Unsung Heroes: Asian American and Pacific Islander Aviation Pioneers



Today, only 2.5 percent of airline pilots in the United States are of Asian American/Pacific Islander decent. For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, ALPA is proud to honor the contributions of some of the first Asian-Pacific American aviators and reflect on the hardships and challenges they faced. Let us introduce you to a few unsung heroes who overcame obstacles to blaze a path forward for future aviators.

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung

When Katherine Sui Fun Cheung became the first Chinese American woman to earn her pilot license in 1932, only about 200 (1 percent) American pilots were women. She was known for performing spiral dives, acrobatic loops, and barrel rolls and flying an open-cockpit airplane upside down at county fairs. Referred to as “China’s Amelia Earhart,” Earhart herself invited Cheung to join the prestigious Ninety-Nines Club.

Arthur Chin

Born to a Chinese father and a Peruvian mother in Portland, Ore., in 1932, Arthur Chin is widely recognized the first American flying ace of World War II. After recovering from serious injuries resulting from being hit by enemy fire, Chin returned to the skies to transport supplies over the Himalayan “Hump” route between India and China. Chin received the distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal in recognition of his achievements.

Hazel Ying Lee

One of America’s first female pilots, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. military when she joined the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) in 1944. She flew the P-63 King Cobra and the P-51 Mustang. While operating under military command, WASPs were classified as civilians and received no military benefits. Lee died in service in 1944 and was finally honored in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter gave WASPs veteran status. In 2010, President Barack Obama honored the WASPs with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Quang X. Pham

Quang X. Pham became the first Vietnamese American to earn aviator wings in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as an active duty helicopter pilot in the Gulf War.

Anyone Can Become a Pilot!

No matter who you are or where you came from, if you love flying, you can be an airline pilot! ALPA pilots across the United States and Canada make regular appearances at aviation events and in schools to share our passion for flight with young minds and future leaders. To learn more about becoming a pilot or request a visit from a pilot, visit Cleared to Dream.

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