March 21st: Katherine Sui Fun Cheung


Did you know female pilots are called aviatrixes?  Well you do now.  See how educational this Women’s History Month thing is?!  Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was a pioneer in the world of aviatrixes.  She even hung out with Amelia Earhart, and she has her own displays in the Aviation Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  Cheung was born in China, and moved to America in 1921 when she was 17 to study music and live with her father.  Never one to stick with gender roles at a time when they were so rigid, especially for Chinese-American women who were expected to be quiet and dainty, Cheung had her father teach her how to drive a car.  The driving lessons took place next to an airport where Cheung saw planes taking off and landing and instantly knew she had to learn to fly.  Learning to drive a car was already unusual enough for women in Cheung’s community, so learning how to fly a plane was unheard of.  At the time, only 1% of all licensed pilots in America were women, but Cheung didn’t care.  She said, “I don’t see why women have to stay in the kitchen, when instead they could learn how to fly.”  With this thought in mind, she signed up for flying lessons.  She found some for $5 an hour (which would be about $90 today), and after 12.5 hours of lessons, she made her first solo flight.  Over the next decade, Cheung made waves in the world of aviation.  She was the first Chinese-American women to ever become a licensed pilot in the United States.  She became wildly popular and performed in ariel shows, stunt derbies, and long distance races throughout the 1930s.  In 1936 she joined the Ninety Nines, a prestigious group for aviatrixes founded four years earlier by Amelia Earhart herself.  Cheung was inspirational to the Chinese-American community.  One group even raised money to buy her an airplane with which she went on to race over the Rocky Mountains.  Eventually, a series of tragic deaths, including her cousin’s and her father’s led to Cheung giving up flying.  She was only an active aviatrix for about 10 years but she left a lasting impression on the world of aviation, especially for women and Chinese-Americans.  She was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame and is one of only 50 people to have a plaque at the Flight Path Walk of Fame.  If you’re interested in learning more, Cheung also had a documentary made about her in 2016 called Aviatrix: The Katherine Sui Fun Cheung Story.


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