’s Zebulon) to spend the weekend with Connie and Ed… They, along with the Bass’s live on a private airport… as I drove along the little one lane black top to their house, the autumn leaves were floating across the driveway… it was one of those perfect days, just a hint of chill in the air and a very light breeze.
As we pulled up to the house; a beautiful log home with a hangar attached… the Mustang and a Piper Cub were pulled out and setting on the ramp… they were already thinking like me… it was a beautiful day to fly. After about 15 minutes, Ed and I jumped in the Cub and flew around and enjoyed the North Georgia scenery. We came back and landed and immediately the wives had an errand for us to run… head into Griffin, get some groceries and BBQ for that nights meal.
Mission accomplished, we drove back to the house, just in time to see the Mustang taxi out for takeoff… the lithesome one up front and the blond in the jump seat… I turned to Ed and said, “I can’t believe this… she (the blond) is a white knuckler… almost pukes if I bank over 15 degrees”. As we watched the Mustang lift off and bank on its’ departure… in the back of my mind I was hoping she wouldn’t blow lunch and I’d have to clean up the cockpit. As Connie climbed for altitude and leveled off… I watched in amazement as Connie put the Mustang through it’s paces… a graceful aileron roll (so smooth)… followed by a Cuban Eight, then pulling up into a smooth perfect loop… capped off with a four point roll… I said, “Ed, you’re watching history in the making… I just hope I don’t have clean up after it… the blond has never been upside down in an airplane in her life”. About that time, Connie comes down the runway and does a long graceful pitch out for landing… as they touched down, the blond can be seen waving from the backseat… grinning from ear to ear. Blow me over with a feather!
I asked the blond later why the white knuckles with me and obvious joy, flying with Connie, her reply was classic blond… “Because she’s a woman”… Well duh? No shit; I knew that the first time I saw her… I shook my head and gave up… realizing an old friend had figured it out long ago, when he said, “Shadow, even if you did know how a woman thinks… you wouldn’t believe it anyway”! It still was frustrating… by that time I’d had a fairly impressive resume myself… a bona fide military fighter pilot, carrier pilot, bagged six night traps in one night under horrible conditions… survived stupidity in the cockpit… fires in flight and a whole host of other emergencies… but when it came to trust… gender trumped it all.
I’ve thought about it over the years… I had two daughters… and I’d always wanted them to aspire to higher ground… and it dawned on me one day that they needed hero’s too, that they could relate to… like I had when I came up… people of their own gender who made it through hard work and persistence… and Connie Bowlin personifies the roll model I would want them to follow… and to be honest… she’s a hell of a role model for anyone… man or woman.
Connie is a great ambassador for our group and deserves recognition for all she has contributed over these many years… you know, some things are hard to improve on… a crisp fall day, turning leaves, a Mustang… and Baby’s got her blue jeans on… it don’t get any better than this!
Take a bow Connie… we salute you!