By Sherri L. Smith
In the winter of 1941, Ida Mae Jones has graduated from high school in Slidell, Louisiana and lives on a strawberry farm with her widowed mother, her grandfather, older brother Tom and younger brother Abel. Tom is a student at a Negro college studying medicine and Ida Mae works as a maid for a well-to-do white family in nearby New Orleans with her best friend, Jolene. Before his death in a freakish accident, Ida’s father had bought a plane for crop dusting and taught her how to fly. It is her life’s passion. Sadly no respectable flight school will give her a pilot’s license because of her gender. As December rolls around, she is resigned to the fact that she may never realize her dream of becoming a professional aviator. When Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and the United States enters the world war already raging in Europe, everything changes for this spirited young woman.
Two years later, Thomas is in the army serving in the South Pacific and Ida is going stir crazy at home wanting to get involved. When she learns that the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program is recruiting women to help fly planes across the country, her dream is rekindled. This unique organization was a merger of WFTD (Women’s Flying Training Detachment) and the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) whereby the US Army Air Force employed civilian female pilots to fly military aircrafts on missions that ranged from ferrying planes from factories to military bases and towing aerial targets. They made it possible to free up thousands of male pilots for combat roles overseas. Sadly, in 1943 they were also discriminatory against blacks and qualified Negro women were refused entry into the corp.
Which is where Sherri Smith’s story takes-off much like her high flying heroine. Ida Mae is a light skinned Negro who can easily pass for white. She is also a person of high moral character and the realization that she must lie to achieve her goal of joining the WASP is a truly bitter pill. Against her family’s wishes, Ida applies for flight school and is accepted, her subterfuge successful. Soon she finds herself stationed at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, with hundreds of other would-be pilots. There she meets two other spirited girls in Patsy “Cakewalk” Kake, a veteran wing-walker and barnstormer and Lily Lowenstein, a wealthy socialite from New York. They become close friends and in the weeks and months ahead, support each other through the grueling training.
Smith’s research is flawless and she vividly recreates the daily life of a WASP. For the most part, these brave young women were given very little credit by their male counterparts, when all too often they performed to higher standards then the men. Time and time again, WASP pilots were put to the test and their skills and courage always won out. Thus Smith weaves both a marvelous historical narrative that is one hundred percent factual with a warm and endearing fiction. It is a seamless tale that is both sad and inspiring. FLYGIRL is one of those rare books you wish would never end and Ida Mae Jones is a character you will never forget.