The plane flown by Leah Hing, the first U.S.-born Chinese American pilot, is now on display at the Pearson Air Museum through a partnership between The Historic Trust and the National Park Service at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
Hing’s 1931 Fleet Model 7 biplane soared through Northwest skies in the late 1930s. The Portland native trained at Pearson Field, where she kept her Model 7 in a hangar. Nearly 90 years later, Hing’s snazzy orange biplane has found its permanent home there, just a few hundred feet from where Hing guided it up into the clouds. Now anyone can see the historic aircraft for free during museum hours.
“It’s been in the Pearson Field Education Center, which is owned by The Historic Trust on Pearson Air Field but separate from the museum. As we review our mission and goals, we’re making sure that all our collection pieces are in the right places where they can be experienced by the people who will appreciate them,” said Temple Lentz, director of The Historic Trust. “Leah Hing’s story is so important that we wanted to be sure that this plane was shared with visitors from all over the country.”
Tracy Fortmann, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site superintendent, said she’s grateful that The Historic Trust is keen to share this important piece of local history, not only with aviation history buffs but also with the next generation of aviators.
“She was born and raised here, so she was a child of the Portland-Vancouver metro area,” Fortmann said. “Her mother was an immigrant. That’s a story that’s connected to us as Americans. … She was not just a trailblazer but a model of leadership for women today. … Leah was following her dreams and look what she was able to accomplish. It’s a wonderful story to be able to share with young people.”
Hing was touring the country as a saxophone player in a vaudeville troupe when she took a plane ride at a school for Chinese American aviators in Chicago. When she returned home to Portland, she met John Gilbert “Tex” Rankin, who operated a flying school at Pearson Field. He encouraged her to take up flying and that’s just what she did, earning her license in 1934. She bought her flame-colored Fleet Model 2 (modified to a Model 7) in 1936. She later bought another biplane but housed both of them at Pearson Field.
“My understanding is that she was no shrinking violet. She couldn’t have been with all she achieved in her life,” Fortmann said. “Her spirit is represented in the bright orange plane.”
Hing worked as a private pilot, ferrying passengers one at a time in her two-seater aircraft between the Portland-Vancouver area and points north, sometimes all the way to Seattle. During World War II, Hing wanted to go to China to join the flyers fighting Japan, but her father would not allow it. Instead, she underwent ground training with West Coast Civil Air Patrol and repaired navigational instruments at the Portland Air Base.
She wasn’t a flashy aerobatic aviator like Chinese-born Katherine Sui Fun Cheung of Los Angeles and she didn’t compete in races, but she was well-known for her accomplishments. She was dubbed the “Chinese Miss Lindy” (a reference to Charles Lindbergh, who made the first nonstop transatlantic flight) by the New York Post Star. She became a member of the Portland Chinese American Flying Club and joined the Northwest chapter of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female aviators founded by Amelia Earhart, serving as the group’s secretary-treasurer.
Because she was Chinese, she was barred from joining Portland’s social club for private pilots, the Aero Club. She worked as the club’s switchboard operator, photographer and receptionist until she retired at age 70, never having become a member. Although she ended her flying career in 1941, Hing stayed active in the local Chinese community, helping immigrants obtain U.S. citizenship and coaching girls’ basketball. She passed away in 2001 at the age of 94.
“I’m just very happy for the Trust to have this partnership with the National Park Service to ensure that the history of our community remains relevant and accessible to as many people as possible,” Lentz said.
The aircraft is on permanent display at the museum alongside a panel telling Hing’s story.