Our American Dream: Meet the First Latina US Military Pilot

With her 3 year-old daughter and husband at her side, 26 year-old Olga Custodio told the military sergeant, “You can write down anything you want on that form, but I’m going to be a pilot, a pilot or a pilot.”

Hearing Olga tell how she practically forced her way into the U.S. Air Force is to hear the absolute tenacity required to go where no Latina had gone before. You see, Lieutenant Colonel Custodio, a name you’ve likely never heard, holds the distinction of being the first Latina to complete U.S. Air Force military pilot training, formally called Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT)– the first. She decided right away to become an instructor pilot and teach other military pilots how to fly. As Lt. Custodio, she became the first female T-38 UPT flight instructor at Laughlin AFB and later also the first female T-38 Instructor Pilot at Randolph AFB.  The T-38 Talon is the Air Force’s two-seat, supersonic jet trainer that looks very much like a fighter jet.

Custodio grew up a global traveler bouncing between continents.

“I started kindergarten and 1st grade in Taiwan,” shared Olga. “From there we moved to New Jersey, followed by a move to Iran then Paraguay before my father retired. I saw the world before I was 15 years old.”

Her father Ismael was a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and communications specialist in the U.S. Army. Her family moved frequently. The many opportunities to fly globally with her family fascinated her. She loved being on airplanes and arriving in different places.  She was exposed to a lifestyle she loved.

“I liked the feeling of being in the air,” she shares.

Custodio dreamt of controlling the airplane. The desire to be the pilot came from wanting to be in charge, likely because she was the older of two children. She graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went straight to college in Puerto Rico. She immediately tried to participate in the university’s ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program but was told women were not allowed.

While enrolled in college, her father revealed that he had tried to become a commissioned officer during his career. To his disappointment, the personnel people at the Army base prevented him from pursuing that dream.

“It really impacted me to learn that he had tried to become an officer but had been denied the opportunity,” Custodio said.

She began to notice something else too.

“After college, I had different jobs,” she recalls. “I always saw men in the leadership roles. I asked myself ‘Why aren’t the women leading? I could lead that!’”

Was it a natural desire to lead?

“Yes, but I was unaware of it,” she replied.  “Outwardly, I was a loner, a quiet introverted person.  Inside myself however, I felt this desire to lead.”

At one of these jobs, while working in the accounting department for PRINAIR (Puerto Rico International Airlines), she met a young man named Edwin. Four months later they married, Edwin fully aware of her dreams of flying for the Air Force.  Degree in hand and ring on finger, she waited for a training slot to open up at Officer Training School. One never did.

Then, after becoming a mother, Custodio’s now-or-never moment arrived. She was working as a Department of Defense (DoD) employee in Panama.

“When my daughter Marcia was 3 years old, I had all the DoD regulations available to me,” she recounts. “I knew the rules and applied to be an officer for the third time.  The three of us went into the CBPO (jargon for military HR center.)”

“I told the sergeant ‘these are the tests you need to give me, the forms we have to fill out and this is what we’re going to do.’ My husband fully supported me.”

The persistent daughter of the Puerto Rican NCO, one who had been denied entry into the officer corps, would simply not accept rejection.

“The sergeant asked me to name three career choices,” she says.  “I told him I would be a pilot, a pilot and a pilot.”

Custodio graduated from Officer Training School and qualified for Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin AFB in Texas. When she graduated from UPT a year later, her father called the local newspapers in Puerto Rico, something other fathers might do in similar situations.  But her milestone was extraordinary and Ismael knew it.

“My father told me he called the governor of Puerto Rico to tell him the news.”

She had fulfilled her dream of becoming a commissioned military officer, and then some. Custodioserved for 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a Lt. Colonel.  Along the way, she received an Aviation Safety Award for superior airmanship for her handling of an in-flight emergency, when her plane hit some birds in bad weather just after takeoff.

Yet even then, she wasn’t done pursuing pioneering work. After she retired from the military, Custodio became the first Latina to become a commercial airline captain, flying for American Airlines. She has flown the Boeing 727, Fokker 100, Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 airframes to the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Europe, Mexico Canada and around the U.S.  Now retired with over 11,000 flight hours to her name, she flies occasionally, for fun only.

“I have friends with airplanes,” she smiles. “Whenever they ask me to go up and fly, I go. It’s something that will never leave me.”

However, she’s quick to point out that she’s happily pursuing many other interests and passions.  Today she runs Dragonfly Productions LLC, a production company that creates personal documentaries which she calls “Lifeographies.”  Since 1992, she has also directed the Ballet Folklorico Borikèn, the Puerto Rican folk dance group in San Antonio, Texas she founded.  She’s determined to keep alive the dances of Puerto Rico from her childhood.

In true Latina style, she not only shattered stereotypes others may have had for her, but has also earned a place in the Latino record books for so many pioneering firsts. She is also constantly mentoring students while serving as the Vice President of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals (HAAAP). This organization takes young Latinos in the San Antonio area to the airplanes, the control towers and the radar sites.

HAAAP introduces them to professions associated with civilian and military aviation careers.  Olga understands that exposure to airplanes is the first step to ever dreaming of flying.  Exposure is why she had the crazy idea back then that a young girl born in Puerto Rico could become a military pilot and teach others to become military pilots.

As a Latina who also served in the cockpit of military airplanes, as an officer and flight instructor in the United States Air Force, I must confess I was completely shocked that I had never heard her name.

About being the first this and the first that, Olga only says this:

“Everything I did was for me and my family. I was not out to prove anything. I didn’t even know I was the first anything. I only realized I was the first Latina military pilot when I had my first female student at pilot training. She was the first Latina to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.”

I asked Olga what she tells young people about opportunities in the United States Air Force.

“The Air Force can instruct you on the many different career possibilities that exist,” she states.  “You can start in one career field and later branch out into others. It’s a place to learn to be part of something larger than you.”

What does she tell kids when they visit their first airplane, especially those who may be completely intimidated by the idea of flying?

“I tell them not to be intimidated by all the buttons; you learn one button at a time,” she shares. “Pilots fly them; we don’t build them.”

And for the kids who think of themselves as too shy to do something like fly airplanes?

“I tell them that the kids who peak in high school sometimes aren’t the most impressive later on,” she says. “The teens that are quietly observing, learning and thinking are the ones who become great later in life. Remember, I was 26 years old when I joined the Air Force.”

She also reminds kids that flying is but one career option.

“I tell them that this is what I love to do. I assure the girls that women do indeed fly jets.  But most importantly, I tell them they must each find for themselves what they love to do. My mantra is ‘Querer es poder.’  I believe everyone has the potential to do it. They just have to believe in themselves enough to actually do it.”