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City Weekend

First British Hongkonger to win coveted Prince Philip pilot bursary tells how love of family inspired aviation dream

Steven Cheung is the first British Hongkonger to secure the opportunity with The Air League in its 109-year history. His long and winding road to achieving his flight ambition started with no more than a simple love for his grandmother

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 2:46pm

Ever-present in Steven Cheung’s fond memories of his late grandmother are the sight and sound of aeroplanes as they zoom past the windows of her Kwun Tong flat.

The engine noise was music to the ears of the young Cheung, who as a boy loved watching their aerial antics as they came and went from the old Kai Tak airport.

But rather than the aircraft themselves, it was a later separation from his grandmother that would eventually inspire his dreams of becoming a pilot.

Cheung emigrated to Britain in 2002 when he was just 11 years old, and financial constraints meant flying back to Hong Kong was a luxury the family could ill afford.

“I wanted to be a pilot so I could travel home to see my grandmother,” says Cheung, the son of a Hong Kong father and Filipino mother.

Cheung’s grandmother died in 2014. Now 28, he still remembers fondly what she told him before she left: follow your dreams and live without regret. The following year, he joined a cadet training programme with a British airline as he began to chase his childhood ambition.

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Three years later, this June, he became the first British Hongkonger to be awarded a flying bursary with UK organisation The Air League in its 109-year history. The charity seeks to nurture young aviators and its patron is Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The bursary ­allowed him to train in night ­flying.

However, his aviation success was not the first time he had found himself in the media spotlight. Cheung hit the news at the tender age of 19 when he ran for a seat in the European Parliament in 2009.

He recalls how trying times in his life motivated him to run. His father had developed a gambling addiction, and Cheung was attending one of the worst schools in London, where he endured bullying and racist taunts.

Furthermore, his mother, who had never worked before moving to Britain, was forced to take on three jobs to support the family.

Being a pilot is chasing my childhood dream, and enables me to restore my connection to Hong Kong
Steven Cheung

“She worked 12 to 13 hours a day just to put food on the table,” he says, citing her perseverance as another inspiration.

But the tough upbringing spawned a concern for youth-related issues such as teenage pregnancies and binge drinking, as well as the problems faced by the British-Chinese community, including language difficulties and gambling addiction.

By 2009, he had managed to raise a £5,000 (US$6,425) deposit to run for a seat in the European Parliament – a feat never before attempted by a British Chinese.

A stint as a Great Britain ambassador soon followed as London geared up for the 2012 Olympic Games, during which Cheung was one of the few people of Asian descent to act as an Olympic torch bearer.

He even tried his hand at investment banking, but it was all just a winding road back to his real passion – flying.

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“Being a pilot is chasing my childhood dream, and enables me to restore my connection to Hong Kong,” he says.

But that chase has also not been without its tribulations. During a holiday to Thailand in 2016, Cheung fractured his ankle. The injury meant he was no longer certified medically fit to fly and was forced to quit the cadet training programme with the British airline.

On recovery months later, he found himself with no choice but to self-fund his pilot training if he was to continue. The gamble paid off and he emerged top of his class. Such was his success that he afterwards set up a pilot mentoring programme whereby volunteers support student aviators.

“Most people would have given up for practical reasons, but for me, giving up was not an option,” he says.

Cheung now flies for one of the biggest airlines in Europe, and wants to inspire other young people to also follow their dreams. He hopes to one day pilot planes for a Hong Kong carrier.

“I want to give something back to society,” he says.