Her passion for flight still soars after 54 yearsKim Kyung-o was 16 when she joined the air force in 1949, and she became the first Korean woman to be commissioned in the service as a pilot. Many decades have passed, but Ms. Kim is still flying high.
Her latest project is to parachute from a plane at 10,000 feet, with the only obstacle being bad weather. Nothing else can deter this 69-year-old pilot. “I’m ready to fly any time,” she says.
Ms. Kim’s involvement with flying began when then-President Syngman Rhee came up with the idea of establishing an air force unit of female pilots, although the initial qualifications had little to do with competence in flying. An applicant was required to be 160 to 165 centimeters (5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 5 inches) tall with decent looks and have a B-plus or better average in science courses.
Ms. Kim met the qualifications and was encouraged by a teacher to apply for the air force. “I did not even know that I was going to the army,” Ms. Kim says, laughing. Out of more than 8,200 applicants, 15 were selected to go through drills to become commissioned. High-spirited and outgoing, Ms. Kim soon found the military the right place to be, and eventually became the only woman to finish the training course to become a commissioned officer.
The news did not please her family. “So this seems to be the end of our family,” Ms. Kim recalls her father saying. But she had a patron, Mr. Rhee, who kept her going. “President Rhee made me what I am,” Ms. Kim says.
After she received her commission the Korean War erupted, and Ms. Kim was ready to fly into battle. “I was not a woman ― I was a soldier, high both in spirits and morale,” Ms. Kim says. There was a catch: President Rhee ordered that no woman pilot should be put in danger, and Ms. Kim was banned from flying fighter jets.
“I was dying to rain bombs down on the enemy,” Ms. Kim says, “but then I couldn’t. It was more than frustrating; it was mortifying.
“I was no different from the fellows in flying skills. I also tried to be like a man in every way possible with no makeup and crewcut hair. I couldn’t get it ― why I had to be discriminated against like that,” Ms. Kim says. Instead, she flew scout planes, logging 320 flight hours during the war.
Ms. Kim still remembers the first time she held the control stick. “Honestly, I was scared at first,” she says with a smile, “but once high up in the air, a strange feeling of comfort enveloped me, as I watched the beautiful layers of immaculate white clouds over the blue sky. I was so happy to be flying.”
The most impressive sight, which still haunts Ms. Kim, was the sky dyed crimson from the sunset’s glow. Such views made her reluctant to return to the ground, where she encountered jealousy and insults from her mostly male fellow pilots. Some spat on the ground at the sight of her. “I’ve never felt so humiliated,” she says. It later became a motivating force for her to join the women’s movement.
At the end of the Korean War in 1953, Ms. Kim had six medals and an offer from Mr. Rhee to learn nonmilitary aviation skills in the United States. She was discharged as a first lieutenant, and went to Greensboro, North Carolina in 1957 as a student at Guilford College.
Ms. Kim was happy to be flying such planes as the Piper Colt, Piper Cherokee, Cessna and Bonanza, although trying to support herself through part-time jobs paying 50 cents an hour was not easy. She had so little money to buy clothes that she says she had to wear her high school uniform, a sailor suit. To Ms. Kim, the white collar on her sailor suit signified clouds, while the navy blue skirt and blouse were the sky. From then on, a sailor suit became her trademark outfit. Even today her wardrobe contains more than 20 sailor suits, all of the same design by Andre Kim, a Korean fashion designer and her close friend. “Some people think I have only one suit,” Ms. Kim says, “and they ask me if I have time to clean it.”
Her look is also defined by her Jacqueline Kennedy hairstyle, which she acquired after seeing the first lady with then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy on their visit to North Carolina. “I used to just bind my hair tight, but the moment I saw Jackie, I realized that’s the style that would fit me right,” Ms. Kim says.
By the time she finished school in the United States, she decided to go on a fund-raising tour of each state in order to buy an airplane to take home. She offered 45-minute-long speeches, mostly discussing her Korean War experiences, followed by 15-minute question-and-answer sessions. She expected to go on tour for at least three years, but it took only four months for her to receive a donation of a Piper Colt plane. “I used to tell my audience that I needed to take a plane to Korea just in case there would be another war,” Ms. Kim says.
She returned home in 1963 with her Piper Colt, only to find her patron, Mr. Rhee, gone and a military regime ruling the country. Ms. Kim expanded her activities, becoming involved in the women’s movement and politics. Though she soon quit politics, Ms. Kim became known in the women’s movement. Kim In-gyu, a fellow activist, says, “Kim Kyung-o played a crucial role in the early stages of the Korean women’s movement.”
Ms. Kim naturally did not like old Korean sayings that are pejorative to women, such as “A house where a hen crows will fall” and “A woman’s laughter should not be loud enough to be heard outside the house.” She gave clever twists to the sayings, telling her two daughters “Only when a hen crows loud will it lay eggs” and “A woman’s loud laughter is the sign of a happy family.” Her first daughter, E Bo-young, an English teacher, describes her mother as her “biggest mentor.”
Ms. Kim’s interest in flying persisted, however, and in 1999 she got the chance to pilot an F-16 fighter jet.
She recently celebrated the 23d anniversary of Korean Aviation Day as the head of the Federation of Korean Aeronautics. An eye-catching sight in her Jackie hairstyle and sailor suit, complete with an eagle-shaped air force badge, Ms. Kim was the center of the ceremony. Choi Jae-duk, a vice minister of construction and transportation, showered her with compliments, saying, “Aviation is all about Kim Kyung-o, just as much as Kim Kyung-o is all about aviation.”
At 69, Ms. Kim remains young at heart and keeps busy outside the house. While Ms. Kim does not like to stay at home, one thing she does enjoy there is watching war movie videos and “The Godfather” series.
“I’ve seen ‘The Godfather’ more than 100 times,” she says. “The Mafia in the movie at a glance look like cold-blooded villains, killing everyone, even family members. The truth is, however, that they kill their enemies because otherwise they will be killed. I totally understand them.”
It’s rather surprising that this woman, brimming with confidence, is afraid to drive a car. “On the ground, I just can’t take a steering wheel ― what if somebody darts out of the corner?” She has no driver’s license.
To Ms. Kim, nothing feels better than flying. She is looking forward to her plan to parachute from 10,000 feet, despite her daughters’ concerns. “Flying high up in the air, that’s when I feel life is beautiful.”
by Chun Su-jin