Christopher J. Cohoes ’84 served as a pilot in the military for 24 years, flying 13 years for the Navy and 11 for the Air Force and attaining the rank of colonel. Now in his second career, Cohoes is a commercial pilot for Delta Air Lines.
Cohoes’ arrival at Hotchkiss was rather serendipitous. “My father was a foreign service officer, so we lived in different countries while I was growing up. In Mexico City, my parents pitched the idea of boarding school. Going back to the U.S. after having lived overseas nine of my 15 years was appealing, so I agreed. I was accepted at Hotchkiss and came as a lower mid.” He recalls, “I certainly didn’t excel as I was not particularly academically driven or prepared. When it came time for college, I wanted to go to Middlebury where they had all but accepted me during the interview; however, they were unimpressed when I forgot to put my name on the early decision application!” Cohoes ended up at Colby, but after two years transferred to the University of Colorado, “where the skiing was better.” Still unsettled and searching, Cohoes saw a photo of a Navy pilot and thought, “maybe I should try that.”
Cohoes found a recruiter the next day and, after a barrage of tests, was accepted as a naval aviator. Upon successful completion of the program, he got his wings and was commissioned as an ensign. “I went first to Hawaii and immediately deployed with a carrier battle group to Desert Storm. I flew 400 hours in combat with the main missions of destroying mines, offering airborne protection against gunboats, and delivering Navy SEALs to their operation areas.” Cohoes became engaged right before he deployed, but for the next eight months had no contact with his fiancée aside from letters. “That was a hard time, but we really got to know each other deeply through those letters, much more so than we would’ve through e-mail or Facebook.”
Several months before September 11, 2001, Cohoes left the Navy to become a civilian. “There were a number of reasons. Primarily it was that I’d spent one of every three days of my marriage deployed. We had a new baby, I’d lost many friends, and I didn’t want to risk abandoning my family.” Not eager to sit behind a desk, he took a job flying for Delta. His very first layover in New York City was on September 10, 2001. When he and his wife watched the attack the following day, they felt a mix of deep anger and anxiety.
A month later, many commercial pilots including Cohoes were furloughed. “The economy took a hit, and the airline industry was devastated. When the Air Force extended a flying offer, I jumped at the chance to contribute to the effort to free the world of people like those who attacked us.” He was quickly given that chance during multiple combat deployments in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. “I flew the RC-135, a large and very capable reconnaissance jet that was highly valued in our Middle East campaign.” He commanded squadrons, both in Mildenhall, England, and in the Persian Gulf area.
During his last three years in the Air Force, Cohoes left active combat and joined the European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. “As a lieutenant colonel and colonel, you sort of have to grow up. No more emotion, no more lack of attention to detail (like leaving your name off your college application), and there is a definite need for a ‘longer view.’ In Germany, we launched ideas instead of weapons to influence our adversary’s decision-making processes in an attempt to dominate the information environment. I helped plan the Libya response and dealt with the aggressors toward Israel. Our job was to listen, watch, analyze, strategize, then order the U.S. Forces in Europe to execute our plans. Many of those plans were humanitarian in nature, like helping Turkey after earthquakes or Moldova after floods.”
Cohoes feels that his greatest contributions weren’t just his but those of his teams. He notes, “I have always liked being part of a team, and the U.S. military is the biggest team in the world.” Though much of his work was secretive in nature, Cohoes knows that it made contributions on a national level, “some the direct result of my plane, squadron, and group. And I value extremely the idea of contributing to something greater, living to serve a higher purpose. You get that from serving in the military.”
Cohoes acknowledges that readjusting to civilian life can be challenging. “When serving in the military, at least 50 percent of your brain is always focused on military problems. After about three months or so as a civilian, I felt my senses awaken, and everything become more vivid. When this happens, it is such a load off your shoulders. It was a great reward being truly present with my family, though I do miss the camaraderie, the team, the uniform. Flying a commercial airliner with 250 people trusting me is much easier. The responsibility of taking action on matters of strategic importance to the U.S., which the population didn’t even know were an issue, was a great burden.”
And what did Cohoes get from Hotchkiss? “I learned to write. I had to write a paper every day for an entire semester under Torrey. Hotchkiss taught me to communicate. I was forced through math and writing to organize my thoughts, to be clear, understandable, and exact, and this linear thinking served me well in the military. I also got my first lesson in never giving up. I experienced academic, social, and athletic adversity, and that gave me a foundation for encounters later where my survival was not at all a sure outcome.”
Besides his wife, Darbie, and two sons, Cohoes says he “is inspired by patriots, warriors, and people who live to serve others.” Cohoes received air medals and a Legion of Merit for his patriotism, but, even more significant, “I received several letters from mothers and daughters thanking my team for saving their husbands and fathers during battle.”