“Miss Hampton, 20, blonde, petite” was the description of Ida Mae (nee Hampton) Wassell that a reporter used in a 1932 Atlantic City Press article.
The young pilot’s appearance — beaming smile and softly permed hair — belied a passion that saw her through the Great Depression and service during World War II.
“She had an itch,” said her son, William Wassell, 67, of Bronx, N.Y. “Initially, her parents weren’t too enthusiastic about her flying, but eventually she got their permission to take lessons.”
In 1928, Hampton, living in Northfield, received her pilot license at age 18 (the reporter, it seems, got her age wrong) after less than 10 hours of flight training. She became the first woman to fly solo from Bader Field and one of South Jersey’s few female pilots.
“Back then, I believe things were a little less formal,” Wassell said. “If you were being tutored one on one and had talent, the instructor had the right to make that judgment. She apparently did quite well and they allowed her to fly.”
But the 1929 stock market crash made it more difficult for Hampton to pursue her passion.
Hampton’s father, a banker and developer in Ventnor, had run into financial problems after the crash that worsened as time went on. But Wassell said his mother worked various jobs to earn her own money for lessons and plane rentals.
Flying was “unusual and a bit expensive,” he said. “But she had this driving interest and she followed up on it.”
In 1932, she turned down an opportunity to fly on “The American Nurse,” an airplane that was used to test the effects of flight on pilots and encourage more medical personnel to learn to fly. During its last flight, nonstop from New York to Rome, the plane disappeared without a trace.
She was also a member of the Ninety-Nines, a group of female pilots named for its 99 initial members that also included Amelia Earhart. At the time, in 1929, there were only 117 licensed women pilots in the United States.
After marrying William Stanley Wassell, a Philadelphia baker, in 1933, Hampton continued to fly, her son said, although family responsibilities kept her from flying as frequently.
During World War II, she flew a route between Philadelphia and Washington, ferrying people and important documents back and forth for the Civil Air Patrol.
“During those years, everyone pitched in what they could,” Wassell said. “She had experience and she did it.”
Wassell said he’s been trying to request the once-classified documents of his mother’s service to get a fuller picture of the operations she was involved in during World War II.
After the war, he said, his mother focused primarily on her family, including two children. She died in Hammonton in 2009 at age 99.
“She wasn’t a feminist,” he said. “She wasn’t doing this so much to make a point, but she wanted to break new ground. ... She wanted to become independent.”
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