Retired Air Force pilot speaks on her fight for flight

Custodio reflects on past and present challenges facing female pilots

She is the first female Latina pilot in the U.S. Air Force, instructor pilot at Laughlin AFB, and commercial airline pilot ranking captain.

Lt. Col. Olga E. Custodio shared her experience on Feb. 8, first in a class meeting with a small group of students and then a lecture at Del Mar Richardson Performance Hall.

Custodio has dedicated her retirement to doing lectures sharing her experience and encouraging the youth to follow their dream at all costs.

But her accomplishment didn’t come easy. 

In a sea of men, in most of her pilot classes, she was challenged constantly.

“I was the only female in my class,” Custodio said.

Erinn McComb, associate professor of History at Del Mar College, found Custodio’s story inspiring. McComb requested to have Custodio’s story told to Del Mar’s students and after two years, was finally made possible.

“Stories such as Lt. Col. Olga Custodio do not make history books. You are not going to see it in your history books,” McComb said while introducing Custodio at Richardson Performance Hall.

There was no female pilot to guide her. No one to lead the way or lift her spirits in her time of need.

“There was no one who’s done this before,” Custodio said in a class meeting at Del Mar.

Back when it was a male dominated workspace, before WWII, women had their place: in kitchens and nurseries. 

Although Custodio managed to have two children and a husband, she continued to level up in her career.

“While cooking with my baby on one hip and dinner on the stove, I was still reading chapters in order to pass my tests,” Custodio said.

Custodio agrees that the barriers have been broken and now women are becoming more aware of their abilities. 

Times have changed. Or have they?

Even in 2023 only 5 percent of professional pilots in training are women, according to Custodio. Custodio faced many challenges, even not being able to find a female pilot uniform.

Women pilots still use men suits and get them altered. 

When Custodio first got started in the military they handed her a pair of men’s boots and a men’s pilot uniform. She was told there is an assigned tailor to get her pilot suit made to fit her. Despite this she was willing to make it work. 

Custodio wanted the suit to fit her comfortably, the male tailor protested. Eventually they came to an agreement and finally she looked the part which she worked hard to get.

She went on to AFMPC, Airforce Military Personnel Center, where she became the first female Air Force pilot in the 1980s.

There were numerous moments when Custodio was reminded of her sex.

At 16 years old Custodio applied for an ROTC unit in Puerto Rico. When she went to a sign-up location, the commander pointed Custodio toward a sorority claiming, “That is where you need to join.”

She was determined to be a cadet. She stood her ground and after some time the commander sent her a test to complete. Later the commander told Custodio that she had failed the test. 

Accepting the news, she moved on only later, when she was at higher rank, she saw her official grade for that test, and she had passed. 

Custodio recalls another instance when she went into an Army recruiter’s office to apply, she was denied due to her being a wife and mother. 

“That’s OK. I didn’t want to join in the Army anyway,” she said.

Even in her retirement, a recent incident while checking the fuels on her personal T-210, a male professional pilot stated to her husband, “Oh, checkride!” pointing at Lt. Col. Olga Custodio.

Checkride is a term for ‘practical test’ used by the Federal Aviation Administration examination which one must undergo in the United States to receive an aircraft pilot’s certification, or ratings for additional flight privileges. 

This pilot assumed that her husband, Edwin Custodio, was her practice test examiner.

Mr. Custodio came to her defense replying, “Oh no. She is the retired female pilot from the air force AND a retired American Airlines captain.” 

The pilot stood dead in his tracks, speechless as Mr. Custodio continued, “No. No. You got this all wrong, no checkride here. I am the passenger, and she is the pilot in command,” Custodio recalled with a smile.

During an in-class meeting at Del Mar, Custodio gave an account of a time in 1943 when male pilots used women to fly the B-29 as guinea pigs. This was due to their engines catching fire. Once the women were able to find a solution to the engines catching fire, the men took over the B-29 flights. 

Though the male pilots took the credit to flying the B-29s, it was still the women who made it possible. This was the takeaway Custodio emphasized. 

As a retired captain of a commercial pilot, Custodio takes to heart the lesson pilots are taught. Despite the constant challenges from her male counterparts, “Aviate. Navigate and communicate. When you aviate, you have to take control. When you navigate, you have to make sure you know where your at and where your going. When you communicate your always talking…”

Given all the challenges and success that came along being a female Latina pioneer for the younger generation and females taking roles in a male-dominated job skill, 

“I am where I need to be,” Custodio said.

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