Have you ever wondered about how far the aviation industry has come? Or questioned about the women who fought for the liberty to ride the skies and create the stepping stones for the generations to come? Throughout history, women of all different backgrounds were oppressed and looked over for their male colleagues. Many have made a name for themselves and paved the way for future generations. One of these women was Katherine Cheung, who opened doors not only in America, but in China as well.
Katherine Cheung was born on December 12, 1904 in Guangdong Province, China, and was the daughter of a businessman who often did overseas work in the United States. At the age of seventeen, Cheung moved to California to pursue her passion for music, studying at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the University of Southern California.
Her passions quickly shifted from music to aviation after her cousin-who was a pilot- took her on a plane ride. As she soared through the skies, she could feel the weight of her problems lift from her shoulders, leaving a sense of freedom within her. After the liberating experience, Cheung decided to take flying lessons.
The change in professions did not come easy since Cheung received word that women were not allowed to partake in lessons at Chinese flying schools. Fueled by her frustration and anger towards the societal gender gaps, she soon became one of the few Chinese women to obtain a private flying license. This accomplishment proved that aviation is meant to be enjoyed by those of all different backgrounds.
Cheung continued to empower women in the aviation field and joined the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics in 1932 soon after she received her private flying license. This kick-started her journey in aerobatics by participating in airshows as well as becoming an active competitor in air races including the Los Angeles Women’s Championship in 1935 and the Chatterton Air Race in 1936.
Through these experiences, Cheung gained popularity with many people from different backgrounds, acting as a symbol of the ability to overcome oppression. In 1935, Cheung continued to dissolve racial and gender barriers by becoming the first Chinese woman to obtain an international flying license. She was even a part of the well known female aviation group, The Ninety-Nines, and was good friends with the famous female pilot, Amelia Earhart.
Once she found success in the aviation industry, Cheung felt the need to give back to the Chinese community. After the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and with the disappearance of her friend, Amelia Earhart, Cheung turned these negative events into a positive opportunity. She created a plan to open a flying school in China that would teach volunteers to fly to help the war effort. This school would open the door for many Chinese women who have experienced difficulty in overcoming the gender barriers to become pilots.
The Second Sino-Japanese War and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart were only the beginning of Cheung’s hardships. The same cousin who unlocked Cheung’s love for aviation sadly passed away after attempting to fly Cheung’s plane for a prank. At the same time, her father suffered from an illness and was near death. Worried for his daughter, he begged Cheung to retire from flying in fear of her facing the same fate as her cousin. Agreeing to her father’s wishes, Cheung rested her wings for good.
Although Cheung’s journey flew to an earlier retirement, her legacy is still celebrated. Her accomplishments are currently being displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as the first Asian female pilot in the United States. In her home village of Enping, The Aviation Museum of Enping displayed photos to celebrate her accomplishments and The Beijing Air Force Aviation Museum has named her “China’s Amelia Earhart”. Cheung passed due to natural causes in 2003, but her accomplishments and legacy still inspire many every day.
Who’s your biggest inspiration? Let us know in the comments!
To learn more about Katherine Cheung, check out these articles:
Jenny Duong is a newly recruited Social Media Volunteer at Hera Aviation Group. She currently studies Global Business and Marketing at Southern New Hampshire University.
Jenny enjoys traveling and often visits family in Vietnam during the summer. She also enjoys spending time with her dog, Macie, often binging reality TV together. Their current guilty pleasure is the Bachelor franchise! Her biggest inspiration are her two older siblings even after all the teasing.