Ida Van Smith

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Ida Van Smith (1917 – May 13, 2003) was an African-American pilot and flight instructor born in 1917 in Lumberton, North Carolina and died in that very town on May 13, 2003.

Early life[edit]

Smith was the youngest of three children and grew up in a loving and sheltered environment. Her mother was African-American and her father was of mixed ethnicity. Her family was very religious and attended church services on a regular basis.


Smith graduated from Redstone Academy in 1934 as the valedictorian of her class. She studied at Barber Scotia Junior College in Concord, North Carolina and then attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated with a major in social studies and a minor in mathematics. She taught for two years in North Carolina. She married Edward D. Smith and moved to New York City. Smith taught in Queens, New York and earned a scholarship to City College of New York, which led to her receiving a Master of Science degree from that institution in 1964.

Interest in aviation[edit]

Smith's interest in aviation began when she was a child. She took an interest in barnstorming and wing-walking exhibitions in Lumberton. However, she delayed the pursuit of her dream for fifty years. She and her husband raised four children. She taught in the New York City public schools for many years before enrolling in her first flying lesson. When Smith was fifty years old, she was preparing to enter a doctoral program at New York University but instead, she went to the LaGuardia Airport to take her first lesson in a single-engine airplane. She then studied at an airport in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Smith became a licensed pilot, instrument rated which means that she was allowed to fly during inclement weather, and ground instructor.

Ida Van Smith Flight Clubs[edit]

Smith found the Ida Van Smith Flight Clubs in 1967. It introduced children aged three through nineteen to the careers that aviation and space had to offer. Adults were allowed into the program by special request. She taught her students using a stationary airplane instrument panel in her living room. Her program was then expanded into public schools and started an introductory aviation course for adults at York College. Volunteers from varying areas in aviation give her classes tours of airplanes and airports. They also take her students flying and give lectures and demonstrations appropriate to each age group. Children in the program along with their parents fly in small airplanes, seaplanes, and helicopters. They visited aerospace museums and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) installations. Students in the program learn the controls, functions of the instruments, and what makes a plane fly by sitting in Smith's own Cessna 172 cockpit.

Ida Van Smith sponsors aviation workshops at York College. Here they meet airline pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, meteorologists, aircraft mechanics and others whose jobs pertain to the aviation industry. At first, she used personal funds to establish her flight clubs. Now she receives funding from corporate and private donations and volunteer efforts. Today, there are a total of eleven Ida Van Smith Flight Clubs located in New York, Texas, and St. Lucia.

Smith's graduates have gone on to become Air Force and Navy pilots and officers, submarine navigators, and airline and private pilots.


Photographs and story lines of Smith's appear in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with the Tuskegee Airmen's Black Wings in The Pentagon and in the International Women's Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1978-79, the FAA funded Smith's aviation career programs for three high schools in New York and New Jersey. Later on, these programs were adopted by the FAA.

In 1984, Smith became the first African-American woman to be inducted into the International Forest of Friendship. Since her induction, she has sponsored the inductions of Bessie Coleman and Janet Harmon Bragg.


Smith and her flight clubs have won many awards for their work with inner-city youth. She has received awards from national and international agencies for her work in aviation and her dedication to children's education.

Other accomplishments[edit]

Smith designed an aviation-oriented coloring book for children. She produced and hosted a weekly aviation television program. She also produced and published five booklets on the history of her flight clubs. She spoke about aviation at schools, churches and museums.

Smith was the paternal grandmother of soul singer Sy Smith.