Asian-Americans in Aviation


In this online exhibit we highlight a few of the Asian American men and women who have blazed the trail for others to follow.


With Amelia Earhart (front center) and the Ninety-Nines Club
With Amelia Earhart (front center) and the Ninety-Nines Club

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung

One of the most well-known stunt fliers in the 1930s was Katherine Sui Fun Cheung. She is designated by the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum as the first female Asian-American aviator. At a time when Asian and Asian-American women were expected to quietly keep house, she disregarded convention and became a pilot simply for the love of flying.

She was born in Canton, China, and immigrated to the United States in 1921 at the age of 17. (She became a citizen in 1936). Originally seeking a career in music, she earned her degree in piano performance from the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. She first developed an interest in flying when her father took her to an airfield to teach her how to drive a car; she was fascinated by the planes taking off and landing. Soon after, her cousin, who was a pilot, took her for an airplane ride. Cheung found the experience exhilarating and impulsively signed up for lessons. After just over 12 hours in the sky, she flew solo, and in 1932 became part of the 1% of licensed American pilots who were female.

Cheung became a barnstorming pilot, performing spiral dives, acrobatic loops, barrel rolls and flying her open cockpit airplane upside down at county fairs all over California. She was beloved by the Chinese-American community, who, in one of many demonstrations of their affection, raised $2,000.00 to purchase her a 125-horsepower biplane so that she could compete in a seven-day air race from Los Angeles to Cleveland. She was also adored by overseas Chinese, who dubbed her "China's Amelia Earhart" and have since enshrined her into the Beijing Air Force Aviation Museum. In 1935, Earhart invited Cheung to join her prestigious Ninety-Nines club, an international organization she founded for women pilots.

Cheung passed away in 2003 at age 95. Her many honors include induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame and the Museum of Flying's International Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame. Of her love of flying, she said, "There's no feeling like it in the world. 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."

Arthur ChinArthur Chin was a Chinese-American pilot who was World War II's first American flying ace, of any ethnicity. Born in Portland, Oregon, he developed an early interest in flying, and as a child he worked at odd jobs to pay for flying lessons. With the support of other young Chinese-American students, he underwent flight training at Al Greenwood flying school in Portland, and in 1933 Chin and his classmates went to China to defend their ancestral homeland against Japanese attack. Chin went to advanced fighter training and eventually became an instructor, squadron commander, deputy group commander and then a major. Of his eight victories, six were in the Gloster Gladiator Mk. I. Chin repeatedly and aggressively engaged in battle with Japanese planes; he was shot down himself three times but always parachuted to safety. In December 1939, he led a formation of several other planes against the Japanese army, of which he shot down two. This time, however, the fuel tank of his Gladiator was hit and caught fire, and despite bailing out over Chinese lines, he was badly burned. His wounds took many years and several surgeries to heal, although never completely. Despite this, Chin continued to crusade for the war effort, speaking on the radio and at war bond rallies. 

Five years later, Chin returned to flying, this time with the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC). For a few months in 1945, he transported U.S. supplies over the dangerous Himalayan "Hump" route between India and China, then continued working for CNAC, eventually becoming a fully qualified airline captain. He returned home to Portland, but could not find work as a pilot. He began what was to become a thirty-year career with the postal service, retiring in 1980. In 1986, he finally graduated from high school with his grandson. In 1995 Chin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal. He passed away in 1997, and was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Airpower Heritage Museum. In 2008, a post office in Beaverton, Oregon was named the Major Arthur Chin Post Office Building.

Hazel Ying LeeHazel Ying Lee has the distinction of being one of America's first female pilots, and one of the first Chinese-American female military pilots. She was born in Portland, Oregon to a Chinese immigrant family and took her first flight in 1932 at age 19. She earned her pilots license the same year, and like Katherine Cheung, she became one of only 1% of licensed American pilots who were female. She then went to China to fight for the Chinese Air Force upon invasion by Japan, but was declined due to her sex. She moved to Canton and worked for the next few years as a buyer for Chinese war materials. In 1944, Lee was invited to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, an American group created by famed aviator Jacqueline Cochran. These women, working as civilian pilots for the U.S. Air Force, transported newly assembled fighter aircraft out of factories to service centers all over the country. They underwent a six-month training program, learning to fly high-powered fighters such as the P-63 King Cobra and P-51 Mustang. Lee once had to make an emergency landing on a Kansas farm. The farmer thought that she was a Japanese enemy pilot and would not release her until he was notified by WASP authorities. 

