test pilots

Col. Joe Cotton makes it clear that he isn’t a complainer. But a bout of ill health and the infirmities that accompany advancing age were, he admits, getting to him.  The worst was a post-hospital stay in a rehab facility. “Like being in jail,” he said, with just the trace of a scowl that failed to mask the twinkle in his eye. And that’s the good news for his family and many admirers – Col. Cotton’s got his sparkle back and the quick wit to prove it.

Over an hour’s discussion around the kitchen table of his Atherton home, Col. Cotton shared bits and pieces of his amazing life story – his rural roots on an Indiana farm, how he and Army Air crew mates evaded capture after being shot down over Greece in WWII, his long Air Force career as test pilot during the “right stuff” era, his later years as a United test pilot.

What he seemed to most enjoy on a bright September morning was chewing on the power of words and what they’ve come to mean to him. We’ve captured a sprinkling of this thoughts below; if they whet your appetite for more from Joe, including details about his aviation career, there’s a good account on Prop-Talk.

On thankfulness: “A physician I had, Dr. Raitt, talked about practicing thankfulness as one of his main treatments. If it hadn’t been for the Greek people, I wouldn’t be here. I’m thankful that a Nazi firing squad didn’t get a shot at me.”

On contrast: “‘Contrast’ is the most fabulous word of all. Between plowing a field and flying a 747 or some of the experimental craft I’ve flown, the contrast is indescribable. People today would call it ‘awesome’ but I just can’t bring myself to use that word.”

On freedom: “There’s a chapter in a book called Aircraft Down about our evasion after being shot down. We’d lost our freedom. Same thing happened when those well-meaning people put me in the nursing home. It was like being locked up – I’d lost my freedom.”

On ethics. “I’ve signed a lot of aircraft photos over the years. Some guy wants me to sign baseballs – that’s just not ethical. Would you have Willie Mays sign aircraft photos – of course not!” (Note: there’s a nice post on Economist’s View about a Col. Cotton autograph.)

On aging: “Curly Britton was a flight engineer who I flew with on United tests. Now that I’m in my late 80s and slowly down while at the same time there’s so much technological innovation going on, I remember Curly’s words: ‘Don’t be down on the things you’re not up on.'”

On gratitude: “If I ever finish the book I keep talking about writing, I want to call it ‘The Frog on a Flagpole.’ You may have heard the story about the frog who wakes up on top of flagpole and looks down at the all the people below. He knows he couldn’t have gotten to the top of the flagpole all by himself. I didn’t accomplish what I did my myself. I’m grateful to everyone who helped me.”

On regrets: “That I never met Mike Wallace or Christiane Amanpour.”

Photos by Chris Gulker

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