As the first Chinese woman to get her international flying license, Katherine Cheung invites women of all backgrounds to explore aviation.
By: Haley Guerin
The year was 1932. Aviation was quickly gaining popularity and the first world war had recently ended. However, women were still struggling to demonstrate their status as equal to that of men. The aviation industry proved no exception as only one percent of licensed pilots were women. Among this one percent of women was Katherine Cheung, a woman with a powerful message and a determined mind.
On December 12th, 1904, Cheung was born in Guangdong Province, China. Her father was a businessman who dealt with overseas work with the United States, while her mother was a student at the Paxian Bible School. At only seventeen years old, Cheung moved to California to chase her passion for music. She studied at both the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the University of Southern California, working hard to make a future for herself in this new country.
However, her passions soon took an unexpected turn when her cousin- who was a pilot-took her for an airplane ride. As Cheung soared in the skies, she could feel her problems dissipate to nothing. In the sky, it was just her and the freedom to be whoever she wanted to be. Feeling empowered by the thrill of gracefully gliding through the skies, she decided to take flying lessons.
While this was a transformative point in Cheung’s life, it was not easy. She was enraged as she received word that women could not study at Chinese flying schools. Her anger and disappointment towards societal gender gaps turned into a positive outcome as she continued to work hard and follow her dream of becoming a pilot. Cheung soon became one of the first Chinese women to obtain a private flying license, proving to the world that aviation is an industry that is meant to be enjoyed by all people from all backgrounds.
Striving to help empower women, Cheung joined the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics in 1932, soon after she received her pilot’s license. This marked the beginning of her journey in aerobatics. She participated in various airshows, gaining popularity with people of diverse backgrounds as she proudly stood as a symbol of the ability to overcome oppression. Cheung was also an active competitor in various air races, including the Los Angeles Women’s Championship in 1935 and the Chatterton Air Race in 1936.
In 1935, Cheung accomplished a feat that would change the history of aviation forever. She became the first Chinese woman to receive an international flying license. Cheung became famous for dissolving racial and gender boundaries in aviation and society as a whole, opening the skies to all people. She was even a member of a notable female aviation group, the Ninety-Nines, and became friends with its founder-Amelia Earhart.
Proud of her success in the aviation industry, Cheung felt that it was time to give back to the Chinese community. The Japanese invasion of China coupled with the disappearance of Earhart proved to be two devastating events that, yet again, turned into positives. Cheung decided to create a plan to open a flying school in China to teach volunteers to fly in hopes of helping the war effort. This would have opened the door for many Chinese women who would have otherwise encountered great difficulty becoming pilots.
However, the most devastating turn of her life was yet to come. The same cousin who had introduced Cheung to flying several years prior, decided to play a prank on her that went horribly wrong. He died attempting to fly Cheung’s plane. Her father, at the time, was near death as he suffered from illness. Her father could not stand the thought of losing Cheung in the same way and made her promise him that she would land her wings once and for all.
While Cheung’s career as a pilot was over, it did not mean that her legacy was. She is currently celebrated in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space museum as the first Asian female pilot in the United States. Her status as a hardworking woman who was never afraid to face challenges and her ability to turn negative events into positive solutions continue to globally inspire women to follow their dreams, no matter how big they are. Her adventurous spirit lives on in the hearts of female aviators as they take to the skies with confidence, skill, and pride. Keep on flying!
Eager for more on Katherine Sui Fun Cheung? Check out this link: https://www.wai.org/pioneers/2000/katherine-cheung