Obituary: Joseph F. Cotton, 94, Atherton resident, test pilot, WWII military pilot


Joe Cotton, who survived a military crash landing on the German-occupied island of Corfu during World War II, then had a long career as a test pilot, died at his home in Atherton on May 5 surrounded by his family. He was 94.

The family plans a celebration of his life in July. A full military funeral was scheduled for May 13.

According to a biography of Mr. Cotton written by friend Brian Sheehan, Mr. Cotton was born in Rushville, Indiana, on Jan. 21, 1922. He played basketball at Manilla High School and was a 4-H Club member.

At 20, tired of working on the family farm, he learned how to fly. His first flight instructor, Bob Winter, told Mr. Cotton he didn't have the discipline to be a military pilot.

"Cotton would spend a lifetime disputing this challenge," Mr. Sheehan wrote.

In September 1942, Joe Cotton enlisted in the Army Air Corp, going to Texas for his pilot training.

According to a 1997 article in the Almanac, Mr. Cotton was still in flight training when he and many of his classmates were sent off to help crew American bombers.

He was sent on his first combat mission in November 1943, co-piloting a B-17 bomber with a target west of Athens, Greece. As the bombs reached their target, the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Even though several of the engines were lost, the crew of 10 avoided German fighter planes and kept the bomber in the air for more than an hour before crash landing on the island of Corfu, Mr. Sheehan wrote.

"We thought we could just get on a boat and go to Italy," Mr. Cotton told the Almanac. "What we didn't know was that there were about 3,000 Germans on the island."

However, residents of the town of Lefkimmi found the crew before the Germans did and helped them hide for four months until the men were able to escape on an Italian sub chaser.

Mr. Cotton, his wife and their three children traveled to Corfu and Lefkimmi in 1997 to visit with the residents of the community, including some who had sheltered the Americans during the war.

That first mission turned out to be Mr. Cotton's last, as he was sent back to the U.S. to recover from malaria and return to flight school. Mr. Cotton then became a test pilot, flying the Bell RP-63A known as the "flying pinball machine," Mr. Sheehan writes. Bomber gunners shot at the heavily armored aircraft to improve their accuracy.

Mr. Cotton was chief of bomber tests at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and a pilot and later test director of the B-58 "Hustler" flight research and development program at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas. In 1962, as Air Force chief test pilot, he flew the first flight of the XB-70 at Edwards Air Force Base.

On April 12, 1966, Joe Cotton and Al White flew the XB-70A No. 2 at Mach 3.08 at 72,800 feet, a feat Mr. Sheehan said Mr. Cotton put at the top of his list of aviation accomplishments.

Later that same month, the two pilots became famous for quite a different feat, Mr. Sheehan writes. Shortly after takeoff, the landing gear of their expensive experimental plane jammed. Two touch-and-go's didn't jar it loose, and "Cotton and White remained in the air as people on the ground pulled out plans and diagrams and devised a plan to knock the gear lose," Mr. Sheehan writes.

The men were advised to find a way to short-circuit the system, which Mr. Cotton did with a paper clamp from his briefcase. "Several newspapers across the country exclaimed, a '39 cent paperclip saves $750 million aircraft,'" Mr. Sheehan writes.

After retiring from the Air Force as a colonel, Mr. Cotton was an engineering flight test pilot for United Airlines in San Francisco for 13 years. Daughter Connie Jo Cotton says his flying time totals 16,000 hours in more than 80 different aircraft.

His honors include Pilot of the Year in 1966, the Legion of Merit, Air Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal and the Aerospace Walk of Honor. He retired in 1982.

Mr. Cotton is survived by his wife of more than 71 years, Rema Cotton of Atherton; children Chris Cotton of Atherton, Connie Jo Cotton of Palo Alto and Candy Kayne Cotton Farbstein of San Mateo; and five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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5 people like this
Posted by gordyvon
a resident of another community
on May 13, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Greatness lives among us, as well as courage and heroism. Goodbye Joe Cotton and thank you...

7 people like this
Posted by Tom Cincotta
a resident of another community
on May 14, 2016 at 5:53 pm

As a kid growing up in Tulsa, with Dad at the AAL Maintenance Facility, from my earliest memories, I couldn't get enough of aviation and those heroes I came to admire. For me, two men were etched in my memory...Charles Lindberg and Joe Cotton. After choosing a career in Engineering, I soon found myself working for United Airlines from which I've recently retired after 41 years. I'll never forget my first day on the job, which included my manager inviting me to join him at lunch with some of the other Engineers. As the introductions went around the table, the last person, who was sitting across from me was ....Joe Cotton. I was speechless and in awe while Joe was just one of the guys having lunch and graciously extended a welcome to the group. In the years that followed until he retired, I had the opportunity to be aboard several test flights where Joe was PIC. During those years my respect and admiration for Joe continued to grow. These sentiments were shared with all of my fellow Engineers at UAL. Joe was their hero too. I last saw Joe having a bite to eat at Costco in Redwood City. While I hesitating at first, not wanting to bother him, I just had to stop to say hello again. As usual, I found Joe to be welcoming and warm which once again reminded me what an outstanding individual he was, not only for his contribution to aviation but also for simply being just a decent human being. All of the UAL staff Engineers will miss you Joe Cotton. It has certainly been our honor having known you and worked with you. Take care.

Like this comment
Posted by JB Cockrell
a resident of another community
on Apr 29, 2017 at 5:55 pm

I met Joe. The first time was at the United Airlines training center in 1969. He was in the class behind me at United. Although he was hired to only be a test pilot for United, he was required to go through the same indoctrination training as the rest of us.

When Joe was in his early 90s I again spoke with him at the 3-Zero Cafe at Half Moon Bay airport where he was having lunch with his wife. Although I remembered him, he didn't remember me, but they both remembered their time at the United Airlines training center in 1969.

Joe commanded the respect of all who came in contact with him.

Like this comment
Posted by Rob Crowder
a resident of another community
on Aug 13, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Col. Cotton was a friend of my father. My father co-owned and managed Wally Moon's Baseball Camp. Chris was my friend and we enjoyed many good times at the ball camp. Col. Cotton invited our family to an Edwards AFB air show in 1965 featuring the Thunderbirds. It is one of the most memorable experiences I have had. We also went to the tower and got to hear him flying a B58 as a chase plane and was discussing having ice on the windscreen. So real and so exciting to a 14 year old boy.

Rob Crowder

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