(29) An Chang-nam: First Korean pilot who became national hero
By Andrei Lankov
On Dec. 10, 1922, a huge crowd gathered on the outskirts of Seoul at what was then the low-lying sandy island of Yeouido. If the contemporary press reports are to be believed, some 50,000 people came to the island that day. Since the entire population of the city was 300,000, this means that one in every six Seoul inhabitants was there. This might have been the largest spontaneous gathering Seoul had seen to the date ― even though the weather was unusually cold.
All these people came to see a demonstration flight. Since 1916 Yeouido had been used as an airfield by the Japanese army. In those days, the island flooded every summer, so few people would want to live there, but the large flat area in the vicinity of Seoul was perfect for the planes of the era. The Yeouido airfield existed for some 54 years until 1971, when it gave way to new high-rise buildings and the headquarters of corporations.
The sight of a plane was not that unusual in Seoul of the 1920s. Since about 1912 Japanese military pilots occasionally flew their machines in the skies above the city, and in some cases Seoulites could be treated to demonstration flights by visiting foreign pilots. In 1917, Seoul residents were impressed by the aerial aerobatics performed by Art Smith, a famous U.S. pilot.
These demonstration flights and air shows attracted much attention, but never on the scale demonstrated on Dec. 10, 1922.
There was an important reason which spurred so many people to brave the freezing cold and come to Yeouido on that particular day. This time, the expected demonstration flight was to be performed not by a Japanese pilot or a visiting Westerner, but by a Korean. An Chang-nam a recent graduate of a Japanese flight school came to fly a plane in his native city.
An was born in Seoul in March 1901. Like many other early Korean airmen (and airwomen) he was impressed by Art Smith and decided to become a pilot himself. It was a natural desire for a boy growing up in the 1910s, an era when modern technology was seen with unconditional admiration, being perceived as a symbol of a brilliant future, which as many people believed then, was just around the corner.
An’s path to the skies began in a somewhat dubious way: he stole money from his stepmother and ran away from home. His destination was Japan. This was a rather common situation in Korea of those days. The rise of Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai Group, to fame and fortune also began from a very similar act of petty crime (Chung stole money from his father to escape to Seoul to study).
Like Chung a few years later, An made good use of his money. The stolen sum paid for his admission to a driving school (cars were another potent and rare symbol of modernity in the Korea of the 1910s). Having graduated, An enrolled in the Okuri Flight School in Tokyo. He successfully graduated, received his pilot’s license and became a professional pilot employed by a Japanese airmail service.
Strictly speaking, An was not the first Korean to acquire a pilot’s license, but he was the first Korean pilot to become a true celebrity at home. The first reports of his graduation appeared in the Korean press as early as 1920 but to a very large extent his fame was brought about by the success of his 1922 demonstration flight in Seoul. Indeed, of all the early Korean pilots (all of whom were, understandably, graduates of Japanese flight schools), An was the first to fly a plane in his native land – to great fanfare, as we have been told.
In December 1922 he flew a single engine plane, borrowed from the Okuri Flight School and repaired in some hurry. The historians are not certain whether it was a British-designed Nieuport 15 from 1916 or a later version of this aircraft, the Nieuport 28, but for the Korean spectators it was important that the plane was named Kumgang (after the famously scenic Korean mountains) and was adorned with a small map of Korea on its side. This was a clear way to emphasize the pilot’s identity and loyalty.
The entire trip was sponsored by the Donga Ilbo, then one of the major Korean dailies (and, a mouthpiece of Korean nationalism). The Donga Ilbo was quite supportive of An and kept the local audience well informed about his studies and professional achievements.
The flight took place as intended: Soon after noon, the plane’s engine began to warm up and in minutes it was airborne. The flight was simple and did not include aerobatics, or anything dangerous, just a few circles over the huge crowd. In subsequent days he made more flights over Seoul and flew to Incheon and back. Initial plans envisioned demonstration flights in other Korean cities, but due to technical problems and bad weather the schedule had to be cut back. In late December An returned to Japan.
Nonetheless, the sight of a Korean flying a plane produced an outburst of enthusiasm and instantly made him a nationwide celebrity, a symbol of the modern age and Korean technological prowess.
In 1925, however, An fled to China. It is often rumored that the decision was influenced by the massive anti-Korean riots which followed the Tokyo earthquake of 1923. It is not clear whether he supported the pro-independence movement initially, but after a few years in China, then a hotbed of Korean nationalism, An became deeply involved with the independence fighters.
He continued to do what he liked most – fly planes. He was hired by one of the Chinese warlords to establish a flight school and he accepted the offer. In the late 1920s An began to talk about creating an air force for the future Korean army.
However, he did not survive to see his country liberated. In April 1930 he died in a plane crash. Up to now, some Korean historians suspect foul play orchestrated by Japanese agents but this evidence seems to be unsubstantiated. Crashes were a part of life (and death) of pilots of the 1920s, whose chances to die in their beds were relatively slim.
By 1930, some 15 Korean men and women graduated from various Japanese flight schools, but none of them acquired An’s standing. One could say that the history of Korean flight began on Yeouido on that chilly December day in 1922.
By the time of An’s death, the Yeouido airfield, the site of his famous flight, had been upgraded to a regular airport. Passenger planes made stops there while flying from Tokyo to Dalian, China. Around the same time, airmail delivery between major Korean cities was introduced as well.
An overwhelming majority of the first pilots were Japanese but toward the late 1930s there were also some Koreans flying both civilian and military aircraft, as well as a growing number of Korean ground personnel. These people, many of whom were influenced by An’s example, eventually laid the foundation for the emergence of Korean aviation.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.