To continue our Women in Flight series, we have the incredible, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung. Dubbed as “China’s Amelia Earheart”, she was the first Asian-American woman to obtain her pilot’s license AND the first woman of Chinese descent licensed to fly internationally. Let’s take a deep dive into her story…
Cheung immigrated with her parents from China to the United States in 1921 to study piano at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. She earned her degree then went on to the University of Southern California to continue her studies. During her university days, her father taught her how to drive at Dycer airfield in Los Angeles, and though she learned to drive very well, a greater passion developed here — aviation.
In 1932, with encouragement from her cousin who was also a pilot, she began taking flying lessons. It was not an easy feat to find a flight school and instructor who would admit a woman of Asian descent. At the time, women made up only 1% of the pilots in the US. A few months later on March 30th, Katherine Cheung received her pilot’s license.
Cheung rapidly improved and expanded her flying skills. Soon, she was performing stunts at fairs along the coast of California. An adrenaline junkie, Cheung became somewhat of a celebrity, attracting aviation-enthusiasts from across the country. In 1935, she joined the famous flying club, the Ninety Nines.
Cheung was such a legend, that in 1936, a small Chinese-American community raised enough money to buy her a plane. She flew the Fleet Biplane throughout the country for races, competitions and air shows. She is famously quoted for saying “I don’t see any valid reason why a Chinese woman can’t be as good a pilot as anyone else…We drive automobiles — why not fly airplanes?”
Unfortunately, in 1937, things took a turn. Following the Japanese invasion of China, Cheung wanted to open a flight school for women in China and had raised enough money to purchase a training aircraft. Her cousin, the one to introduce her to flying, was killed while taking the aircraft for a test flight. Not long after this tragic accident, Amelia Earhart disappeared. This was too much to handle for her aging father, who pleaded with her to quit flying in fear of something happening to her. Honouring his wishes, Cheung permanently gave up flying in 1942.
Katherine Cheung lived in Chinatown, Los Angeles, where she owned a flower shop with her husband. She lived a beautiful life, passing away at the age of 98 years old, in Thousand Oaks, California. She has been recognized as the first Asian-American aviatrix by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and has been inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.
Written by: Sacha Vincent-Toskin