Editor’s note: On Monday, Tucson resident Evelyn Sedivy Cowing, 76, will participate in a cross-country air race as a co-pilot. Sedivy Cowing, who moved to Tucson in 2003, is flying again after taking a 30-year break. She learned to fly in her home state of Nebraska as a young woman and earned numerous aviation awards and recognition. The Lincoln Star Journal profiled Cowing as she prepared for the race.
In the 1960s and ’70s, schoolteacher and pilot Evelyn Sedivy soared through Nebraska skies as one of the few Lincoln women with a private, commercial and flight instructor’s license. She spent her free time flying cross-country derbies and traveling the state teaching other young women that their dreams were possible. Then, in 1980, Sedivy was grounded for more than 30 years.
In January, shortly after signing up for her first flight lesson in three decades, Evelyn Sedivy Cowing, 75, was inducted into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame. On Monday, she will attempt the transcontinental 2014 Air Race Classic with 71-year-old pilot Diane Bartels.
It was a clear Saturday night in July when Evelyn Sedivy and Mildred Barrett landed the Cessna 172 at their first overnight stop in Elko, Nevada. Sedivy leapt from the cockpit, leaving her co-pilot to finish up procedures. She raced down the landing strip, to shouts of “hurry!” from spectators.
In transcontinental races like the women-only 1962 Powder Puff Derby, the goal was to beat the aircraft’s set handicap by the greatest amount of time. As soon as the engine was cut and the propellers had stopped, pilots sprinted toward the time clock, their mandatory skirts and blouses fluttering.
One problem: When Sedivy jumped from the Cessna, the propellers were still wobbling.
She and her co-pilot, Barrett, would be disqualified.
“I felt sick,” Sedivy said. “I was so disappointed. The same time I got out was probably when the propeller came to a stop. I just thought: ‘Oh, my goodness. That was the worst thing I could have done.’ ”
The women continued the four-day race, blindly hoping to still qualify for prize money. They finished in Wilmington, Delaware, to unexpected news: $75 in awards and the realization that race officials didn’t count Sedivy’s blunder against their performance.
No one was surprised by Sedivy’s haste on that runway. The pilot always has been ahead of her time.
Got education degree
By 1958, she was ready to strike out on her own, and spent the next eight years working three part-time jobs to pay for her bachelor’s degree in education from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which she earned in 1966.
At one of those jobs, a secretary position at an occupational training center for the mentally handicapped, Sedivy disclosed to a staff psychologist her desire to fly.
The next morning she found an envelope on her desk. The psychologist had made deposit for Sedivy’s first flight lesson.
One lesson, and Sedivy was hooked.
“Oh, it was marvelous,” she said, “when you think of the whole way our universe is developed, and to be a part of it and be able to really see it. I think what got to me the most is how much you can see, looking at the world through different eyes.”
She blew through the 40 flight hours required for her private license, eventually adding a commercial license with instrument, flight instructor, multiengine and basic ground instructor rating. Shortly after obtaining her private license, Sedivy joined the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of licensed female pilots established in 1929 with Amelia Earhart as its first president. In 1970, the organization awarded Sedivy the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship to fund her passion.
Sedivy flew in three Powder Puff Derbies, in 1962, 1969 and 1971. She was a jack of all trades — commercial pilot, flight instructor, secretary and public education coordinator.
“What an exciting life she lived,” said Sedivy’s niece, Marilyn Harder. “To me, she was famous.”
Continued as teacher
Throughout her flight career, Sedivy continued to teach grade school. Her students learned arithmetic by adding and subtracting the number of planes in a flight hangar, and science by applying the concepts of speed and gravity to hypothetical aircraft.
In 1980, she left Lincoln for a job with the Montana Aeronautics Division. She met her husband, Barry Cowing, at conference and followed him to Wyoming, where he worked. In 1981, she became Evelyn Sedivy Cowing and left the skies for more than 30 years.
“I said, ‘I’m not giving up flying. I had it for 25 years, and I hadn’t had Barry for 25 years,’” Sedivy said. “Like so many things in life, when you set something aside, pretty soon you get involved in other things, and all of the sudden it becomes a part of your past and no longer part of your present.”
The Cowings moved to Tucson, in 2003 when Barry’s health began to fail. He died in 2009, and she began to dust off her aviation scrapbooks. The memories rushed in and after three decades on the ground, Sedivy Cowing decided to treat herself.
“I was trying to think, if I still had Barry, what would he have given me for my 75th birthday?” she said. “All of a sudden it just dawned on me. So I went out to the airport and signed up for a flying lesson.”
Kelly Stites, Sedivy Cowing’s flight instructor and owner of Kelly’s Aviation at Tucson’s Ryan Airfield, said she’s never had a walk-in appointment with a woman in her 70s.
“She’s been nothing but a pleasure. It’s like she really hadn’t missed a beat,” Stites said. “She got in the airplane and took control, just like any good pilot should.”
When Diane Bartels saw the nominees for the 2013 Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“I thought oh, my gosh; maybe I found a co-pilot to fly this race,” Bartels said.
Bartels tracked down Sedivy Cowing and greeted her with a proposition: She had been searching for months for a co-pilot for the 2014 Air Race Classic. Would Sedivy Cowing be interested?
So Monday morning, Sedivy Cowing and Bartels will take off in Bartels’ Piper Cherokee 180 from Concord, California. Together they will fly 2,662 miles to Capital City Airport in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, hopefully before the deadline June 19 at 5 p.m. EST.