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AAPI Heritage Month: Contributions to Aviation and Aeronautics

May 31, 2021

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and Capitology Blog is highlighting the various contributions made by AAPI individuals in the STEM fields. In our last post, we talked about AAPI contributions to technology. This post will highlight AAPI contributions to aviation and aeronautics.

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung

In 1932, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung became the first Chinese-American woman to earn her pilot’s license. At the time, only about one percent of licensed pilots were women, making Cheung’s accomplishment even more astonishing.

Highlighted in an article for Vogue, author Lynn Yeager writes that Cheung made her first solo flight after a mere 12.5 hours of flight training. She was friends with Amelia Earhart and was known for stunt flying – loops, spiral dives, and barrel rolls.

“I wasn’t interested in being in the kitchen like women were expected to do,” Cheung purportedly explained years later, shares Yeager.

Cheung was a member of the Ninety-Nines Club, an international group of female pilots founded by Earhart, and was the first Chinese woman to obtain an international flying license.

In 2017, a documentary titled Aviatrix: The Katherine Sui Fun Cheung Story was screened at the Chinese Historical Society Museum Learning Center in San Francisco.


Hazel Ying Lee

Another early pioneer in flight was Hazel Ying Lee, also a Chinese-American woman who obtained her pilot’s license in 1932. Lee was the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military. 

According to an article by the FAA, Lee originally attempted to join the Chinese Air Force in 1933, but they did not allow women pilots. After attempting again in 1937 and again being denied entry, Lee returned to the United States in 1938. 

In 1942, Lee joined a flying detachment that would eventually merge with another to form the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

“Lee relished her role and her ethnicity, teaching her fellow WASPs about her culture, Chinese food,

and even inscribing classmates’ nicknames in Chinese characters with lipstick on their airplanes,” says the FAA.

Lee was an important part of the war effort, along with other WASPs, delivering planes that were eventually used by Russian allies. 

Sadly, Lee passed away two days after her plane crashed with another plane during a landing in Great Falls, Montana. She was the last WASP to die in service. 


Ellison Onizuka

Born in Hawaii, Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian-American in space. Onizuka began his career as an Air Force flight test engineer and test pilot. 

“He was a member of NASA's Astronaut Class of 1978, also known as the Thirty-Five New Guys, the first astronaut class in nearly a decade and also the first to include women, Hispanics and Asian and African Americans,” reports NASA.

Onizuka supported a number of technical assignments for NASA before making his first trip to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985. It was the third flight of Discovery, and was dedicated to Department of Defense payloads. Onizuka was primarily responsible for primary payload activities during the mission.

On January 28, 1986, Onizuka was to make his second trip to space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, when he, along with the six other crew members, lost their lives during an explosion that occurred shortly after lift-off.

He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Metal of Honor and promoted to the rank of Colonel.

Capitol Tech recognizes all of the members of the AAPI community who have made so many contributions to the world of aviation, aeronautics, and space flight, especially those whose lives were lost in the pursuit of the careers they loved.