Colleagues remember beloved pilot

Savanna Gregg/The Highlander
Burnet pilot Cowden Ward Jr. gives the high sign from his P-51 Mustang “Pecos Bill” to the 2018 Bluebonnet Airsho on Saturday, Sept. 8. Ward was a fan favorite at the Airsho and founder of Freedom Flyers, which honors veterans by giving them rides in vintage aircraft. He and passenger Vincent Losada were killed Saturday, Nov. 17, when Pecos Bill crashed at a Fredericksburg apartment complex






By Savanna Gregg

Staff Writer

The Highlander

Pilots, aviation fans, and Veterans are mourning the loss of well-known and beloved Burnet pilot Cowden Ward Jr. after his P-51D Mustang, “Pecos Bill,” crashed into a Fredericksburg apartment complex parking lot on Saturday, Nov. 17, killing him and his passenger, a World War II Veteran.

Ward, known for his love for aviation and his non-profit organization “Freedom Flyers,” dedicated his time to the nation's World War II Veterans by offering them free flights in Pecos Bill, his way of giving thanks to those who protected our freedoms so long ago.

Ward had recently begun offering flights to Korean and Vietnam War Veterans, as well as Veterans suffering from PTSD after the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, expanding his motivational reach to many people and making a difference in close to 140 Veterans' lives.

The past years with Pecos Bill were probably the happiest for him because it was the big mission he wanted to do, which was pay back the Greatest Generation and help mend some of those wounds with some smiles,” said long-time friend and fellow Highland Lakes Squadron Commemorative Air Force member Vernon Rooze. “You take a Veteran in an airplane like that, when they land they are 15 or 20 years younger. An experience like that, getting into the cockpit, something you haven't done in 70 years takes you back in time.”

What eventually became a legacy of honoring Veterans started out as a program teaching children how to fly at the Burnet Municipal Airport.

Freedom Flyers really all started trying to help get youth into the program,” Rooze said. “He started off with simple aspirations just trying to teach young kids how to fly, and as his skills and resources increased he was able to acquire a T-6, and then the P-51 Mustang; he had Pecos Bill close to seven years now.

Just to get there was a lot of hard work,” Rooze added. “He wasn't an airline pilot, didn't go through a big aviation school, he did it all on his own. He had a drive that just could not be quenched; you couldn't tell him he couldn't do something because he would prove you wrong”

Throughout the years, Ward and Pecos Bill made appearances at many events such as flyovers at football games and performances at airshows, including the Highland Lakes favorite Bluebonnet Airsho, where aviation fans of all ages witnessed the special relationship between a loyal pilot and his warbird for many years.

No matter where you went, you always saw Cowden,” Rooze said.

In addition to being an accomplished, self-driven pilot, Ward was the Executive Producer of “Last Man Club,” a film about a World War II Veteran, as well as two other films, “The Bay House,” and “Goat Hill Road,” which he produced with Director Bo Brinkman. In a Facebook post on the “Last Man Club” page, Brinkman announced the passing of Ward in a heartfelt tribute.

Cowden was a lover of life and tried to cram every breathing moment he had on earth into fun, adventure and learning something new every day,” Brinkman said. “He always approached life with a smile and cheerful attitude.”

Community members will forever remember the sound of Pecos Bill rumbling through the sky, and the smile on Ward's face as he rolled past spectators along the taxiway. These memories and the legacy Ward left behind by making dreams come true for our nation's Veterans will assist in the healing of a community suffering a shocking loss.

Pecos Bill's crash and Ward's death come four months after the loss of the Highland Lakes Squadron's Bluebonnet Belle, a 1944 Douglas C47 Skytrain, which crashed during takeoff at the Burnet Municipal Airport on July 21.

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