Inspiring Future Generations of Asian American and Pacific Islander Pilots

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have a rich history of contributing to aviation; here we highlight a few of their stories.

Wah Kau Kong was the first Chinese American fighter pilot. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1919, Kong graduated from the University of Hawaii and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His bravery and skill helped pave the way for future generations of Asian American and Pacific Islander pilots. In 1994, he was posthumously honored in the congressional record by Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka.

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was a pioneering Chinese American aviator widely recognized as the first Chinese woman to earn a pilot’s license and fly a commercial aircraft. She was born in Canton, China, in 1904 and immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. Cheung became interested in aviation during the 1930s and took flying lessons at a small airfield in Oakland, Calif. She earned her pilot’s license in 1932. During World War II, Cheung worked as a flight instructor for the United States Army Air Forces, training Chinese and American pilots at an airfield in Yunnan Province, China. After the war, she returned to the United States and became a flight instructor at the San Francisco Airport. Cheung was a trailblazer for women and Asian Americans in aviation. Her legacy continues to inspire and motivate today, and she is remembered as a pioneer and a hero in the aviation community.

Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American astronaut to reach space. He was born to Japanese American parents on June 24, 1946, in Kealakekua, Hawaii. He joined the United States Air Force in 1970 and became a pilot, serving in various capacities until NASA selected him to become an astronaut in 1978. He flew on two space shuttle missions, STS-51-C in 1985 and STS-51-L in 1986. Tragically, Onizuka was one of the seven crewmembers who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. He will be remembered for his contributions to space exploration and for being a trailblazer for Asian Americans in aviation and space travel.

The work to celebrate and inspire Asian American and Pacific Islander aviators continues, during May and throughout the year. On May 18, the Professional Asian Pilots Association (PAPA) will host its second annual flagship event, which celebrates Asian culture and supports and empowers all in the aviation industry. The two-day event will feature a career fair, food, cultural activities and performances, guest speakers, and more. PAPA was created in 2017 by a passionate group of airline pilots to connect and empower individuals who share the same vision to increase Asian representation in the aviation industry.

As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it is important to recognize and honor the contributions of those in the aviation industry. They have overcome obstacles and made significant contributions, and continue to inspire future generations of pilots.

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