August 7 marks the eighty-fifth anniversary (1933) of the tragic death of Kyung-won Park, celebrated as Korea’s first civilian female aviator.
Born June 24, 1901 in Daegu, Gyeongsang-do, Korea to wealthy parents, she was the youngest of five children. A precocious and lively child, Park’s intelligence and curious nature, along with a playful, adventurous spirit and a relentless determination easily distinguished her from other youngsters her age. When her schooling began, she excelled while attending the Simsang Girl’s Primary and High Schools. Later, she received her secondary education at the esteemed Myeongsin Women’s School, an American Presbyterian Church mission-sponsored school in Daegu. Following completion of her studies in 1917 (with the highest honors), Park received the blessing of her parents and relocated to Japan where she studied for two-and-a-half-years at Yokohama’s Kasahara Industrial Training School. While living in Yokohama, along with her studies, she attended a local Korean church, eventually converting to the Christian faith.
In early 1920, with the intention of following her parent’s advice by entering nursing school, Park returned to Daegu to begin her studies. Although nursing was a popular and highly-respected profession for educated Korean women in the early twentieth century, Park had discovered a different passion. During her time in Japan, Park had become intrigued by aviation, and expressed her aspiration to become an airplane pilot. Unfortunately, opportunities for women in the early days of this relatively new technology were nearly non-existent, and the training and tuition costs were very expensive. When she revealed to her parents of her dream to make a career in the skies, they were, not surprisingly, shocked and voiced their opposition to the idea. Disappointed by their reaction, but rational enough to know that if she were to realize her dream, she would have to pursue it without family support, Park (for the time being) capitulated to her parent’s wishes and agreed to follow the original plan and attend nursing school. She dutifully completed her training and began working at Jayhe Hospital, the local medical facility. All the while, to help earn the finances needed to pay for her aviation training, Park not only saved much of her nurse’s salary, she also showed resourcefulness by obtaining a driver’s license to earn additional money by providing her services as a driver.
In January 1925, still intent on pursuing her dream and having accumulated the necessary funding, Park returned to Japan and enrolled at Tachikawa Flight School in Kamata where her intelligence and dogged determination helped her to quickly distinguish herself among the other (overwhelmingly male) trainees. Park graduated in two years, obtaining her 3rd-class commercial pilot’s license. Her abilities were readily apparent to her colleagues and instructors, and after completing the required training, she applied for and tested for the next level and succeeded, obtaining her 2nd-class license, making her Korea’s first female civilian pilot.
For the next five years, Kyung-won Park performed her duties admirably, serving as an inspiration for her fellow aviators, both male and female, including pilots from other countries. In addition, she also served honorably as an instructor at Tachikawa,
In May 1933, Park was selected to pilot the maiden voyage of a new aerial route linking Japan and Manchukuo (Manchuria). Being selected for this assignment was a great honor, made even more so by the selection of a woman pilot. On the morning of August 7, Park departed Haneda Airport in Tokyo in the Blue Swallow, a Salmon 2A2 biplane bound for Manchukuo. Encountering dense fog just 42 minutes into the flight, Park apparently became disoriented and tragically lost her life when the plane crashed near the Japanese town of Hakone.