Leah Hing: A Life of Service
Lt. Col. Elizabeth A. Sydow
National Diversity Officer
Civil Air Patrol recognizes Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with a profile of Leah Hing, a World War II member and the first female U.S.-born Asian American Pacific Islander to earn a pilot’s certificate.
Leah Hing’s route to her pilot’s license proved circuitous, beginning with forming a band in 1927 called the Portland Girls’ Orchestra. The band toured the U.S. and Canada with a vaudeville troupe for two years after she graduated high school. While on tour in Chicago, she had the opportunity to fly at a school for Chinese-American aviators, which sparked her interest in learning to fly.
After returning to Portland, Oregon, she met Tex Rankin, who owned a flying school – at the time the largest in the country – at nearby Pearson Field. Rankin was a strong supporter of female pilots, providing them equal access to training.
Hing was a natural. On her first flight in 1932, she mastered all three controls—the rudder, ailerons and elevator—in only 10 minutes, then landed the plane a few minutes later with only verbal coaching from her instructor. Her flight instruction sparked interest in newspapers as far away as New York, where the Post Star called her the “Chinese Miss Lindy” after aviator Charles Lindbergh.She also advocated for women to fly. In their March 6, 1932, issue, the Oregonian quoted her as saying, "I believe that women can learn to fly as easily as men ... eventually there will be just as many women flying as men."She earned her pilot’s certificate, No. 2,741, in 1934.
After that she purchased a Travel Air biplane and performed in air shows along the West Coast. She also flew as a commercial pilot, ferrying a single passenger at a time in her two-seat biplane in the Portland-Vancouver area. Her flights took her as far as Seattle.
Then came World War II. She volunteered with the West Coast Civil Air Patrol, conducting ground training and repairing navigational equipment at Portland Army Air Base.
Hing wanted to go to China as a pilot to fight the Japanese, but her father forbade it.
Her flying career ended in 1941, but her interest in aviation continued. She had joined The Ninety-Nines, an organization for women pilots founded by Amelia Earhart, in 1939 and became her chapter’s secretary-treasurer in 1941.
She also was active in her community, coaching girls’ basketball and helping immigrants becoming citizens.
After her flying career, Hing worked as a hostess, receptionist, switchboard operator and photographer at Portland’s Aero Club, a social club for private pilots and aviation enthusiasts. She was unable to join, though, because she was Chinese.
She worked there until she retired at age 70. She also ran a watch repair business, sold insurance and worked as a professional photographer.
Hing passed away in 2001 at age 93.
She wasn’t afraid to take on a challenge, considering herself “sort of a rebel.” She was a pioneer in the field of aviation and lived a life of service.
Though unable to serve as a pilot during World War II, she realized the importance of aviation, as summarized in her statement: "A country sees only through the eyes of its flyers."