In 1944, Lee attempted to deliver a new P-63 to Great Falls, Montana, but she and other pilots were delayed due to severe weather. She and the other pilots arrived at the landing tower at the same time, and due to a faulty radio (later also discovered on other P-63s) she and another plane collided and both burst into flames. Lee was pulled from the wreckage, but died two days later due to the serious injuries. Her brother was killed three days afterward while serving in France. Upon attempting to secure plots at Riverview Cemetery in Portland for the two siblings, the Lee family learned that Asians were not allowed to be buried in the cemetery. After the family wrote to President Roosevelt, the cemetery finally allowed them to be buried there, and other Chinese-American families followed.

After over three decades of campaigning, the women of the WASP were finally granted full military status in 1977, and in 2010, WASP members were awarded Congressional gold medals. In 2004, Lee was inducted into the Oregon Aviation History Evergreen Aviation Museum. She was the last of 38 WASP pilots to die for the war effort.

Jessica CoxJessica Cox is a Filipino-American who has the distinction of being the first person to pilot a plane with only her feet. She was born without arms but developed the ability to do a wide variety of tasks and activities with the use of her feet, including swimming, writing and driving a car. Cox decided to pursue her sports pilot license in order to overcome a lifelong fear of flying. In 2008, she earned her license and became the first armless pilot, earning herself a Guinness World Record. She travels frequently as a motivational speaker.

Pham with CH-46 crew, Kuwait
Pham with CH-46 crew, Kuwait

Quang X. PhamQuang Pham is noted as the first Vietnamese-American to earn his aviator wings in the U.S. Marine Corps. He came to the U.S. in 1975 with his mother and siblings at the age of ten, as Northern Vietnamese forces were entering Saigon. (His father, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Vietnamese Air Force, stayed in Vietnam and was not reunited with his family until 1992.) As a young man growing up in California, Pham had a normal American childhood and eventually enrolled at UCLA, studying economics. In his junior year, he signed up for Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. It was during this time that he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and decided that, in addition to making his father proud, he wanted to return the favor to the soldiers who had fought in Vietnam for his family's freedom. He spent seven years in active duty as a helicopter pilot during the Gulf War. Pham is now a renowned author and businessman.


Taylor WangAs a Payload Specialist aboard STS-51-B, Dr. Taylor Wang was the first Asian-American in space. He was born in China in 1940 and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of twelve. He earned a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and doctorate in Physics from the University of California at Los Angeles. He was a senior scientist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at California Institute of Technology, focusing on material processing in space. In 1985, he became part of the Challenger crew as part of its Spacelab 3, an onboard research facility, where he performed experiments with the Drop Dynamics Module (DDM), on the behavior of rotating spheroids in zero gravity. He is the inventor of the acoustic levitation and manipulation chamber for used for DDM. Since then, Dr. Wang has served as Principal Investigator for several Spacelab missions involving drop and bubble dynamics, collision and coalescence of drops, charged drop dynamics, containerless science, and encapsulation of living cells. Later on, he became Centennial Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus, as well as Centennial Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Emeritus at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Wang has written approximately 200 journal articles and holds 20 U.S. patents. He has traveled 2.9 million miles in space, has orbited the earth 110 times and has logged 168 hours in space.

Mark PolanskyMark Polansky was born in New Jersey to a Jewish father and a Korean mother from Hawaii. He joined the Air Force after graduating from Purdue University with a Bachelor's Degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering and a Master's Degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He earned his pilots wings in 1980, and flew the F-15 and then the F-5E, training pilots on defeating enemy aircraft. In 1986 he attended USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California, after which he conducted weapons and systems testing, again in the F-15 and also in the A-10. He has logged over 5,000 flight hours in more than 30 aircraft. In 1992 Polansky joined NASA as an aerospace engineer and research pilot. He was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996, and after two years of training he served on the Astronaut Support Personnel team at Kennedy Space Center. His first space flight was on the STS-98 Atlantis in 2001, when he served as pilot. The team delivered and attached a U.S. laboratory module Destiny over seven days. In 2006 Polansky served as Mission Commander on the STS-116 Discovery, a role he repeated in 2009 on the STS-127 Assembly Mission 2J/A Endeavor. Polansky has logged over 993 hours in space.

