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“Querer es poder”: A Conversation with Lt. Col. Olga Custodio, USAF (Ret.)

Interview conducted via telephone by Taylor E. Watson on Wednesday, March 24th, 2021.

Lt. Col. Olga Custodio, USAF (Ret.)

Lt. Col. Olga Custodio, USAF (Ret.) is a former Air Force aviator and American Airlines pilot. Of Puerto Rican descent, her family traveled around the world with her father, a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. They resettled in Puerto Rico when Custodio was a teenager after her father completed his career. She graduated from high school at sixteen and attended the University of Puerto Rico. Though attracted to military service, she hadn’t considered a career as an aviator until working in the accounting department at Puerto Rico International Airlines. At the age of 26, while working in Panama, she met with a recruiter and applied for the U.S. Air Force Officer Training School. According to Lt.Col. Custodio, when the recruiter asked her to list three jobs she wanted, she responded “A pilot, a pilot, or a pilot.”

Accepted as a pilot candidate, after completing OTS, Custodio entered the Flight Screening Pilot Officer Training School in January of 1980. Upon graduation, she attended Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin AFB, Texas. She then became the first female Northrop T-38 Talon (T-38) UPT flight instructor at Laughlin AFB. In 1987, Custodio resigned her regular commission and entered the Air Force reserves. American Airlines hired her in June of 1988. Custodio subsequently became the first Latina airline
captain in the United States. She flew Boeing 727, 757, and 767, and Fokker 100 aircraft along routes including the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Europe, Mexico, and Canada.

Col. Custodio retired from the Air Force in 2003 and from American Airlines in 2008. Outside of her career in aviation, she founded a Puerto Rican dance troupe called Ballet Folklorico Borikèn to honor her heritage, owned and ran a production company, and has been actively involved in numerous organizations. She is married with two children. In addition to being a member of the Order of Daedalians, she is also an active member of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals, Inc., and holds a leadership role in the Alamo City Chapter of Women in Aviation
International.

In honor of women’s history month, we interviewed Colonel Custodio to discuss her path to success in a groundbreaking career, and ways women can support women to advance their careers. As a former instructor pilot, we also discussed the future of pilot training in addition to her excitement about the potential frontiers to come as we advance in space.

THE INTERVIEW:

TEW: What inspired you to pursue a career in aviation?

OC: My first inspiration was following in my father’s footsteps and joining the military. He was a soldier in Korea for the Army. I knew I wanted to serve my country in uniform. I chose the Air Force because I saw through our travels the positive ways airmen were served and being developed.

However, aviation wasn’t an option growing up. Becoming a pilot was not a normal job for women at that time. Most were teachers or nurses or did admin work, things like that. I didn’t know anyone who was an aviator and becoming a pilot wasn’t on my radar. 

I did have a cousin who was a flight attendant for an airline. In high school, I thought maybe I could go into industry as a flight attendant. I knew I wanted to go to college and get my degree and had plans to do ROTC.

During my last year of college, I worked for an airline. That experience, in conjunction with wanting to serve in the military , was where everything started coming together. When I finally had the opportunity to join the Air Force, I got the best job there is!

TEW: Did your background and upbringing influence your career choices? 

OC: I grew up living around the world. It was hard, but it opened my eyes to the fact that you could serve your country and see the world. I lived in Taiwan, Iran, and Paraguay, the countries my father was assigned to when I was growing up. That had a lot of influence on me.

I could experience different people, culture, languages, and had the opportunity to compare and reflect on our own culture. Experiencing other countries helped me learn to respect cultural differences that you may not be used to or agree with. I figured you have to give respect to get respect.

Being a military brat, you move every two to three years. You start from sctratch every time: new school, new friends, new everything. It helped me learn how to adapt. These experiences developed within me the ability to make the best and be confident in any situation

TEW: Did being a Latina influence your expectations or experience? 

OC: Spanish was my first language. I was very conscious of my language, heritage, and culture, though having not grown up in Puerto Rico where my parents are from, I didn’t really connect with it until after my father retired. We went and visited for a month each time during those years.

During my father’s last assignment in South America, I learned how to read and write Spanish in school. This served me in my continued studies when my family moved to Puerto Rico after my dad retired. The unusual thing about Puerto Rico, is that the majority of books were in English, but class was taught in Spanish. It was truly a bilingual society through and through.  

Being a Latina to me… I always thought of myself as an American, a U.S. citizen, who happened to be a Latina. That was my thought or feeling about who I was or how I was for many years. I didn’t really come to realize the impact of being a Latina, and what it meant, until after the fact. While accomplishing things, I was just trying to fulfill my purpose in life like everyone else. 

TEW: In your experience, what was the environment and culture for women in the Air Force and pilot training like?

OC: I was in one of the first groups coming through, and there were very few of us. The Air Force was trying to figure us out, as we were trying to figure them out. Trying to identify how we fit into a male-dominated environment was new to everybody. We all were doing our best to make sure this was a success within the parameters.

I never asked for any special exemptions or exceptions, and worked as hard as any of my peers. Once I graduated with wings, during my time as an IP at Laughlin, Randolph, and then in the flying training program, I always gave it 100%. I saw myself as an airman like anybody else.  

