A decade after women were first admitted, the U.S. Naval Academy not only maintained separate standards for male and female midshipmen, it remained a difficult place for a woman to succeed, whether she was highly motivated and disciplined, like the athletic Audrey Richards whose goal was to fly jets, or she was, like Bridget Donovan, merely searching for some order in her life. In addition to institutional sexism, there may have been another, more nefarious, agenda at work. Such is the premise of Kathleen Toomey Jabs' debut novel, "Black Wings," the narrative of which alternates between the midshipmen's experiences at the Academy and Lt. Donovan's investigation of Richard's death three years after graduation.
Donovan, now a public affairs officer assigned to the Pentagon, learns that her former roommate, groomed to become the Navy's first combat-qualified female pilot, has been killed after launching her F/A-18 Hornet from the carrier USS JOHNSON during routine flight operations. Donovan becomes suspicious when she notices that release of the message has been delayed, followed by what appears to be an attempt to spin the story. As criticism swirls around the role of women in combat and questions arise surrounding Richard's abilities, Donovan begins her own unofficial investigation. The more she looks into Richards' death, the more things don't add up. Set in 1993, the story conjures memories of the controversy surrounding the 1994 death of Lt. Kara Hultgreen, the Navy's first combat-qualified female Naval Aviator as she attempted to land her F-14 Tomcat on board the USS Abraham Lincoln. The Navy announced the official cause of the crash as mechanical failure, but a leaked Mishap Investigation Report cited pilot error. Current and retired Naval Aviators came forward with charges that Hultgreen had been pushed through the training pipeline too quickly and ranked ahead of more qualified male student pilots by a Navy eager to appear politically correct.
Jabs deftly moves between the scenes at the Academy and Lt. Donovan's investigation as it takes her from the rings of the Pentagon to upstate New York and, finally, back to Annapolis. She writes authoritatively of both the Naval Academy of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the rarified world of the Pentagon, where junior officers can find their careers derailed for the "needs of the Navy." The author explores the themes of honor, loyalty and commitment--and that every decision and every action have consequences, some of which may be tragic.