Sunita WilliamsSunita Williams began her career in the U.S. Navy, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987. Before being selected as a NASA engineer, she was involved in Naval aviation in a variety of capacities, including Naval Aviator, Officer-in-Charge, Aircraft Handler and Flight Instructor. She was selected for NASA Astronaut Candidate Training in 1998, and upon completion of training she was sent to Moscow to work with the Russian Space Agency on their contribution to the International Space Station (ISS) and the first Expedition to the ISS. In 2007 Williams was a flight engineer on Expeditions 14 and 15 to the ISS and completed over 29 hours of spacewalks, a female record at the time. She also holds the current record for the longest continuous space flight by a woman, at 195 days on Expedition 15. In 2012, Williams will launch with Expedition 32, and for Expedition 33 will serve as ISS Commander.

Leroy ChiaoLeroy Chiao is a former NASA astronaut and became the first Asian-American Mission Commander during the Expedition-10 mission in 2004-2005. He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and raised in Danville, CA. He received his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from University of California at Berkeley, and his Master of Science and Doctorate in Chemical Engineering from University of California at Santa Barbara. Dr. Chiao started his career doing process, manufacturing and engineering research on aerospace materials. He became an astronaut in 1991 and is qualified as a Space Station Commander, Space Station Science Officer and a Mission Specialist. On his second flight, on the STS-72 Endeavour, Dr. Chiao became the first ethnic Chinese and first Asian-American to perform a spacewalk, which he did for the purposes of demonstrating tools and evaluating techniques for the assembly of the International Space Station. Over the course of four flights, he has logged 229 days, 7 hours and 38 minutes in space. 

Dr. Chiao has been awarded multiple NASA Space Flight Medals and NASA awards, as well as awards from Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Among his numerous distinctions are a Distinguished Alumni Award from UC Santa Barbara, the 2005 Science and Technology Asian Pacific American Heritage Association Award, and being named one of 1990's 100 Most Influential Asian Americans by A-Magazine. For the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Chiao was the first person to cast a ballot from outer space.

Ellison OnizukaEllison Onizuka was born in 1946 in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii. He earned his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Aerospace Engineering, both from the University of Colorado, where he was a participant in the ROTC program. After graduation, he entered into active duty with the U.S. Air Force and became an aerospace test flight engineer at McClellan Air Force Base in California, where he performed systems safety engineering and flight testing for a variety of aircraft. He also attended USAF Flight Test School, and in 1974 was assigned to the Air Force Test Flight Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he was a squadron flight test officer and later became chief of engineering operational support. He had logged more than 1,700 hours of flight time. 

In 1978, Onizuka was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate. He completed one year of training by August 1979 and went to work on a number of orbital test and checkout projects at the Kennedy Space Center. His first flight as a mission specialist was aboard the STS 51-C, the first Space Shuttle Department of Defense mission, which completed 48 orbits around the earth. Onizuka was in charge of the payload activities on this mission. He was then a mission specialist on the ill-fated STS 51-L, or the Challenger, which launched from the Kennedy Space Center. The crew was lost on January 28, 1986 when the Challenger disintegrated 1 minute 13 seconds after launch. Onizuka was posthumously promoted to Colonel and awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart medal. The Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center in Kona, Hawaii, is named for him.

Eugene Trinh

Eugene Trinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and moved to Paris, France at an early age. At age 18, he and his family immigrated to America. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics from Columbia University and a Masters of Science, Masters of Philosophy and Doctorate of Philosophy, all in Applied Physics, from Yale University. His research specialties include physical acoustics, fluid dynamics and containerless materials processing. He has created shuttle flight experiments which have been carried out in Spacelab missions and flight crew training. Dr. Trinh served as a payload specialist on Columbia STS-50, Microgravity Laboratory-1 Spacelab mission in 1992. He was a Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for twenty years, and has also held the position of Director of Microgravity Research Division in the former Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications. He is currently the Director of the NASA Management Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Dr. Trinh is the first Vietnamese-American to go to outer space. He is recipient of the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal and the NASA Flight Medal.

