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Latina pioneer breaks barriers for female pilots

Against the odds and a male-dominated military, Olga Custodio's persistence led her way as the first Latina Air Force pilot and commercial airline pilot.
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Posted at 4:50 PM, Feb 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-15 22:23:25-05

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Watching the first-ever all-female flyover before Sunday’s Super Bowl game, makes you think of who helped clear their path in the sky.

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Olga Custodio, a native of Puerto Rico, followed her father's footsteps — only her steps, took a little longer to walk.

Custodio ran into some turbulence early on in a male-dominated military system in the 1970s.

She applied to join the ROTC at the University of Puerto Rico where she took a test but was told by the commander that she did not pass.

The ROTC was not integrated at the time, so Custodio knew that was the real reason she was not allowed in.

At age, 27 Custodio had one more shot to live her dream of becoming a pilot.

She was finally accepted into the US Air Force Officer Pilot Program in 1980.

“I tried for 10 years, and when I finally did it, it was the right place at the right time, and timing is everything I think,” Custodio, who served eight years in the Air Force and 16 years in the Reserve said.

She is the first Latina to graduate from the US Air Force officer training school, Custodio also became the first Latina commercial airline captain. She flew for American Airlines for two decades.

But it took years of persistence and tenacity to make that happen.

“When you’re forging your journey where no one has been before, you have to figure things out, said Custodio. “I wasn’t looking to be the first anything. I was just happy that I had the opportunity, and I was going to make sure I didn’t mess things up.”

And when you’re an icon with Custodio’s resume, celebrity status comes next.

Like a feature of her on a national Modelo beer commercial, as a pioneer passing her legacy on to future female aviators.

Part of the thrust of Custodio’s message is to establish a strong support system around you.

Her husband of over 48 years, Edwin, is part of hers.

“Without them, I know it would have been harder, but that support gave me the peace of mind and confidence that they had my back,” said Custodio.

Even with support, there is still self-doubt.

What's Custodio‘s advice?

“You’re always overthinking things sometimes, and you just have to get over that and keep going. You know what you know and you do what you can,” Custodio said.

That advice comes with another tip about remembering your strong roots. That’s one message that resonated with Lola Ponce, a journalism student at Del Mar College.

“I think it’s impressive that she never forgot where she came from,” Ponce said.

Another life tip from Custodio is to never give up and to stay positive.

“She (Custodio) had no one to look up to, to help her walk through this, and she did it,” Ponce added. "The fact that she is still here loving what she does (...) "Hey it’s not all that bad, you just keep on going, I mean that’s pretty impressive.”

It’s also proof that with a “can-do attitude” in life, this accomplished veteran reached for the skies and never stopped, even after she touched the clouds.

“I just pinch myself every day saying I’m here and I have this opportunity and I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen,” Custodio said.

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