“Aviatrix” introduces a new generation to the first Asian-American woman in flight

By Brian Welk

Westside aviation pioneer Katherine Sui Fun Cheung kickstarts her engine before takeoff in this historic family photo Photo courtesy of Dottie Leschenko

Westside aviation pioneer Katherine Sui Fun Cheung kickstarts her engine before takeoff in this historic family photo
Photo courtesy of Dottie Leschenko

In the mid-1930s, a pilot flying over Southern California ran out of gas and made an emergency landing at an American Army base. The pilot was of Chinese descent, and the Army assumed the pilot must be a spy. But as a member of The Ninety-Nines, she was sent on her way with free gas and a hearty lunch.

The Ninety-Nines are an association of female pilots founded by Amelia Earhart at a time when only 1% of pilots were women. The pilot was Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, the first Asian-American woman to have a pilot’s license in the United States.

In a new documentary short called “Aviatrix: The Katherine Sui Fun Cheung Story,” director Ed Moy chronicles Cheung’s life as a pilot in West Los Angeles and how her story has inspired others in aviation and the community.

Featured in the film is Cheung’s daughter Dottie Leschenko, a Mar Vista resident who’s lived in the area her entire life. Now 87, Leschenko remembers first flying with her mother when she was just 6 years old.

“My sister and I went up with her. We took our safety belts off and stood up in the airplane. Our hair was standing straight up! Then she took us down, and our mother gave us a big lecture,” Leschenko said.

But that would not be their last flight together.

“She even lent me the controls one time,” Leschenko recalled. “That was not too good because I didn’t follow a pattern, but it was fun.”

Leschenko describes Cheung as a daredevil at heart, and she took for granted her mother’s trailblazing spirit until she was much older.

“She should’ve been the man, and my dad should’ve been the woman. She just liked excitement,” Leschenko said.

Earlier this year, “Aviatrix” won the Audience Award at the Marina del Rey Film Festival. A longer version — about an hour — is screening on Tuesday, Dec. 6, during the Culver City Film Festival.

Highlights of the film include original 1930s footage of Cheung doing stunts at the Long Beach Air Show in the 1930s, and commentary by a contemporary female stunt pilot and flight historian. The film also gives a nod to other filmmakers who have made shorts likewise inspired by Cheung’s legacy.

Moy hopes his film will make the rounds at other festivals before becoming available for streaming.

The project has been in the works for a while, with Moy finding more and more people who feel inspired by Cheung.

“What surprised me is how many people over the years have gravitated to this story. I didn’t know all these people were touched by her story,” Moy said. “We’ve tried to compile all this, and it’s just amazing that it keeps growing over the years.”

Moy was not able to interview his subject, but he believes Cheung was first inspired to fly after she witnessed planes taking off as she drove through an airfield, a story he previously told in an animated short called “Up in the Clouds.” Now he’s working with actress Katherine Park on a new animated web series on Cheung’s legacy.

“We made each part of this project specifically so that Asian-American girls can know someone like Katherine — see someone who is adventurous, talented and brave, and who went after her dreams,” Park said. “They can say, ‘She did it, and I can do it too.’”

“Aviatrix” closes by pointing to Liu Yeng, the first female Chinese astronaut to go into space, as proof of how far women have come in aviation, in part as a result of Cheung’s leadership.

“This is what she would’ve wanted, to have the children be more interested and do whatever they wanted to accomplish,” Leschenko said.

The Culver City Film Festival screens “Aviatrix” at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, at ArcLight Culver City (9500 Culver Blvd., Culver City) as part of a bloc of films. Tickets start at $10. See culvercityfilmfestival.com for more information.

Visitors to the Museum of Flying (3100 Airport Ave., Santa Monica) can also experience an exhibit about Cheung. For museum information, call (310) 398-2500 or visit museumofflying.org.