Aviation pioneer Col. Joe F. Cotton “takes his last flight” at age 94

by Linda Hubbard on May 14, 2016

Aviation pioneer Col. Joe F. Cotton died peacefully at his Atherton home on May 5. Burial was private; the family plans to hold a celebration of his life in July.

“My father has always been a legend in my eyes,” his daughter, Connie Jo Cotton, told Living Legends. “Colonel Joe F. Cotton started his flying career in the Bell RP-63A, the ‘flying pinball machine,’ which was developed as a flying target for bomber crew gunnery practice.

Col Cotton_vert“He was always living life on the edge of his seat. His flying time totals 16,000 hours in over 80 different types of aircraft from his start in the Army Air Corps in 1942.

“In 1966, my dad was named Pilot of the Year, among other awards such as the Legion of Merit, Air Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal and the Aerospace Walk of Honor.

“Above all, he was a loving husband to my mother, Rema Cotton, and a wonderful father. He is a true living legend.”

Col. Cotton was born in Rushville, Indiana, on January 21, 1922. While helping out on the family farm, he became fascinated with early aviators and what he called “excitement in the air.”

In September, 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, receiving his second lieutenant’s commission and wings in June, 1943. Co-piloting a B-17 bomber during World War II, the plane was shot down and crash landed on the island of Corfu, then under German control. Four months later, with the help of Greek guerrillas, the crew got to Italy and were sent back to America.

Col Cotton lead

It was there he began his flight test career flying the Bell RP-63A as well as performing cold weather and systems tests on various aircraft at Eglin and Ladd Fields. In 1952, he headed to Farnborough, England, to attend the Empire Test Pilot School. He became chief of bomber tests at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and later pilot and test director of the B-58 “Hustler” flight research and development program at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas.

By 1962, Col. Cotton was chief test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California where he flew the first flight of the XB-70, a high altitude, Mach 3 capable bomber set to replace the B-52. In April, 1966, he, along with Al White, flew the XB-70A No. 2 at Mach 3.08 at 72,800 feet.

colonel_cotton_planeRetiring from the Air Force, he became an engineering flight test pilot for United Airlines in San Francisco, a position he held for 13 years.

Col. Cotton is survived by his wife of 71 years, Rema, and three children — Chris Lance Cotton, Connie Jo Cotton and Candy Kayne Cotton Farbstein (husband Michael) along with five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Col. Cotton in September, 2010. There’s a great article in his birth town newspaper written by Brian Sheenan.

Photos of Col. Cotton top and right courtesy of Cotton family; black & white with plane courtesy of  Steve Zarelli; color photo by Chris Gulker (c) 2010


Donald Banks June 17, 2016 at 8:00 pm

I had the pleasure of many hours of discussions with Joe at Chucks donuts in RedwoodCity while on my breaks as a Redwood City Police Officer.

Ed Brink July 09, 2016 at 8:10 pm

Truly moving and loving tribute today, July 9, 2016, at First Baptist Church, Menlo Park. Joe was and is a shining example of a true man among men.

Jay Kavanagh February 13, 2017 at 10:37 am

I hope this comment is read. Please pass on my sincere regrets and deepest sympathies to the entire Cotton family. I had the honor and privilege of knowing Col Cotton during my years spent at Edwards AFB in the 60’s. My father, too, was a USAF test pilot and we were stationed at EAFB two times; once during the 50’s and another time from 1965-1968. I went to high school with the Cotton kids, and played high school and summer league baseball with Col Cotton’s son, Chris. I considered him a close friend. Chris pitched and I was his catcher. I will always remember Col Cotton standing in back of the backstop telling me which pitch to signal Chris to throw and our many conversations before and after baseball games. I knew Col and Mrs. Cotton very well and respected them both very much.

Jay Kavanagh
Desert High School ’68

bob beatty August 27, 2018 at 10:41 am

I was assigned to Bomber Flight and all Weather Test at Wright Patterson AFB from 1951 thru 1954 and flew with Col Cotton on many missions as a crew member. He was the most professional pilot I ever flew with and each plane he flew, he flew it through stall speed, slow flight and knew the way the plane flew in each phase of flight, I considered it an honor to have known and flew with this great man. Bob Beatty, MSgt retired

Bob Winn November 18, 2019 at 6:40 am

Dear Cotton family-
Please except many condolences, from the WInn family, on the home-going of a great man, American and Christian leader!
Our dad worked on occasion with Col Cotton regarding mountain and desert survival at Edwards AFB and he even autographed a model of souped-up version of the XB 70 that Jim and I assembled for fun. Our dad thought a lot of your dad and respected him very much. It was a goal of mine to meet Col Cotton, but distances, my Army career, and the inability to know his schedule hindered that wish. As we live fairly close to Rushville, Indiana, we will pay a visit to that town soon in honor of your father. I am also going to edit Wikipedia to ensure that your father is listed as significant members of that community, an appropriate citation to the history of Rushville.
I would love to hear from Connie, if possible, as my brother, Jim, considered her a respected friend. Unfortunately, Jim passed away in 2008, but lived a good life; devoted to his wife Eva, their children, our nation as a soldier for 20 years, and as a fine Christian man.
God bless your family, be well, and thank you again for the memories of a great man!
Respectfully, Bob Winn

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