By Christine Bolaños.
Olga Custodio didn’t set out to change the course of U.S. Air Force history, but she did.
A new frontier was reached in the skies when she became the first Latina military pilot. After serving her country for 24 years, Custodio retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the United States Air Force Reserves.
During this time, she was the first Latina to graduate from United States Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training in 1981, the first female to become a T-38 Undergraduate Pilot Training flight instructor at Laughlin Air Force and at Randolph Air Force Base.
Custodio resigned her regular commission in 1987 and entered the USAF Reserves to fly for American Airlines. She embarked on what would become a 20-year-long career as a commercial airline pilot. She started out by working as a flight engineer in Boeing 727 and worked her way up to First Officer based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Within a few years, she had earned her Air Transport Pilot certificate and then served as an American Airlines Captain. During her last five years with the airline, she was based in Miami, and flew Boeing 757 and 767 to the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Europe, Mexico, Canada and the U.S.
The retired Captain recorded more than 11,000 hours of flight time. In spring 2017, she was inducted into the San Antonio Aviation and Aerospace Hall of Fame for her professional accomplishments and her legacy as the first Latina pilot in the military and commercial aviation.
She is in one word: Indomitable.
But the Puerto Rican native is a humble person. She credits her upbringing, family and colleagues for her success.
“My parents never made me feel like I couldn’t do anything. Instead, it was a mindset of: If you work hard, you can achieve anything,” Custodio says.
But her tenacity and her determination cannot be emphasized enough.
The first role model in the self-described Army Brat’s life was her father. He served in the military and made it a point to travel with his family. The constant traveling and living in places like Iran, Taiwan and South America, forged an unbreakable bond among Custodio, her parents, Ismael and Olga Nevarez, and brother Peter Nevarez.
She suspects if she had been raised in Puerto Rico or in Latin America, she may have been impacted by a stereotypical male-dominant philosophy on life that is still a part of Latino culture today.
“It grounded me, and my parents always wanted the best for me. They didn’t hold me back. They set the bar high for me to go to college,” she explains. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico.
This sense of confidence and determination has defined her. It has also transformed her into a role model for those who surround her.
“She just has this glow about her,” says Maureen DeFelice, Executive Director of Order of Daedalians. “When she walks into a room, she has a presence about her. In my organization, she’s seen as an equal, she’s respected for everything she has accomplished. She doesn’t try to be treated differently because she’s female or the first Latina pilot, she just wants to be treated like everyone else.”
Custodio is a charter member of the Women Military Aviators Association, the Women in Aviation, International Inc., the Allied Pilots Association and a member and Trustee of the Order of Daedalians.
It is through Custodio’s service as member of the Women in Aviation International Alamo City Chapter that DeFelice has come to know, respect and cherish her.
Women in Aviation is an international nonprofit organization that encourages young girls and women to go into aerospace.
Custodio, like most Latinas, has had to prove some skeptics wrong.
At 16 years of age, she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps. She tried signing up for ROTC but the Captain she spoke with encouraged her to join the sorority instead. At the time, Custodio didn’t know women weren’t allowed in ROTC.
It was a big bump in the road for Custodio. She didn’t want to be in a sorority. She wanted to wear the uniform and serve her country.
The recruiter gave Custodio an entrance exam. Despite being told she had failed the exam, she would later learn she had one of the highest scores ever. It was her first time facing discrimination of this caliber.
She says she set aside her military aspirations. She got married to Edwin Custodio, who served in the Air Force and was stationed in Panama, and they had their daughter Marcia. Custodio says Edwin is her best friend, supporter and advocate in all her endeavors. They would eventually have a second child, son Edwin II, and a grandson, Jedi.
During the time her husband was stationed in Panama, Custodio worked for the Department of Defense. The Air Force held an open house where she learned that the military branch was recruiting females to become military pilots.
Then she faced another hurdle. Unable to find an Air Force recruiter in the Panama Canal Zone, she set off to find an Army recruiter. Custodio was deliberate and told the recruiter her intentions of becoming a pilot.
She found out that the clock was ticking. In order to enter pilot training, a cadet had to be younger than 26 years old. Custodio was months away from reaching her 26th birthday.
Fortunately, she found an Air Force tech sergeant who helped her fill out her paperwork despite this being out of his purview.
And from that point on she soared, starting by graduating in the top 5 percent of her military flight school class.
“When you love doing something, you just do it. I wasn’t trying to be the top (5 percent). I was just doing what I knew I liked and had to do,” she says.
Minnette Velez, who formerly served as communications manager at American Airlines, met Custodio whilst working on stories for Women’s International Day in the early 2000s. Marked on March 8 annually, the event called for Velez finding the ideal woman to represent American Airlines.
“Her story was so compelling, and we wanted to be able to tell the world, ‘This is Olga. She’s from Puerto Rico,” Velez says. “Even though this wasn’t necessarily a traditional career for women, we were trying to convey that it was possible.”
That interaction led to landing Custodio numerous stories and inadvertently forged a friendship between the women.
“She never let her success erase where she came from. That was so important for her and for us and that’s why her story was so compelling,” Velez shares. “She is a strong woman, but her heart is amazing.”
That heart is behind her volunteerism.
“I’m a big advocate for STEM and trying to let young girls know they’re smart and to feel confident. Even if they don’t see role models like themselves, it doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish their goals,” Custodio adds.
The accomplished Latina serves on the Dee Howard Foundation’s board, and the board, in turn, collaborates with Women in Aviation. The foundation tells the history of aviation in San Antonio and gets students in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade interested in STEM.
“All of these firsts are hugely impactful on the kids and she’s very good at talking to them, telling her story and relating to them,” says Wayne Fagan, the foundation’s chair and co-founder.
As if her long list of accomplishments thus far weren’t enough, Custodio has been recognized twice by the Senate of Puerto Rico. In 2013, she was recognized as a “FIRST” at the Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (VWISE) conference in Chicago.
Custodio serves on several scholarship committees and is a mentor with the Aviation Explorers organization in San Antonio and the School of Aeronautics of the Inter American University in Puerto Rico.
She is vice president of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals, a nonprofit she helped found in 2010. She volunteers with organizations like Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
Custodio also owned and founded Dragonfly Productions, LLC, where she produced several personal documentaries for six years.
She served on the Advisory Board for the Southwest Texas Junior College Career Pilot Technical Program and San Antonio Museum of Art Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Grant.
She directs and founded the Ballet Folklorico Boriken, a Puerto Rican folk dance group in San Antonio, where she resides. She is an active member of the city’s Puerto Rican Heritage Society and has coordinated countless community activities.
Custodio even plays the Cuatro, an acoustic guitar-like instrument of Puerto Rico, and plays with the Ecos de Puerto Rico orchestra in San Antonio.
Custodio says she’s blessed to continue serving her country through her countless volunteer efforts.
“To young Latinos and Latinas trying to pursue their dreams, I’d say to be proud of who they are and where they came from, but also be proud of this country.”
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