America’s First Latina Fighter Pilot Was Rejected Twice Before The U.S. Air Force Accepted Her
Before Olga E. Custodio became the first Latina Air Force pilot, she faced a slew of rejections in life for being a Puerto Rican woman. Even though she was an enrolled college student at just 16 years old, her application to join ROTC was rejected because she was a woman. She always knew she wanted to become a pilot, and worked in aviation in any capacity she could–even in accounting for Puerto Rico’s International Airline. She applied to the U.S. Air force three times before she was accepted.
When she finally was accepted into the training program, Custodio’s father, a military vet, called the governor of Puerto Rico himself to tell him the news.
Olga E. Custodio’s family moved so often, she went to schools in Taiwan, Iran, and Paraguay.
Her father was a sergeant in the United States Army, which meant that Custodio grew up as a ‘military brat.’ The whole family would relocate as her father was assigned to different military stations around the world. “I started kindergarten and 1st grade in Taiwan,” Custodio told Fox News Latino. “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. I liked the feeling of being in the air.”
Custodio was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and their family returned to the island when she was 15 years old. She graduated high school a year later.
She was immediately accepted into the University of Puerto Rico, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree at a young age. She applied to join the ROTC program at the University but was rejected for being a woman. Only men were admitted into the program at the time.
“Why aren’t the women leading?” Custodio asked herself at every job before entering the military.
She worked a lot of different jobs, and at every one of them, she told the Daily Mail, “I always saw men in the leadership roles. I asked myself: “Why aren’t the women leading? I could lead that!” She met her now-husband, Edward Custodio, and had two children.
Custodio applied to become an Air Force officer three times before she was accepted.
“When my daughter was three years old, I had all the DoD regulations available to me,” Custodio told Fox. “I knew the rules and applied to be an officer for the third time.” Custodio brought her husband and marched into the Headquarters for the Air Force Military Personnel Center to apply to the U.S. Air Force Officer Training School. She was accepted. There, she talked to a sergeant who asked her to name three career choices she would like to have for herself. “I told him I would be a pilot, a pilot and a pilot,” she told Fox.
It took her two years of training to become the first Latina to complete the U.S. Air Force military pilot training program.
She first had to complete the Flight Screening Pilot Officer Training program before she could enter the Officer Training School. There, she was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Finally, that qualified her for Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. A year later, she graduated, making her the first Latina to complete the U.S. Air Force military pilot training.
Her first assignment was also historic–she was the first female flight instructor at her base.
At that base, she trained others to fly the Northrop T-38 Talon, which is a two-seat supersonic jet trainer. Custodio was actually awarded an Aviation Safety Award during her time as an instructor after she safely landed a plane that had been compromised after a bird flew into the jet’s engine during bad weather.
Custodio served our country for 23 years and 10 months before retiring.
She retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in October 2003, after spending the bulk of her career teaching others how to be effective Air Force pilots. Today, she says she flies for free and for fun. When her friends who own planes ask her to take them for a ride, she happily accepts.
“My mantra is ‘Querer es poder,'” she said.
“I believe everyone has the potential to do it. They just have to believe in themselves enough to actually do it,” she tells Fox. She also said that she “was not out to prove anything.” She didn’t even know she was “the first anything.” She worked hard for herself and her family, and the accolades followed.
Today, she runs a documentary production company in San Antonio, Texas.
She is also the Vice President of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals (HAAAP). The organization takes young Latinos in the San Antonio area into the cockpit and into control towers to offer more opportunities for growth in the field. Oh, and she also directs a Puerto Rican folk dance group, just for fun.