“This is a special flight for United,” an announcement greeted customers on United Flight 264 from San Diego to Denver on February 13. “It’s the first time two pilots of Cambodian heritage are operating a United flight.” That day, Denver Boeing 737 Captain Kimsua (Kim) Chay and Los Angeles Boeing 737 First Officer Mardi Tan made history.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and United is celebrating the accomplishments of our Asian and Pacific Islander American employees, including Captain Chay and First Officer Tan.
Chay and Tan come from similar upbringings. Their families survived genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s before emigrating to the U.S. “When we came to America, my parents didn’t speak or write English,” Chay says. “We didn’t have anything. Everything that we received was from the church group that sponsored our family.” Growing up, Chay loved all things aviation. His dream was to become a pilot one day, but he didn’t think a career in aviation was possible for him due to a lack of representation in the industry. Despite all the obstacles he had to overcome, Chay achieved his childhood dream of becoming a pilot in 1999. He joined United in 2015. “A lot of underrepresented people don’t really think it’s possible to become a pilot or get into this career, simply because they’re in situations where they don’t ever see anybody that looks like them,” he says.
For Chay, the most rewarding part of being a pilot is not flying the airplanes, but the opportunity to give back to others. “I had a lot of people that helped me along the way,” he says, “and being able to pay that forward again and give back to others is the most fulfilling part of this job.”
Like Chay, Tan found it hard to envision herself as a pilot because she didn’t see enough representation of women, people of color, or Cambodian Americans in aviation. Chay and Tan met in 2009 at a Cambodian Heritage Camp in Denver where they both volunteered. Chay was already a pilot, while Tan was a student at California State University, Long Beach. They instantly became friends, and eventually Captain Chay took Tan under his wing. “Before meeting Kim, I did not know I could be a pilot,” Tan says.
For the first time in her life, Tan realized that a career in the aviation industry was possible, and, with Chay’s mentorship, she began to work toward achieving her goal of becoming a pilot. In 2012, Tan earned her wings. She’s grateful for Chay and the mutual heritage that brought them together, and she also recognizes that the outcome could have been different without her parents’ sacrifice all those years prior.
“I’m very fortunate to grow up in the United States,” she says. “I don’t think I would have this career if I lived anywhere else in the world. Certain countries don’t even allow women to have an education, let alone touch an airplane. So I’m very grateful and very fortunate to have this opportunity. I’ll always pay it forward.”
Becoming the first Cambodian American pilots to operate a flight together at United—after 14 years of friendship and mentorship—was another dream come true for both. “The opportunity to be a part of the first Cambodian flight crew means that all our parents’ sacrifices paid off,” Chay says. “They risked everything to give us a better chance of getting here. It also means that other people, whether of Cambodian heritage or another under-represented group, can look at our accomplishments and say, ‘Hey, I never thought that was an opportunity for me. Perhaps I can do it as well.’”
“We made history,” Tan adds, “and I’m reminded that the sacrifices my parents made were not in vain—and, to top it off, I got to fly with my friend.”