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Shortly after the Great War, now known as World War I, Hop Hee and Ben Hong Dunne were born in Johannesburg, South Africa to Toa Yong and Ng Gee Dunne. Since South Africa was a British colony, all who were non-whites…black Africans, brown natives of India and yellow Chinese were given less consideration than the white Brit’s pet dogs. But Hop Hee and Ben Hong were extraordinary individuals. In the late 1930s, they became the first two Chinese to be admitted to the Technical College in Johannesburg. They both graduated, Ben Hong with a degree in aviation engineering, and Hop Hee with a certification as the equivalent of a US class A commercial pilot.
They both immediately left South Africa, arriving in the United States in 1939. The next year, in 1940, Hop Hee enrolled in the Spartan School of Aviation in Tulsa, where she earned her US class A commercial pilot license, and ground instruction certificates in meteorology, navigation, weather forecasting and Link. In 1943 she joined the US Army Air Force, where she worked a variety of jobs, including ferrying US aircraft across the Atlantic, then a year later moved to American Airlines as a meteorologist. In 1947, she was appointed to the staff of the Academy of Aeronautics in San Francisco where she taught meteorology, navigation and Link. Finally, in March, 1950, she joined Piedmont Airlines as the Link instructor and found her home for life.
By all accounts, she was a real “lady”, but over and over for decades to come, Piedmont pilots who learned Link from her said that Hop Hee was a “tough cookie” who “gave us hell”…precisely what they needed to produce the best on-time and safety records of any airline. If you couldn’t fly a Link, you had no business in the cockpit of the real thing, at least not at Piedmont.
In the early years of aviation, it became obvious that aircraft would not become truly important unless some way could be found to fly on other than bright sunny days. Soon a variety of instruments were developed to relay information to pilots as to altitude, direction, pitch and yaw, but the problem was training…too many student pilots flew their planes straight into the ground in cloudy weather. In 1929, Edwin Link invented a device that would allow students to practice using instruments in a safe, on the ground, environment. At first, the Link trainers had only room for the pilot, with the instructor located outside the vehicle and the student under a hood that blocked all visual stimulus. But by 1950, the student and the instructor were both housed within…which is the artificial cockpit that Hop Hee Dunne spent her career in, “giving hell” to Piedmont Airlines future aircraft commanders.
Soon, brother Ben Hong joined the Piedmont family as an aircraft engineer and draftsman, where he too remained until retirement. In the 1960s, the brother and sister bought a piece of property in rural Forsyth County.In 1971, they created something extraordinary there…Dunne’s Chinese Restaurant. It took some work to get there, because Dunne’s was way out in the boonies on Old Hollow Road, near the Germanton Road, also known as NC highway 8. But the effort was worth it.
The vegetables were not just dumped on the plate. They were hand carved in the shapes of fish and stars and such. And the food in general, and the service and hospitality were exquisite. I doubt we will ever see a better Chinese restaurant in the Twin City.
Ben Hong and Hop Hee are long gone now. But the last time I was out that way, the restaurant building, and even the sign, were still there…reminders that, sometimes, extraordinary people live in our community.