Moon Chin Learns to Fly

Moon Chin finished the mechanics course and thought he might be able to catch on as an airline mechanic. He cast around for openings, but the recession was slipping into a much more serious depression, and nobody was hiring. There was another problem, too: Moon Chin didn’t really want to fix airplanes, he wanted to fly them. He kept pestering his father. Finally one of his Joe Chin’s friends couldn’t stand the nagging: “Joe,” he said, “if Moon wants to kill himself, for God’s sake let him do it.”

Cost was a serious issue. Ground school alone cost several hundred dollars. Flight instruction cost $21 per hour, solo flying cost another $13 per hour ($302 and $187 modern dollars), and the economy was worsening by the day. Joe Chin still had his head above water, but profits from laundry and restaurant were declining. A practical man, like most Chinese, Joe Chin considered the cost and the opportunity. His son needed a career. He’d do better at something he liked. As an industry, aviation seemed viable. It was here to stay. There were risks, his son getting killed paramount among them, but maybe flying wasn’t such a bad idea. He decided to commit the necessary funds.

Moon Chin started ground school in 1932, and he learned to fly in a Curtiss Robin, a forgiving little high-winged monoplane that cruised at 102 mph, landed at 48 mph, and cost $7,500, factory direct ($108,000 modern dollars).He loved it from the first. Aloft, holding the controls and listening to the engine roar with the green trees and emerald Maryland fields passing under his wings, Moon Chin like he had the future in his hands. Economic conditions were atrocious, but he was only eighteen years old. Things would get better, and piloting was a skill. The airplane didn’t care where you came from, how much money you had, or what school you’d attended. It didn’t care about your skin color or the shape of your eyes. Either you could hack it, or you couldn’t. Flying was fair, and Moon Chin was good at it.

Moon learned to fly higher performing aircraft and earned his limited commercial license in the autumn of 1932, but by then, economic conditions were truly horrendous. There were no employment opportunities for unproven teenage pilots. Nor had Moon Chin considered the full ramifications of American racism. Few white persons would allow themselves to be flown by a “Chink” — as a commercial pilot in the United States, Moon Chin was utterly unemployable. It looked like Moon Chin’s entire aviation endeavor would amount to nothing besides a colossal waste of time and effort and of his father’s money.

Moon Chin received a letter from his father’s younger brother in the waning days of 1932. Little Uncle lived in Shanghai, throbbing commercial heart of the Orient, where economic conditions weren’t so bad, and he wrote to pass the news that the “Middle Kingdom Space Machine Family” – as the China National Aviation Corporation was known in Chinese – planned to open a new route between Shanghai and Peiping, and that they were looking to hire and train Chinese aviators. “So Moon,” concluded Little Uncle, “do you want to come over and sign up?”[i]

Next: Moon Chin in 1941

[i] “So Moon,” concluded Little Uncle, “do you want to come over and sign up?”: Moon Chin Oral History, the San Francisco Aeronautic Association Museum; author’s interview with Moon Chin, September 17, 2004.



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