Norman Cockman (1922 - 2014)
Navy Pilot - Stearman & SNJ Instructor
Looking back, it's difficult to believe Veterans Flight resulted from a chance meeting I had with a wonderful gentleman named Norman Cockman. My first encounter with Norman Cockman occurred late in the afternoon of Sunday, 13 June 2010. I had pulled my newly acquired Stearman out of its hangar and was finishing my pre-flight inspection when one of Pensacola Aviation Center’s young linemen drove up in the golf cart. He had two passengers with him - one was about my age - the other looked about the same age as my World War II Marine father.
The younger man introduced himself as Jim Patteson; the older gentleman was his father-in-law, Norman Cockman. Jim was a former Navy pilot who had flown F-14 Tomcats (I'm sure you remember Tom Cruise in the movie “Top Gun”) before going to work with Delta Air Lines. After retiring from Delta he became Pensacola entrepreneur/philanthropist Quint Studer’s company pilot.
Jim explained that when I flew the Stearman in the traffic pattern I often flew directly over Norman’s house. He said Norman enjoyed watching the airplane as he had instructed in Stearmans during World War II (I was glad he couldn’t see my landings as I had owned the Stearman for only three weeks). They had driven to Pensacola Aviation Center that afternoon on the chance they might be able to see the airplane.
At that time my Stearman didn’t have the radios required to operate from Pensacola Regional Airport, but the nice FAA folks in the control tower had been putting up with me flying in the traffic pattern using a hand-held radio while local Stearman expert Chip Mapoles designed the avionics panel and radio installation.
The new radio and other equipment had been delivered and I was about to fly the airplane to Chip’s shop at J-22 Ranch airport in Chumuckla so he could install it. After a short conversation with Jim and Norman, I apologized for not being able to let them spend time with the Stearman and explained I had an appointment to meet Chip at his shop and didn’t want to be late as he was coming in on a Sunday to accommodate my schedule. I said I would let them know when the airplane was back in Pensacola and we would get together again.
Installation of the radios and other equipment took about seven weeks. After the Stearman was back in Pensacola, I needed several more months before I began to feel comfortable landing it on Pensacola’s hard surface runway. For those of you who haven’t flown Stearmans, once a Stearman is in the air it is easy to fly – assuming you understand why God gave airplanes rudders. Landings, on the other hand, can be challenging. There’s an old saying that a Stearman landing isn’t over until the airplane is in the hangar and the hangar door is closed and locked.
Most Stearman owners believe that while FAA records list us as the registered owners of individual airplanes, in reality we are custodians of pieces of history. As custodians we have an obligation to help people understand the role Stearmans played in training the young men who helped defeat Germany and Japan in World War II. The sacrifices these men made to win the war are why it possible for us to live in the great country we enjoy today.
There are numerous ways to have fun in Stearmans, but many Stearman owners say the most enjoyable thing they do with their airplanes is flying veterans who received their primary flight training in Stearmans during World War II. The Stearman was the first military airplane most of the veterans flew, and it was the airplane in which they learned the skills that enabled them to survive in combat.
Veterans Day 2010, was approaching rapidly when I contacted Jim and suggested we surprise Norman with a flight. That was when Jim told me Norman had not participated in any of the Honor Flights to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial. For some reason Norman felt uncomfortable about his service because the Navy kept him stateside as an instructor rather than sending him overseas during the war.
Margaret and Norman Cockman Before Norman's Flight for Veterans Day 2010
As the day of the flight approached I received more information. I learned Norman had been born during September 1922 in Elon College, North Carolina. He met Margaret Gamble, the lady who would become his wife of 70 years, when he enrolled at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Norman entered the Navy in January 1944, and was sent to flight training at NAS Corpus Christi where he earned his Navy wings. He then served as a flight instructor in Stearmans and SNJ advanced trainers until he was discharged in late 1945.
After the war he completed his college education at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After receiving a degree in business he went to work in the agricultural chemical industry. He and Margaret moved to Pensacola in 1972, and worked as the sales manager for an agricultural chemical company until he retired.
6 November 2010 was a beautiful day for flying. It was cool, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Norman and I were in the Stearman. Norman’s son-in-law Jim Patteson joined former Navy and now retired UPS pilot Jeff “G Man” Schneider in Jeff’s American Champion Decathlon.
My old friend and skydiving buddy, former USMC A-4 pilot Jim “Cap’n Jimbo” Wilson, flew the Cessna 185 photo plane carrying aerial photographer Sheldon Heatherington.
After briefing the flight and getting everyone strapped into the airplanes, we took off from Pensacola International Airport and flew south to the beach east of the Portofino condominiums. After crossing the shore we turned west and flew low altitude along the beach, passing Fort Pickens before turning north over the Intracoastal Waterway toward NAS Pensacola. The Navy tower controller at NAS cleared us to fly a low pass directly down runway 01, which we did at 300 feet before turning east to fly-by the National Museum of Naval Aviation and heading toward downtown Pensacola before returning to Pensacola International.
After 55 minutes in the air our flight of three landed safely at Pensacola. I didn’t take it personally, but I got the distinct impression Margaret had been concerned I wasn’t going to bring Norman back safely.
The Pensacola News Journal covered Norman’s flight and reporter Troy Moon wrote a nice article. Sheilah Bowman in Congressman Jeff Miller’s office got a Velox of the article from the News Journal and said Congressman Miller wanted me to present it to Norman. (Congressman Miller also directed me to tell Norman that the Congressman expected him to come to D.C., on the next Honor Flight, which Norman did). I framed the Velox and the following week Jim and I surprised Norman and Margaret by presenting them the framed Velox, along with several beautiful aerial photos Sheldon Heatherington took during the flight.
Jim Wilson, Margaret & Norman Cockman
And Roy Kinsey
Then Norman surprised us. He told us he had received a call from a classmate at NAS Corpus Christi who had read the New Journal’s article. They hadn’t seen each other since the war and were surprised when they learned both of them lived in Pensacola. When they met for breakfast earlier in the week the classmate gave Norman a copy of their class photo.
No matter how many times I look at the photo, I'm always surprised at how young all of these men look, and always wish I knew how many of them survived the war.
Unfortunately, Norman’s classmate died before we could get him back in the air.
Norman died 8 April 2014; Margaret followed him on 22 May 2014.
Norman Cockman's Pilot Training Class - NAS Corpus Christie, Texas
Norman is Second From the Left in the First Row