Aloha Air mechanic Sun Park is working to help more foreign-born women start careers in aviation
By Hilary Reeves
Aloha Air Cargo Aircraft Mechanic Sun Park isn’t afraid of the unconventional – especially when it comes to making life-changing decisions.
Park’s journey began at 15. She withdrew from her South Korean high school during her freshman year after a mission trip to India ignited a fierce desire to travel the world.
“My values changed from just wanting to go to a good school and get a good job,” she explained. “I decided that I wanted to help people. Not many of my friends or teachers understood my point of view, but my parents did. I told my parents that I wanted to drop out of high school and explore a different path to reaching my goals, and they understood.”
Park instead began working, saving money for her travels. She earned a GED and set her sights on New Zealand, connecting with an organization called Youth With a Mission, or YWAM. After six months learning English in New Zealand with her fellow “YWAMers,” she explored the country further on her own for about a year. Then, she decided she wanted to go to college.
“I was 17 and I wanted to go to college,” she explained. “A majority of my YWAM friends were American and encouraged me to go to the United States. I didn’t know much about the States back then, and I couldn’t just choose a college by name.”
Park opened a map and eliminated all the states she though would be too crowded – all states with a coastline were quickly eliminated states. She loves the mountains, so she eliminated all the “flat” states. Soon, there were four states left: Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
“Colorado and Wyoming seemed too square, and Idaho looked too small on the map in between Montana and Washington,” she said. “Montana was perfect. The western ridges looked like a face on the map; it had mountains, very few people, and big, blue skies.”
Montana’s two public universities, the University of Montana and Montana State, seemed indistinguishable to Park – except for one key difference.
“One school was represented by a bobcat, and the other by a grizzly bear,” she said. “I went for the bear! I didn’t even apply to any other colleges. I sent in my GED scores, an essay, took a few tests, and got accepted.”
Park flew to Montana in the waning days of 2009 to prepare for the upcoming spring semester. She quickly found her niche, majoring in Political Science with minors in International Development Studies and Mathematics.
“But in my senior year, I found out about a group of engineers and mechanics that were part of a humanitarian engineering group, and I got super-excited,” she said. “This group of people was mathematically and mechanically inclined, but also knew what was going on in the world and wanted to use their talents to help others. I realized that I could be an engineer and work as a humanitarian, I just had to figure out which field I wanted to go into.”
A dream rediscovered
Before her last semester at the University of Montana, Park went on a vacation to Hawaii with her friend from the same university, who was from Kauai.
“I was lying on a sandy beach in Kauai, and an old dream came back to me. When I was younger, I wanted to fly. I had thought about becoming a pilot when I was a young girl, but in South Korea, it was not seen as a viable option. I didn’t know any females growing up who were engineers, mechanics, or pilots. I wasn’t even sad about it – I just kept it to myself because I knew it was a silly thing to even talk about. But at that very moment, I prayed to God to help me realize my dream of flying. When I opened my eyes, I saw a small helicopter hovering over and it was like a sign. I felt completely at peace with my decision.”
In typical fashion, Park threw herself headlong into plotting a fresh course, researching how she could become an aircraft engineer and pilot.
“I found out that there were humanitarian aviators that bring resources and doctors to remote parts of the world,” she said. “I searched online for aviation maintenance and flight schools and found there were many options to choose from – from one-year vocational training programs to full, four-year college programs. I already had a degree and just needed the practical training. I found a school in the Midwest where I could become an FAA-certified Airframe and Powerplant mechanic within a year.”
“There are many restrictions and fewer opportunities for international students, especially women, who want to work in the field of aviation. We wanted to change that.”
Aloha Air Cargo
Park graduated from the University in the spring of 2013 and moved to the Midwest to begin her vocational training. She graduated a year later as an A&P mechanic. In between, she got married. “At school, I met my best friend, Ryan, who now became my husband,” she said. “We got married in my college town, beautiful Missoula, Montana, in May 2014. He is a former United States Air Force C5 flying crew chief, and did two tours in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.”
Field of inspiration
During Park’s time in the Midwest, she was awarded scholarships through Women in Aviation International (WAI) and the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM). She attended a WAI conference in 2014 where she met a group of female aviators with an interest in expanding opportunities for women around the world.
“We talked about creating a chapter for international women who want to get into aviation,” Park said. “AWAM, for example, has many chapters throughout the States, but none outside the United States, and none dedicated to international students or foreign nationals within the States. There are many restrictions and fewer opportunities for international students who want to work in the field of aviation. We wanted to change that and help women internationally, so we formed an AWAM International chapter.”
Park became the chapter’s first co-president. The vision is to empower, inspire, and connect women in aviation around the world. Last November, Park traveled to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten to raise awareness about organizations like AWAM and to encourage women to pursue their dreams.
“One of my chapter’s members had previously become acquainted with an island resident and discovered that there were a couple of women who wanted to be aircraft mechanics, so we focused on St. Maarten as out chapter’s first project. Many people don’t realize that many women in the Caribbean are still suffering from the dark side of history. In some extreme cases, wives, sisters, and mothers are treated as nothing more than house maids and aren’t afforded the opportunity to become educated or pursue career goals.”
While on St. Maarten, Park gave a guest lecture at a local elementary school on basic physics and math related to aviation. She talked to a local vocational college director about the possibility of assistance in establishing an A&P course. She did several radio and newspaper interviews encouraging women who might be interested in the field.
“There was one local woman who I became to close to,” she said. “She is an automotive mechanic and wants to be an aircraft mechanic as well, but she just had no clue how to do it. My chapter gave her a scholarship to attend the 2015 WAI conference, and she is on fire to achieve her goal with the inspirations and connections that she made from the conference.”
Park, as well as her husband, were hired at Aloha Air Cargo in December. She said she hopes to continue her work through AWAM with like-minded people on the islands, as she did in St.Maarten.
“I’m passionate about championing women in aviation in Hawaii as well,” she said, ” I am aware of that, especially as many youth are drifting away from the educational and vocational opportunities and turning instead to Islands’ many temptations. I would like to meet more men and women in, and out of the field of aviation who want to work together on projects like St.Maarten.”
Park said there’s little she would change about her unconventional life, but she hopes to give others something she never had growing up in South Korea: a role model.
“I just wish I had known someone who was a female aviator who could’ve told me early on that there was a way for me to be a pilot,” she said. “I would have started early on researching and figuring out the way into flight training despite the country’s social limitations and glass ceiling for women. I want to tell women not to believe those deceiving voices that tell them they are not fit for such jobs. Don’t get upset over sexist comments. There are always going to be ignorant people, and you can’t change their views unless they change themselves.”
For now, Park and her husband continue to save for flight training. Her ideal career, of course, combines flying and humanitarian work.
“I ultimately plan to fly into remote areas to help people and secluded communities. I want to be a helping hand and pathway of blessing to build other lives up.”
For more information on Park’s work in St. Maarten, or to get involved, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.