Pilot and mechanic David Cochran has spent the majority of his long life in aviation.
On Friday Cochran was awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration. After a life in the air, he does not consider his flying career over yet.
“I’m just not flying as much as I used to, but I’m still flying,” Cochran said.
Brian Martin, a parts manager and Cochran’s former co-worker with the Christian aviation group Mission Aviation Repair Center, said Cochran developed a deep intuition about flight over the course of a 70-year aviation career.
“He just had a real understanding of what makes an airplane fly, and what it is that will keep an airplane from flying,” Martin said.
Cochran’s intuition was evident in the model airplanes the 93-year-old began to build out of balsa wood and tissue paper a few years ago, after he’d mostly left the cockpit. Martin said many of Cochran’s models, built by hand without specifications and powered by rubber bands or small motors, flew.
“He could look at (a picture of an airplane) in a magazine and build it,” Martin said. “He was very successful in getting these things to fly. He just had extraordinary aerodynamic knowledge.”
Cochran’s son Phil said his father’s license is still valid and that he flew about six months ago, but that Cochran is no longer a pilot for the Mission Aviation Repair Center and serves instead as the group’s chaplain.
Although Cochran’s own memories have faded over the years, his life remained fresh for many of the people who gathered Friday at the Mission Aviation Repair Center’s hangar at the Soldotna Airport for a brief ceremony celebrating Cochran’s Master Pilot Award. According to an FAA information sheet, the award is given to pilots who have “maintained safe flight operations for 50 or more consecutive years of piloting aircraft.”
For Cochran, those years of aviation began not as a pilot but as a mechanic at Iowa’s Mount Pleasant airport in 1943. He began taking sporadic piloting lessons in order to better understand his craft, after a friend asked him if he knew of any auto mechanics who didn’t drive. After being trained at a Bible school in Billings, Montana, Cochran moved to Alaska in 1961 specifically to serve as a missionary pilot, becoming the first staff member of the Missionary Aviation Repair Center in 1968, according to a flight history provided by Mission Aviation Repair Center.
Cochran’s Alaskan flights have included many routine missionary trips to Interior Alaska, and some adventures elsewhere. In 1991, Cochran flew the first missionary trip to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Returning from a second flight to Russia in 1993, his Piper Navajo ran out of gas after flying through a storm above the Bering Sea. According to an account by passenger Dave Anderson, Cochran brought the plane to a controlled water landing and survived with his five passengers by clinging to empty gas canisters until all were rescued by helicopter.
No one else at the Friday presentation had been with Cochran on his trips to Russia or his water landing in the Bering Sea. Rather, it was his more routine missionary flights — shuttling supplies, pastors, school groups, and others to and from the Interior — that others best remembered.
Olga Oyoumick, who met Cochran as a teenager when he visited on flights to her Interior village, said she’s never forgotten his singing voice, especially his performance of the hymn “He Could Have Called Ten Thousand Angels.”
She and her husband Joel Oyoumick, who have become missionaries themselves, had been passengers of Cochran’s many times since their youth in Mountain Village, near the Yukon river. Olga Oyoumick said she flew with him to basketball games and other events. She remembered a particular flight in 1975, when Cochran took her and two members of her village to sing in a state Honor Choir.
“It was so beautiful, a clear day,” Olga Oyoumick said. “I just couldn’t get over how clear the mountains were, because you could see above the level we were flying at, above the clouds.”
Olga and Joel Oyoumick, now a pastor and missionary himself, moved to Soldotna from Unalakeet in September. Their son Joel Oyoumick Jr. is the second generation of their family to fly with Cochran, although the younger Oyoumick was more than a passenger. Now a pilot himself for Mission Aviation Repair Center’s pilots, Oyoumick Jr. was one of Cochran’s many flying students.
“He was very knowledgeable,” Oyoumick Jr. said of his teacher. “It was evident he knew a lot.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.