‘China’s Amelia Earhart’ Got Her Wings Here
Katherine Sui Fun Cheung stepped onto the world’s stage and into its heart in 1932, as the first licensed Asian American aviatrix in the nation.
She was a barnstorming mother whose dream took a “hammerhead turn” as she began performing vertigo-inducing aerobatics across the country. She flew open cockpit planes upside down and is among the select few surviving the Golden Age of Aviation.
Very few women then sought careers in such male-dominated professions, and it was a dangerous and new one at that. Cheung’s success opened a window on a world that had been all but forbidden.
Today, in her Thousand Oaks home, Cheung speaks with the same feisty spirit she must have had at 28, when she was seated in her Fleet biplane.
“I wanted to fly, so that’s what I did,” the 93-year-old Cheung said with a twinkle in her eye.
“Some of this stuff I’ve forgotten,” she says, apologizing for her memory. “But a lot of it I didn’t pay any attention to at the time. I was too busy having fun.”
Born with a daredevil streak in 1904 in China, Cheung began to spread her wings at age 17, when she headed for Los Angeles and an education in music at USC.
Her family soon followed her, and a few years later, her father, a produce buyer, taught her how to drive a car at Dycer airfield, located at 136th Street and Western Avenue. The car was fine, but it was the planes that transfixed her as she watched them take off and land. Her love affair with aviation had begun.
Dropping out of USC after three years, Cheung married her father’s partner, George Young.
Reluctant to surrender her own identity, she kept her family name. Her nontraditional, always-supportive husband endorsed her decision wholeheartedly. He didn’t even bat an eye when, a few years later, she donned pants and an aviator helmet.
For a time she devoted herself to her husband and later, two daughters. But, like all great passions, Cheung’s love of flying was still aloft. In 1932, she took to the skies when her pilot cousin offered to take her for a spin. She was hooked. Flying was like music and then some, and she impulsively signed up for lessons at $5 an hour with the Chinese Aeronautical Assn.
Accompanied by flight instructor Bert Ekstein, Cheung was always eager to climb into the cockpit and prove herself. After 12 1/2 hours, she soloed for the first time. Winning her wings soon thereafter, she soared into a new age, becoming the first Chinese woman in the nation to legally fly a plane, at a time when only about 200--or 1%--of licensed American pilots were women.
That began Cheung’s solo career of aerobatics--loop-to-loop, barrel rolls and inverted flying--performing her ballet in the sky that thrilled and terrified thousands of spectators at county fairs along the coast.
She never set speed and endurance records, but she regularly entered competitive air races, including a seven-day race from Los Angeles to Cleveland in a 125-horsepower Fleet biplane that various members of the Chinese community, including actress Anna May Wong, bought for her for $2,000 in 1934.
The following year, Amelia Earhart’s 4-year-old international Ninety Nines club for women pilots welcomed her into the group, and through it, she met such trailblazers as Charles Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner and Pancho Barnes. She flew thereafter with dozens of remarkable women, including Earhart, in a Glendale-to-San-Diego race.
In 1936, she entered the Ruth Chatterton Derby from Los Angeles to Cleveland. Every contestant except Cheung was flying a new, high-powered plane supplied by manufacturers. Undaunted, she climbed aboard her little Fleet plane and took off, barely making it over the Rocky Mountains. Seven days later, not the least bit embarrassed, she landed in Cleveland, coming in next to last.
Flying to U.S. cities with large Chinese populations, she gave speeches that made flying seem less dangerous, more commonplace. “I don’t see any reason why a Chinese woman can’t be as good a pilot as anyone else,” she would tell her audiences. “We drive automobiles--why not fly planes?”
In July 1937, as Cheung was still grief-stricken over the disappearance of her friend Earhart somewhere in the Pacific, the Japanese invaded her homeland. With the outbreak of the war, Chinese communities were hoisting Cheung on their collective shoulders, proclaiming her a heroine and role model while contributing $7,000 to buy a Ryan ST-A plane for her to fly to China and teach Chinese volunteers how to fly.
But it wasn’t to be. In a twist of fate, the same cousin who took her up on her first flight may have saved her life--tragically.
Just as a group of Chinese American women were presenting Cheung with her new Ryan airplane at Dycer airfield--by then at Western Avenue and 94th Street--Cheung’s cousin ran by, hopped into Cheung’s plane and took off as a prank, literally stealing it from under her nose. Within moments, everyone watched as the plane crashed, killing him.
Unwilling to let his daughter tempt fate again, Cheung’s father, on his deathbed, made her promise that she would never fly again. She did promise, but was back up in the air shortly after her father’s death.
However, after almost a decade of flying, she hung up her wings at age 38. Three things--Earhart’s disappearance, her cousin’s death and the promise to her father--haunted her.
Her name is listed in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum as the nation’s first Asian aviatrix. The Beijing Air Force Aviation Museum calls her “China’s Amelia Earhart” and displays items recording many of her accomplishments.
Today, faded newspaper clippings, pictures and forgotten mementos of Cheung’s life fill two small scrapbooks in her home. She also carries them in her heart and talks about them at the senior center where she plays bingo and dances up a storm--though not quite a barnstorm.