Kalpana ChawlaKalpana Chawla is most remembered as one of the crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. She was born and raised in Karnal, India, where she knew from a very young age that she wanted to be an aerospace engineer, because of her early experiences at local flying clubs. She recalled, "Every once in a while, we'd ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of these planes. And, he did take us to the flying club and get us a ride in the Pushpak and a glider that the flying club had." 

Chawla received a Bachelor's Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Pubjab Engineering College in 1982. She immediately went on to earn her Master's Degree and Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering. In 1988 she joined NASA at the Ames Research Center, where she focused on power-lifted computational fluid dynamics. In 1993 she briefly left NASA to work as a research scientist at private company, but soon returned in 1995 when she was selected as an astronaut candidate and reported to Johnson Space Center. 

Chawla served four times on Space Shuttle Columbia as a mission specialist, operating the shuttle's robot arm and conducting experiments with the crew. By the end of her life she had logged over 31 days and 14 hours in space. On February 1, 2003, Chawla and the rest of Columbia's crew was lost as the shuttle was re-entering Earth's atmosphere. 

When asked who inspired her, Chawla said, "For me, definitely, it comes every day from people in all walks of life. It's easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something."

Moon Fun ChinMoon was born in Guangdong Province, China, on April 13, 1913. When he was very young, his Father, who was an American citizen, came and picked him up and took him to Seattle, WA. After a few years, they moved to Baltimore, MD. where he graduated from High School. After High School he learned aircraft mechanics and then learned to fly by enrolling in the Curtiss-Wright flying school, where he got his Commercial Pilot's License. His Father's brother, who lived in China, was a friend of W. Langhorne Bond, then manager of the Chinese National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), a partnership between the Chinese government and Pan American Airways. Moon's uncle had heard that CNAC was going to expand their operations. In 1933 Moon went to China, met with Bond, where Bond hired him as a CNAC aviation mechanic. In time Moon became a co-pilot on a CNAC Stinson Detroiter. He became a captain in 1936, flying CNAC's seaplanes, which operated on the Yangtse River-Shanghai-Peking routes. including their Douglas Dolphins and Consolidated Commodores and then on CNAC's Douglas DC-2s and DC-3s. In 1937, following the Japanese invasion of Southern China, Moon flew numerous missions rescuing CNAC employees and Chinese refugees from Shanghai, Hankow and other threatened Chinese cities to sanctuary in Chungking, then capital of China. 

With the outbreak of WWII, Moon rose to #4 on CNAC's seniority list and flew mostly passenger flights. In April, 1942, Moon flew then USAF Col. James H. Doolittle from Kunming to Calcutta following Doolittles' successful raid on Japan and escape to China. Moon flew transport missions during WW II that included flights over the Himalayas-a region known as "the Hump", missions that made CNAC famous.

Following the war, Moon joined the Central Air Transport Corporation (CATC) in 1946 as head of operations where he acquired aircraft, hired and trained flight crews, and initiated operations on Mainland China. CATC became part of Civil Air Transport (CAT) of Taiwan in 1947. 

In 1954, the crew of a stricken USAF C-119 was forced to parachute into the South China Sea. The C-119 had been heading to Dien Ben Phu to drop pallets of supplies to the beseiged French. The crew spent 12 hours in one man dinghies in 15 foot seas. Moon Chin volunteered to fly a CAT owned Consolidated PBY to the site in the South China Sea and accomplished the rescue of the crew. His rescue of the USAF crew was honored by Moon being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the U.S. Government, an honor not usually bestowed to a Civilian pilot.

In 1964, Moon Chin founded Foshing Airlines with service from Taipei to Taitung. Moon sold Foshing in 1981 and returned to the U.S. He resides in Hillsborough, CA, where he remains active in the CNAC Association. He recently celebrated his 100th birthday.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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