PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — Thirty-five years after making history as the first African-American Blue Angels pilot, Donnie Cochran is reflecting on one of the greatest times of his life.
The dream started as a child on his family’s southwest Georgia farm watching planes fly overhead.
“That inspired me… I was thinking to myself would I rather be up there flying those airplanes or down here in this hot sun working the fields,” Cochran said.
Cochran flew for three seasons in the late 1980s. He came back in 1994 as the commander and flight leader.
“Having the opportunity to fly for three years then come back as flight leader was like lightning striking twice in the same location,” Cochran said. “That very rarely happens.”
He later resigned citing “personal training difficulties.” He reportedly feared his flying performance was not adequate and could be a safety risk to the team and the public.
He said it was a lot of pressure being the first African American to join the Blue Angels.
“I can say the intensity level was probably much greater as a person of color than, let’s say, if you are part of the majority,” Cochran said.
Other pilots grumbled about his skills and said he got the job only because he was black, according to reports. The Navy denied that assertion. Cochran didn’t go into detail but he did talk about leadership and an important lesson he learned.
“You cannot lead or you should not follow anyone who will dishonor you,” Cochran said.
He said he loved his time with the Blue Angels despite any of the challenges.
“If you hold grudges, it’s like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies,” he said.
He now spends his time as a motivational speaker. He splits much of his time between his home in central Florida and being back on the farm where he first realized the sky’s the limit.