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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: First Chinese American woman pilot

By Martin Middlewood
Published: August 2, 2020, 6:00am

In 1934, Leah Hing (1907-2001) became the first Chinese American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

Hing, a Portland resident, met aviation pioneer Tex Rankin dining at the restaurant Hung Far Low. He was based at Pearson Field in Vancouver and suggested she take up flying. She said she’d consider it.

Before completing her first 15-minute lesson at Pearson Field, she was harmonizing the plane controls and landed the plane with little help from Rankin. The next day, The Oregonian published a photo of her wearing a leather pilot’s helmet and flight jacket and shaking Rankin’s hand.

The first Chinese woman to fly and land an airplane, she hoped to be the first to earn a pilot’s license. By the time she’d secured her license, Chinese-born Katherine Cheung (1904-2003) beat her by two years.

In an oral history, Hing recalled girding for her first solo at Pearson Field, because Rankin’s instructors often leaped from the cockpit unexpectedly and ordered flight students to go for a spin on their own.

When Japan invaded China in 1931, Hing dreamed of helping China. But her father, Lee Hing, told his independent daughter “no.” To soften the blow, he bought her a Fleet Model Z biplane for $1,000.

In September 1937 at Boeing Field near Seattle, she watched as a Stearman biplane landed and rammed into her parked Model Z, chopping the smaller plane to bits. Brothers Lacey and Edward R. Murrow were the pilots. Edward R. Murrow became famous broadcasting during the 1940 London blitzkrieg. The brothers bought Hing’s plane, repaired it and sold it. Her plane number N794V disappeared into obscurity.

Then in August 1990, her jinxed N794V turned up at the annual Evergreen Fly-In. Smiling, Hing climbed aboard the plane and settled into the familiar cockpit.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.