When the recruiting military sergeant asked Olga Custodio to list three jobs she wanted, she responded: ‘A pilot, a pilot or a pilot.’ And her determination paid off: more than 30 years ago, she became the first ever Latina to complete U.S. Air Force military pilot training and now encourages others to do the same. She also became the first female instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base, and later the first female instructor at Randolph Air Force Base, teaching in the two-seater supersonic T-38 (Pictured above: Olga Custodio, climbing from the cockpit of a T-38 Talon aircraft at a training facility.)
With her father working as a non-commissioned officer and communications specialist in the U.S. Army, she was infected with the traveling bug from an early age – and loved seeing the world from the sky. ‘I started kindergarten and 1st grade in Taiwan,’ she 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.’ She added: ‘I liked the feeling of being in the air.’
Despite early ambitions to become a pilot, she was repeatedly turned away and discovered her father had also been denied the chance to become a commissioned officer. After graduating from high school aged 16, she went to college in Puerto Rico and tried to participate in the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program – but was told women were not allowed.
She added: ‘After college, I had different jobs. I always saw men in the leadership roles. I asked myself: “Why aren’t the women leading? I could lead that!”‘ Custodio said that while she was outwardly quiet, ‘inside, I felt this desire to lead’.
While working in the accounting department of Puerto Rico International Airlines, she met a man named Edwin and they married four months later. They went on to have a daughter, Marcia, and she began working at the Department of Defense (DoD) in Panama. ‘When my daughter was three years old, I had all the DoD regulations available to me,’ she told Fox. ‘I knew the rules and applied to be an officer for the third time.’
With her husband and Marcia at her side, she marched to the military human resources center and told the sergeant which tests she would need to have and which forms she had to fill out. ‘The sergeant asked me to name three career choices,’ she said. ‘I told him I would be a pilot, a pilot and a pilot.’
She graduated from Officer Training School and qualified for Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin AFB in Texas, graduating a year later.
She said: ‘My father told me he called the governor of Puerto Rico to tell him the news.’
After fulfilling her dream, she served for 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a Lt. Colonel – but even then she wasn’t finished with her firsts. Custodio then became the first Latina commercial airline captain, flying for American Airlines to the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Europe, Mexico Canada and around the United States.
Now retired, she flies rarely and only for fun. ‘I have friends with airplanes,’ she said. ‘Whenever they ask me to go up and fly, I go. It’s something that will never leave me.’
Today she runs a production company that creates personal documentaries and also directs a Puerto Rican folk dance group near her home in San Antonio, Texas. She also mentors students in her capacity as the Vice President of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals (HAAAP), which takes young Latinos in the San Antonio area to the airplanes and control towers.
Despite these many successes, Custodio remains humble. ‘Everything I did was for me and my family,’ she said. ‘I was not out to prove anything. I didn’t even know I was the first anything.’ She added: ‘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.’
We honor you, Olga Custodio.