DAUGHTER OF THE AIR

The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort

By Rob Simbeck

Atlantic Monthly. 263 pp. $24

Reviewed by Julie Dear

It's a rare person whose life is worth a biography after having lasted just 24 years. But as the first woman pilot to die in the service of her country in World War II, Cornelia Fort certainly qualifies. As a 22-year-old aviation instructor, she had been in the air over Pearl Harbor with a student about to solo, refining his takeoffs and landings, early on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. A plane roared beneath her, and she saw red circles on the tops of the wings. They felt bullets strafe the fuselage but managed to land and run to safety. "The enemy planes were hell-bent on Pearl Harbor and flicked only a few careless bullets at us en route," she wrote later.

Fort was among a handful of women who took the chance to show that skill in an airplane knows no gender. Rob Simbeck's interviews with women who flew with her and knew her well, along with his use of her ample letters and assiduously kept diary, present a chapter in the nation's history that has waited more than half a century to be told.

After Pearl Harbor, Fort was among the recipients of a telegram from Jacqueline Cochran, an aviator almost as well-known as Amelia Earhart, who was looking for women with sufficient experience as pilots to go to England and ferry planes for the Royal Air Force. But Fort, who had been holding press conferences and promoting war bonds on the strength of her eyewitness experience over Pearl Harbor, could not make it back to the East Coast in time to join them. Soon, however, Washington decided to form an American group of women pilots to ferry planes the nation would be needing from factories to bases. She was the second woman to arrive in Wilmington, Del., where the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) trained.

On her last delivery flight, Fort, then just 24, was flying a basic trainer from Long Beach, Calif., to Dallas. The group, which included male pilots, stopped at Midland, Texas, to refuel, and set off again on a clear day. The male pilots -- young men about 90 days out of flight school -- wanted to practice close-formation flying, but the women had been forbidden to do so. Fort, with more than a thousand hours in the air and two years of teaching experience before the war broke out, apparently decided to fly in the formation with them. Somehow, the landing gear on a plane above her hit her canopy. The other pilot banked, and a wheel caught the leading edge of her wing below him. Her plane dove nose-first into the ground without the engine being cut or any visible recovery maneuvering. The crash site is in the small town of Merkel, between Sweetwater and Abilene.

Investigators held the other aviators blameless and said that Fort had been knocked unconscious or killed on contact, well before the plane's impact -- a likely scenario in that she she apparently made no attempt to control the plane after the wing's edge peeled back. At any rate, for 50 years a rumor had been circulating that she died because some young male daredevils had buzzed her and caused the accident. But all five of the other planes' pilots survived the war (as did Fort's flight instructor, Aubrey Watson, who provided the picture of her on the book's jacket), and when Simbeck interviewed them, they proclaimed their innocence and said no other reporter had ever talked to them. The official records exonerating them were not public at the time.

Fort's family was wealthy and prominent. She grew up in a 24-room Tennessee mansion, Fortland (which burned down in an electrical fire during the war); she was tall and adventurous, a debutante whose escort was her home state's debonair 44-year-old bachelor governor. Her father, a doctor who had established his own hospital as well as one of the nation's first life insurance companies, had made her three older brothers promise never to fly a plane because he regarded the post-World War I barnstorming pilots as foolhardy showboats. He never expected that his little girl would be the one to soar in the skies.

This book portrays Fort as not only a natural pilot but also a determined young woman, destined for a life of privilege, who chose another path. She took for granted that women could be an effective part of the war effort in the skies. "None of us can put into words exactly why we fly," she wrote in her journal. "It is something different for each of us. I can't say exactly why I fly but I know why as I've never known anything in my life. . . ."

Though she appreciated the risks, Fort never considered not flying. Just weeks before the accident, she penned a letter home explaining that whatever the outcome, the opportunity to fly would have been worth it: "If I die violently, who can say it was `before my time'? . . . I want no one to grieve for me . . . I was happiest in the sky -- at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress . . . think of me there. . . ."

Julie Dear, the daughter, sister and wife of pilots and a student pilot herself, works for The Washington Post's Home section.