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LA writer Sherri L. Smith tells story of Women Airforce Service Pilots

Sherri L. Smith, author of “Flygirl,” a fictional account based on the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS, who contributed to the World War II effort stateside.
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Sherri L. Smith, author of “Flygirl,” a fictional account based on the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS, who contributed to the World War II effort stateside.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to a special group of pilots last month. More than 200 World War II veterans — surviving members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS — were in Washington, D.C. for the ceremony.

A Los Angeles writer has fictionalized their story. She was invited to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Outside the museum gift shop, Sherri L. Smith signs copies of “Flygirl.” She says the book is the story about a girl named Ida Mae Jones who is a light-skinned black girl living in the south in Slidell, outside of New Orleans in the 1940s.

Ida Mae loves to fly. Her late father worked as a crop duster. When America enters the Second World War, Ida Mae joins the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, civilian women who ferried military planes and flew towing missions for target practice so the men could fly combat missions in Europe and the Pacific.

"Interestingly enough," Smith says, "I was driving home one night listening to NPR and a Radio Diaries piece came on about the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots and I had never heard of them before. The next day I went to work and one of my friends said, 'did you hear that piece about the WASP? I think that’s your next book.' And I said, 'you know what? I think you’re right.'”

Some of the stories from radio producer Joe Richman’s documentary ended up in “Flygirl.” Including one about rookie pilots getting dumped from the plane during training missions.

Here's Sherri Smith's version of the tale:

The plane banks and turns. It’s a beautiful sight to see in the clear blue Texas sky. Then, suddenly, the plane does a loop in the air, and something awful happens. Lily falls out of the plane. A tiny figure, still visible in her oversized zoot suit, slips from the backseat and plummets towards the earth. We all cry out. My legs start moving before I can think. The entire class starts to run, our eyes on the sky. A second later, the parachute balloons out behind her, and we all heave a sigh of relief. “Aw, honey, it’s a rite of passage,” Patsy says. “You’ve joined the Caterpillar Club!” “Caterpillar Club?” “That’s what they call it when you use your parachute. It opens like a silk cocoon. You’ve just spread your wings, little butterfly.” We sent the warning to all the girls in Flight One. Don’t forget to double-check your seat belt. No one else wants to be a member of the club today.

“Flygirl” is a work of young adult fiction. Ida Mae Jones is the result of a “what if” moment. Sherri Smith says Chinese American pilots and perhaps even a Latina flew in the WASPS. But as far as she knows, there weren’t any black female pilots.

Racial segregation wasn't officially abolished until 1948. The WASPS of World War II were part of a Jim Crow army.

"The program was so controversial," she says, "just having women fly military planes ‘cause women weren’t supposed to fly so there’s no way they were going to allow black women and still keep the program alive."

But in “Flygirl,” the light-skinned Ida Mae Jones “passes” for white. It’s a controversial topic few people discuss today. Smith says it’s an undeniable part of African-American history.

"People passed. People are still passing. It’s a tough topic. And it’s not a glorious topic. It’s just a factual — it’s a part of life. Nobody’s coming at me to say, 'How dare you?' But every once and a while I wonder."

In the book, Ida Mae struggles with her Hobson’s choice: deny her heritage and her family or deny her passion for flying:

I straighten my blue uniform in the mirror, wipe away a bit of lint, and touch the cool silver metal of the wings on my lapel. It looks right on me, against my pale skin and soft brown hair. It makes me feel older than just twenty years. But only white women can wear them, and New Orleans is just an hour away. Time to turn back into a pumpkin. With a sigh, I open my bag and pull out my civilian clothes, a travel suit of soft brown and cream flecked summer wool. The next time I look in the mirror, I’m no longer a WASP, young and white, able to fly. Same pale skin, same soft hair. But now I can pass for colored, just another light-skinned girl.

Sherri Smith recently quit her day job at a comic book company to work on her fifth young adult novel: a speculative fiction called “Orleans” about life on a quarantined Gulf Coast after a series of catastrophic hurricanes.

Jamila Bey reads excerpts from "Flygirl" in this story.