If you were asked to name a female aviation pioneer, how many of you would name Katherine Cheung? While there are others who may be closer to the tip of your tongue, Katherine Cheung made history as the first ever Chinese-American female pilot to gain an international flying license.
Dubbed China’s Amelia Earhart by the Beijing Air Force Aviation Museum, Cheung wowed crowds as a stunt pilot, but it was her love of music and driving lessons with her father which first set her on the path to being a key part of the history of aviation.
Born in 1904 in the Guandong Province of China, Cheung and her family went on to move to California when she turned 17 as she wanted to study music there.
However, when she began taking driving lessons with her father, they would pass Dycer airfield in Los Angeles where she would spot planes as they took off and landed. That sparked a dream.
In took her around a decade to realize that dream. She married her father’s business partner and became mum to two daughters – Doris and Dorothy. But motherhood definitely didn’t quash her aspirations.
At the time, only 1% of pilots in the US were women, and she was originally told she wouldn’t be allowed to enrol in aviation school. But, Cheung managed to persuade instructor Bert Ekstein at the Chinese Aeronautical Association to take to the skies with her, taking her first solo flight after just 12-and-a-half hours of instruction.
An adrenaline junkie, Cheung became something of a celebrity, attracting aviation-enthusiasts from across the US who wanted to see her daring aviation stunts.
Continuing her lessons, Cheung took instruction from military pilots, honing her skills until she could perform all sorts of tricks in the skies, including flying inverted, barrel rolls and loops. Her performances were so loved by the Chinese American community that they raised money to buy Cheung her own biplane.
As the first-ever Chinese female to be licensed as an international pilot, she joined the famous flying club, the Ninety Nines, which was founded by fellow aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. She even flew with Earhart in a race from Glendale to San Diego.
However, despite her popularity in the US, Cheung, who was by then grief-stricken by the disappearance of Earhart, had another dream – to return to China to inspire others by teaching aviation. It wasn’t to be, although she did become a flight instructor in the US during World War II.
After her cousin died when he crashed her plane, Cheung made her father a promise on his deathbed – that she would never fly again. Her obsession with flying meant it was a promise she could not keep. But, haunted by the loss of her friend, by the death of her cousin and by her father’s words before he died, she did eventually hang up her aviator’s helmet – and opened a flower shop.
She died at the age of 98, but her legacy lives on. Recognised as the first Asian American aviatrix by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Cheung also gained her place in the Flight Path Walk of Fame in the city which was her home for so long, Los Angeles. Not only that, but Cheung inspired a new generation of female pilots, who must have taken her determined words on board: “I wanted to fly, so I did!”