What if one day you heard a sound above you, looked up, and saw the most amazing machine flying through the air. You didn’t know what it was … only that it soared and swooped like a bird – but wasn’t a bird – and to a young girl’s eyes it was simply magical.
That was Anh-Thu Nguyen’s first glimpse of a plane as an 8-year-old in her poverty-stricken rural Vietnam village. Little did she know her childhood fascination with the máy bay (flying machine) – “the most amazing thing a child could ever see,” she recalled – would forever change her life.
“I was just mesmerized,” said Nguyen, a member of Civil Air Patrol’s Georgia Wing from 2017-2021. As a child she never thought about flying, only that seeing this strange machine in the sky above her “was heavenly.”
When she was 12, Nguyen and her family left their village to join her brother, who had escaped from Vietnam after the war ended and immigrated to the United States. The move gave her the perfect opportunity to encounter the object of her childhood wonder.
“The first time I flew, I really loved it,” she said. “Physically, though, I was airsick and [found I was] afraid of heights,” she admitted, a feeling many Civil Air Patrol cadets and future pilots know firsthand.
Always wanting to be independent, she overcame the feeling when she realized she could be in control and make her own decisions. “Culturally, we (Vietnamese women) aren’t raised to be that independent,” but I had this determination and inclination to live out this dream of wanting to fly,” Nguyen said.
That hint of amazement and awe are still evident in her voice when she recalls the first time she flew an aircraft alone. “Ohhhhh, the first time I soloed – it was almost as heavenly as the first time I saw a plane,” she said.
Piloting the aircraft meant she “could go anywhere – it was very magical and powerful at the same time,” she said.
Her flying aspirations didn’t stop there. Nguyen plans to embark this summer on a solo round-the-world journey (26 countries and five continents) in her single-engine aircraft. That would make her only the 10th woman in the world to do so.
Nguyen feels this global adventure will help in her mission to encourage, engage, and empower women to live out their dreams – especially if those dreams involve flying.
“I want to represent the Asian culture in aviation and encourage the next generation,” she said, adding that traditionally, it’s unheard of in the Asian community for women to seek out jobs in aviation.
“I want women to see they can do what I’m doing. They can fly. I want to teach minority kids and their parents to see aviation as a career path,” Nguyen said.
That goal became even more important to her when she realized what it meant for others to see that she flies. “I was at the airport doing flight instruction when an Asian girl saw me in my uniform and ran over and embraced me. I was so surprised. ‘I can’t believe you fly!’ she cried.”
Nguyen said she mentored and supported her over the next several years. “I didn’t know then that I would change her life. That young girl is now a pilot, too,” she said.
And that’s why she joined CAP in Georgia. “I wanted to do more, become more involved within my aviation community and find ways to give back,” Nguyen said.
“Civil Air Patrol allowed me to mentor cadets as well as be a part of rescue missions to help others.”
And what would she tell young people today who want to fly?
“To me, flying is life-changing and powerful, and it can be for you, too,” Nguyen said It will empower you to be confident and self-reliant and enable you to give positive service back to your community.”
To help promote this message, in 2018 Nguyen founded and serves as president of Asian Women in Aerospace and Aviation, a nonprofit 501(c)3 to encourage, empower, and engage Asian women in aerospace, aviation, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
She said her LinkedIn post about her upcoming global journey has inspired some 28 million people worldwide and has shined a much-needed spotlight on Asian women and their empowerment.
As a Georgia Wing member from 2017-2021 who attained the CAP rank of captain, she served what was then the PDK Senior Squadron in Atlanta as the officer for emergency services officer and for standardization/evaluation. She was also named one of Georgia’s 50 Most Distinguished Women in Technology.
Already holding bachelors’ degrees in classics and in mathematics and a master’s in aerospace engineering from Purdue University, she is pursuing a doctorate in aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineering at Georgia Tech. A 767 cargo pilot, she lives with her husband in Miami.
Today, looking back on that little girl who gazed in open wonder at the flying machine in the sky, Nguyen can’t help but be proud of all she has accomplished – not only for herself but also for all women who have a dream to fly and who find the courage to pursue it.
This profile of former Georgia Wing member Anh-Thu Nguyen, part of Civil Air Patrol’s recognition of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is one of a series of articles showcasing how CAP has helped shape alumni’s lives and careers. Reconnect with CAP here.