The Epoch Times: Katherine Sui Fun Cheung—Aviation’s first female Asian-American pilot
It was through flying that she defied the laws of gravity—and cultural and gender stereotypes.
Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was born in Canton, China on December 12, 1904. She was 17 when she immigrated to America’s west coast in 1921 to live with her father, a Los Angeles businessman.
Intent on pursuing a career in music, Cheung enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC) and went on to earn a degree in academic piano from the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. She continued her education at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.
Course Shifted by Fate
Cheung’s life direction was to change dramatically. While being taught to drive by her father in a parking lot adjacent to southern California’s Dycer Airport, Cheung’s attention was riveted by the allure of planes taking off and in flight.
With eyes focused toward heaven, Cheung’s love of aviation was born.
After leaving the music program at USC, in 1924 Cheung married her father's business partner, George Young, who supported her desire to become a pilot.
In 1931, Cheung’s cousin who happened to be a pilot invited her to take an airplane ride. She did not hesitate afterward to sign up for flying lessons, and received her pilot’s certificate in 1932—a time when a mere 1 percent of licensed pilots in the United States were women.
A Compass for Adventure
Not only considered a “natural” pilot, Cheung was also daring and adventurous by nature. She trained in aerobatic flight, mesmerizing audiences at county fairs along the California coast.
From 1933 to 1937, Cheung entered numerous competitive air races, while pursuing a career in aerobatics and researching advanced flying techniques of the era.
When asked why she chose a path in aviation, Cheung responded, “What’s the point of flying a plane, if you can’t have fun doing it?”
Joins The Ninety-Nines
In 1935, Cheung was invited to join The Ninety-Nines, a prestigious international organization of women pilots established in 1929 by 99 women pilots.
The Ninety-Nines’ first president was none other than Amelia Earhart, who was awarded the Distinguished U.S. Flying Cross for being the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
It is the mission of The Ninety-Nines to promote the advancement of women in aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support, while honoring each other’s unique history and sharing a passion for flight.
Honored for Her Contribution
The Museum of Flying honored Cheung on March 4, 2001, inducting her into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.
Cheung is listed as the nation’s first Asian-American female licensed pilot in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
A Full and Long Life
Living up to her Chinese birth name, Katherine “Sui Fun” Cheung fulfilled her destiny of a “long life.” On Sept. 2, 2003, at the age of 98, she passed of natural causes at her home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. She left behind two daughters, two grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
In a touching documentary of Cheung’s life, granddaughter Judith Wong said, “She was my inspiration for her impact on just the general attitude that the Asian-American woman can be anything she wants to be. My desire to go to law school was influenced by my grandmother. There’s no such thing as ‘no’—if you really want to try something, give it your best shot and go for it!”