Captain Donnie Cochran was inspired to become a Navy pilot by the military planes flying over his family's farm. His dreams of flight led him to make history as the first African American Blue Angels pilot and flight leader.
One of Captain Donnie Cochran's favorite maneuvers as a Blue Angels pilot was the six-plane landing, a feat that can only be accomplished with teamwork.
"You're doing 150 knots until you touch down," Cochran tells me. "You just got to have it together so that as you're rolling down the runway you don't have a pileup of airplanes. That wouldn't be a pretty sight."
Cochran knew a thing or two about teamwork well before becoming a Blue Angel. Growing up on his family's farm near Pelham, Georgia, where his tasks included harvesting okra alongside his 11 siblings, eight brothers and three sisters, he remembers working together in a race to finish before the afternoon thunderstorms.
"One of the great proving grounds of leadership was the okra field. Quite inspiring, huh?" Cochran says with a laugh.
The family farm was located along a flight path taken by military planes, a twist of fate that would inspire Cochran's dream. Vividly, he recalls the hot sun and the excitement provided by high-speed, low-flying airplanes, including Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine aircraft. But Cochran's heart was set on the Navy.
"It was a combination of flying the fighter and flying off the ship that was the total package for me," Cochran says.
In 1976, Cochran graduated and was commissioned as an officer in the Navy. He earned his wings of gold in 1978 and was assigned to Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron 63 (VFP-63), flying the RF-8G Crusader at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar. It was at Miramar that Cochran saw his first Blue Angels show and, inspired by their teamwork and precision flying, decided to become a Blue Angel.
To qualify for the Blue Angels, a pilot needs tactical jet experience. Cochran gained experience by flying the RF-8G Crusader on his first deployment aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) followed by flying the F-14 Tomcat on two deployments aboard USS Enterprise (CVN 65). In 1984, he applied for the Blue Angels but was not chosen for the team. He decided to give it another go in 1985 and made history when he was chosen to be on the 1986 team.
Offering a peek behind the curtain, Cochran says the demanding Blue Angels selection process is all about "living the core values of the Navy" and earning the trust and respect of the Blue Angels pilots, support officers and maintenance team.
As part of his interview process, Cochran was asked if he would feel additional pressure as the first Black pilot to fly with the Blues. His answer: "Well, I don't think it's a matter of am I going to feel additional pressures or not. It's a matter of how I'm going to deal with the pressure. And I believe that flying off the ship day and night has given me a perspective and some of the skills necessary to deal with the pressures that [come with] being a part of the team."
Becoming the first African American Blue Angels pilot, Cochran says, was "not really his goal." He was driven by the desire to be part of "a very special organization." Still, he was very aware of his identity and his position to make history, so he flew to Maxwell Airforce Base nearby Tuskegee, Alabama, considered the cradle of Black aviation.
"[During Blue Angels shows] I ran into a number of Tuskegee airmen and was able to appropriately recognize their trailblazing effort to set the stage for someone like myself," Cochran says.
Blue Angels pilots are limited to two seasons. However, Cochran flew three seasons, "'86, '87, and '88" because in 1987, the Blue Angels transitioned from the A-4 Skyhawk to the F/A-18 Hornet. His first two years, Cochran flew in the No. 3 jet and his third year he flew the No. 4 jet position, which he says was his favorite.
The No. 1 jet is flown by the Blue Angels commanding officer and flight leader, known as "Boss." Cochran says he was inspired to apply for the leadership role by his Boss, Captain Gilman Rud, who Cochran says was "one of the best leaders I've had a chance to work with."
To be eligible for Boss, an aviator needs to have leadership or command experience. Cochran commanded fighter squadron 111 (VF-111), the "Sun Downers," which was deployed off the carrier Kitty Hawk. Under his leadership, VF-111 earned the Battle E and Safety S awards.
In 1994, Cochran interviewed for Boss along with five other candidates. He was selected as flight leader for the '95 and '96 seasons, making history once more as the first African American Blue Angels commanding officer.
After 18 months as commanding officer, Cochran made the difficult decision to step down.
"Sometimes there are issues that you face that are bigger than yourself," Cochran says. "And the easier thing to do would have been to just hang in there and get through six to seven more months of my command tour. But as a commander you have to assess the risk associated with where your organization is, where you are, and minimize the opportunity for something that could happen not just to a team member but to people that you are performing before."
After 888 carrier landings, over 300 airshows and practice air shows and 350 maneuvers in a fighter jet inverted at 380 knots, his new mission is to make a meaningful difference in the lives of everyone he meets.
"I think the reason why I survived or why anyone survived the unique experiences of being a Blue Angels or Thunderbird or Golden Knight or Special Forces 'all of those national treasures that the country has' is to give back to this country," he says.
Cochran's way of giving back is through leadership and team development talks to businesses, leaders in education, and law enforcement.
"When I look at the challenges facing people of color and law enforcement, then perhaps I can make a little bit of difference if me as an African American male is in front of law enforcement talking about leadership, teamwork, individual accountability, character, all of those things that make organizations stronger," Cochran says.
Cochran says he also enjoys serving as a mentor to midshipmen, particularly those who are Black or belong to a minority group.
When he isn't giving leadership and teamwork talks, Cochran is back where his dream began, farming pecans on land once owned by his parents and a plot formerly owned by his uncle.
He can still see the planes flying over his farm.