"There's no feeling like it in the world," Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, said, reflecting on her piloting career when she was 93 years old. "Being up in the air, the wind blowing, the exhilaration that's my definition of joy. It's complete freedom. You haven't lived until you've truly felt that."
Born in Canton, China, Cheung immigrated to the United States at age 17 intending to pursue a career in music. But during a driving lesson with her father by Los Angeles' Dycer Airfield, Cheung set her sights higher. In March 1932, after just 12.5 hours of flying instruction with the Chinese Aeronautical Association, 27-year-old Cheung became the first Asian-American aviatrix.
By then, Cheung was also a married mother of two, but that didn't stop her barnstorming. A fan favorite at airshows, Cheung was a daredevil pilot, performing stunts and flying upside down in an open cockpit. She became so beloved among the local Chinese-American community, in fact, they crowdfunded a biplane for her compete in a race from Los Angeles to Cleveland.
In 1935, Cheung became a U.S. citizen, allowing her to also earn a commercial pilot's license. The same year, she was initiated into Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines club, an elite invitation considering barely 200 women flew at the time.
Not long after in 1937, another fundraising effort bought Cheung a new Ryan ST-A plane not meant for entertaining. On the heels of Japan's invading Cheung's homeland, the plane was intended to take her back to China and train military pilots. But Cheung would never complete that mission. Her cousin took the new plane out for a test spin and fatally crashed. That incident, plus the prior disappearance of Amelia Earhart, prompted Cheung's dying father to ask that she not fly again. With her filial promise looming, she retired from the skies in 1942.
Cheung's landmark career garnered her a place in American as well as Chinese aviation history. Among other accolades, she was one of the first inductees to the International Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame, and The Beijing Air Force Aviation Museum also hails her as China's Amelia Earhart. Her determination to defy cultural custom and pursue her airborne dream also is instructive for anyone with a wild idea and the ambition to back it up.
"I wanted to fly, so that's what I did," Cheung said plainly. Simple as that.
This post was inspired by Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant" comic about Katherine Sui Fun Cheung.