Hispanic Heritage Month: Olga Custodio, First Latina Military Pilot

To honor Hispanic Heritage Month, Fox News Latino has teamed up with the Ailes Apprentice Program, and our very own Alicia Acuña, to bring you this special series featuring inspirational people representing the Latino community.

Olga Custodio was an Army brat who grew up dreaming of one day becoming a military pilot. Two different military branches initially turned her down, but Custodio wouldn’t take no for an answer.

She eventually became the first Latina to make it through military flight school and to become a captain for American Airlines.

Custodio was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico but grew up traveling the world.

"We lived in Iran and in Taiwan and in South America, so the opportunity of living in different countries was amazing," Custodio said. "I admired my father because he—he was an exchange military attaché, I mean he was able to train foreign troops and we were able to live in all those places."

"I don’t think people should give up on their dream. You know, if there’s something that you’re born to do, why not pursue it?"

— Olga Custodio

The experience gave her an open mind and a quiet confidence that would later come in handy. At 16 – wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps – she marched into the nearest ROTC and tried to sign up.

"I asked the captain who was in charge, I said I want to join the ROTC, not knowing that women weren’t allowed," Custodio said. "But he never—never said that well, we have a sorority here that you—I said no, no, no. You don’t understand. I want to wear the uniform. I want to be in ROTC."

In an attempt to get rid of her, the recruiter gave Custodio an entrance exam.

"I didn’t fill out any application, any paper," Custodio said. "Just take the exam…And I’m thinking I’m doing great, you know."

Two or three weeks later, however, Custodio was told she didn't pass. She later found out she had scored one of the highest scores ever on the exam but was discriminated against, she said.

But Custodio moved on with her life, got married, had a baby – and then another opportunity came knocking. Her husband was in the Air Force stationed in Panama at the time. She, of course, was with him working for the Department of Defense and the Air Force had an Open House where she found out the Air Force was recruiting women to become military pilots.

But she couldn’t find an Air Force recruiter in the Panama Canal Zone, so she went to an Army recruiter. They began discussing what she might do in the Army, and Custodio got right to the point.

"And I said ‘well, I want to be a pilot,’" Custodio said. "And I’m married and I have a 3 year old daughter. The guy got up and said thank you very much."

But time was running out – a cadet had to enter pilot training before turning 26 and Custodio was now only months away from becoming too old to apply. Finally, she met a tech sergeant in the Air Force who was willing to help her fill out the paperwork even though he had never recruited a commissioned officer before.

At last, while filling out the paperwork, she said it came down to filling out her top three career choices for entering the Air Force. From there, she headed to Laughlin Air Force base where she became the first Latina to make it through military flight school, graduating in the top 5 percent of her class.

"I was—I was just on cloud nine, it was—you know, no pun intended. It was – I can still feel it right now," Custodio said with tears in her eyes. "It’s just incredible, an incredible feeling of accomplishment of – of knowing that—that I made it."

"Olga was without a doubt one of the best pilots I’ve ever flown with – male or female,"  said  retired General Chris Divich. “She’s just very, very, very above average. Outstanding."

After her outstanding military career, she became the first Latina to become a captain for American Airlines.

"I don’t think people should give up on their dream," Custodio explained. "You know, if there’s something that you’re born to do, why not pursue it?”

After a 20 year career at American Airlines, she retired. But she didn’t slow down.

She recently passed out college scholarships for the Daedalions to support future aviators and even runs her own Puerto Rican folk dancing troupe.

Her mantra is "querer es poder."

"Querer es poder. You know, if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen," Custodio said. "Because if you really don’t want it, it’s not gonna happen without you. You can’t make people do things for you, you can’t wait for people to come and give it to you. You have to go out and get it. And I never realized that I was doing something amazing. I was just following my dream."