Celebrating Contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islander Aviation Pioneers
May 25, 2021
During the month of May, Airlines for America is commemorating Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. AAPI communities have rich histories in the United States with immeasurable contributions to the country. Many overcame obstacles to establish themselves as leaders and trailblazers in the aviation community despite challenges, including unfair bias and discrimination. We salute these noteworthy figures by highlighting their stories this month.
Known as “China’s Amelia Earhart,” Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was the first licensed Asian American woman aviator in an era when only one percent of licensed American pilots were women. Cheung immigrated to America in 1921 to study music but became enthralled with aviation after watching planes take off and land. As an independent woman who was passionate about aviation, she even stipulated conditions to allow for both in her marriage: 1) she would keep her family name, and 2) she would continue cultivating her interest in flying. Cheung began taking flying lessons with the Chinese Aeronautical Association and attained her pilot’s license in 1932 after 12 ½ training hours in the sky. Once licensed, she began her barnstorming career, performing aerial acrobatics, such as loop-the-loops, barrel rolls and inverted flying maneuvers for crowds. Cheung gained renown in the Chinese American community and sought to encourage flying. She is credited with saying, “I don’t see any reason why a Chinese woman can’t be as good a pilot as anyone else. We drive automobiles—why not fly planes?” Actress Anna May Wong and other members of the community even purchased a 125-horsepower fleet biplane for Cheung to compete in competitive air races. Cheung went on to join Amelia Earhart’s Ninety-Nines club for women pilots and raised $7,000 to purchase a Ryan ST-a plane with the goal of returning to China to train pilots. Yet Cheung’s dream would not be realized – the day she was to accept the aircraft, her cousin was killed testing the plane. Her cousin’s death, the disappearance of Earhart and her father’s concern for her safety led her to give up flying.
Chinese American aviator Arthur Chin flew combat missions in the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. As a young adult, Chin was motivated to support China in its ongoing conflict against Japan and joined a program that trained young Chinese Americans as volunteer combat pilots in the United States before sending them to fight in China. Chin served as an aviator in the Chinese Army Air Corps – he initially joined the Canton Air Corps, which integrated with the Chinese national air force – and achieved multiple victories in the air, downing enemy aircraft while piloting various planes, including a Mitsubishi G3M2 twin-engine bomber, a 36 Gladiator Mk. 1 and Polikarpov I-15Bis. He later received numerous medals for his service and was discharged from the Chinese Air Force in 1945. That same year, Chin began to work for the Chinese National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), which was contracted by the U.S. Army Air Forces to supply U.S. forces in the China Burma India Theater during World War II. As a part of his contract as a pilot, he was also able to regain U.S. citizenship, which he rescinded upon joining the Chinese Air Force. Many regarded CNAC pilots as some of the most skilled aviators during the war since they flew a treacherous route from India to China across the Himalayas that was riddled with enemy threats and poor flying conditions. During the war, CNAC pilots transported more than 100,000 tons of material to China, and during the Burma campaign, they dropped supplies to Chinese and American forces on the ground and assisted with the evacuation of Chinese and British forces. Chin’s CNAC contributions were recognized in 1993 when former CNAC aircrews received veteran status, and again in 1995 when members received the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Ben Kuroki was one of the only Japanese Americans to fly combat missions in the Pacific and one of the few American soldiers to fight in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II. Kuroki was initially rejected from enlisting in the war due to his Japanese American heritage but was later accepted by another recruiter. He was confined to menial tasks at first, but despite this, he remained passionate about serving his country as an aviator. When he was told he would not be able to serve overseas due to his ethnicity, he petitioned his commanding officer and received permission to clerk at a base in England, where he became a gunner in a B-24 squadron and flew on 30 combat missions across Europe. After being injured, Kuroki returned to the U.S. and visited Japanese American internment camps to encourage others to enlist, which unwittingly placed him in the middle of controversy due to his Asian heritage and role as an American in uniform. Kuroki remained committed to returning to service but was again denied. After being granted an exemption by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Kuroki served as a B-29 gunner in the 505th Bombardment Group, flying in 28 combat missions over Japan. Kuroki was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Air Medal with five oak clusters and Distinguished Service Medal for his service. Following the war, Kuroki continued to speak out against racial inequity and prejudice – efforts that were often self-funded – saying, “I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country.”