Pilots: Dorothy Cochrane

September 1, 2008

“I never expected to be writing history...teaching it, maybe, but not recording and writing it.” Yet that’s exactly what this lucky lady does as curator of general aviation for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Dorothy Cochrane’s rise to curator began when she moved to Washington in the late 1970s with her husband, a contract engineer. Initially she took a job in the Treasury Department, “fortunately in the personnel office, where I could watch all the job openings at the Smithsonian.” She applied for one of those jobs, a clerk position, and was hired. But brains, good work, great timing—and an undergraduate degree in history with a master’s in elementary education—moved her up quickly to museum technician, where she assisted in collections, correspondence, and anything else that needed to be done. In a few years, she was promoted to museum specialist, where she was in charge of smaller exhibits and artifact collections, and, in 1991, she became curator of general aviation, in charge of production aircraft.

Her coveted job is an inside seat to aviation history and the people who make it. The historic aircraft are often unique and awesome, but Cochrane is quick to point out, “...it’s all about the story.” Standing close to these time machines “or walking through exhibits with the person who made history, a family member or friend, and getting the inside details and stories is just marvelous.”

Cochrane tells of escorting Betty Skelton, the Feminine Aerobatic Champion in 1948, 1949, and 1950 in her Pitts Special S-1C Little Stinker, to the opening events of the Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2003. Skelton became misty-eyed when she saw her red-and-white aircraft with its distinctive sunburst paint scheme on its wings displayed inverted in the museum’s entrance. CBS’s Sunday Morning film crew was on hand to film Skelton and Cochrane’s arrival. Cochrane says Skelton, now a dear friend, was responsible for “superbly demonstrating and thus bringing to prominence the exceptional Pitts aerobatic aircraft.”

Cochrane calls herself “a weekend pilot” and flies a Citabria 7KCAB when she’s not out looking for new additions to the museum’s 376 aircraft. “I enjoy this job very, very much and learn more each day,” she says. As for the headiness of “writing” history through her exhibits and ever-expanding collection, she admits, “If I think about it too much, it’s overwhelming.”