There was some resistance about women entering the career field. Some airmen, some pilots, weren’t as open or couldn’t understand why the Air Force had opened this to women. I had a few experiences where they were trying to grade us harder, which they did, or tried to discourage us to quit. This was my experience, I can’t speak for all women who experienced the program.

Those who weren’t trying to help were in the minority, mostly, and I was able to advocate for myself. I knew where I could turn should I need help or have problems or questions. If there was a problem, I would find a way to resolve it through the chain of command and we would identify is this right, is this wrong. It was a learning process from both sides. 

TEW: Can you give a specific example of a time you had to resolve something?

OC: There was an incident at the very beginning in the flight training program. It was kind of unusual, because there were some instructors in the flight training program who were civilians, under contract. For a VFR flight, I knew I had to have access to a map and a flight checklist, etc. An instructor took away all of this, and said I had to do this on my own. I knew this wasn’t correct.

I went to talk to the cadet commander, and he agreed that wasn’t right. The operations guy brought the guest instructor into the office with my instructor. That guest instructor – he wasn’t playing by the rules. I don’t know what happened to him after that. However, having this experience early on, I realized going forward how important it was to find what I needed to do, if and when anything like this were to happen again. 

That experience helped me be more confident in leveling the playing field for my training and advocating for myself. Luckily, the leadership and people I worked with and for, including my regular instructor, advocated for me too. I learned a great deal about mentorship, leadership, and advocacy from them. These were all men; I was the only female in the class. You have to give everyone the same tools in order to succeed. Without that, it’s not a level playing field. 

TEW: What was your biggest challenge?  

OC: My greatest challenge was being in a fishbowl. I was an officer, my husband was enlisted, we were married, and we had a 3.5 year old when I started my military career. We were outside of the box big time!

Balancing work and family and career was a challenge. But, communicating with my husband, and finding people who were willing to listen, mentor us, and help us enabled us to get through it. Family, friends, different people in my life at different stages really helped me be able to do what I needed to do to get ahead and progress in my career. It truly takes a village

TEW: What was your greatest accomplishment? 

OC: I am just grateful that I was able to wear a uniform, serve my country, and fullfill my dream of having a full military career that I had when I started, and retire from service.

I had tried in college to get into ROTC and commission. Women weren’t allowed in to the program at that time. I didn’t get in until ten years later! Just continuing to pursue and have the opportunity was my biggest accomplishment.

Even though I had those initial setbacks, the timing was perfect. By entering when I did, I was able to become a pilot, which I had never dreamed would have been possible.

TEW: What was your favorite military flying experience?

OC: Formation flying! I loved both two ship or four ship, even with students some times. It’s my favorite flying I’ve ever done as a pilot. 

TEW: What advice would you give women interested in pursuing careers in aviation – commercial or military? 

OC: Find a mentor who can guide you. Give it a go, give yourself the opportunity to try it out. With dreams and opportunities, you can look at it, see it, talk about it, but you MUST try it out.

For those who are interested in flying, puruse exploration and familiarization flights. Getting that opportunity to experience flying is important to get your feet wet. Once you know it’s for you, find the best pathway to get where you want to go.

If you’re interested in becoming a commercial pilot or charter pilot, it can cost a lot of money to get those licenses. But in the military, you are getting paid while learning and refining your flying skills, if you get the opportunity to go into aviation. It’s the best of all worlds – you serve your country, and get great training, and then can go on to do both military and commercial flying.

TEW: What led you to become a commercial pilot?

OC: After I’d graduated pilot training, I came to Randolph to get instructor training and become a T-38 IP. One of the ladies I’d met in training in the T-37 contacted me and said she was taking the FAA commercial license written test, would I be interested. Our military training qualified us to sit for it, and we could get a commercial pilot’s license.

So, I went, I studied one night… (She had studied for several.) We went to the FAA office, took the test, and walked out with commercial licenses. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this, but I went ahead and did it and put it in my back pocket. She already had plans. I wasn’t sure.

I’m glad she invited me, because now I had this license. When it came time to take next steps in my career, I had options. I was weighing the benefits of staying or moving. My husband had a great DOD job and my family was happy. For me to continue service, I decided I had to enter the Reserves. We have to make the best choices to fit into what we want for work-life balance.

My original goal had been to serve, do a full career, and retire. Fortunately, I was still able to fly through the commercial airlines. I was able to continue to fly, have two great careers, retire from the military, and not have to move my family.  

Having said that, it was a challange. Juggling two jobs and my family of two kids had its demands. But, my husband and I were willing to work together and we had family, friends, that village helping us.

TEW: You mentioned how important your partnership with your husband and having a community of support was. In my experience, younger folks such as myself sometimes struggle to understand how to build that community. What advice do you have for us?

OC: First of all, you tell anybody and everybody what your goal is and what you’re trying to achieve. “This is my dream, this is my goal, etc.”, You never know who you’re talking to, and that person may give you an opportunity, or may remember you and connect you with a person who’s looking for a person at some point down the road.

Also, once you’ve put your dreams and goals out there, it becomes real. You hear it, it comes out of your mouth, it’s there. It’s not something just in your head or something you’re thinking about. 

The second thing is ASK. Have the courage to ask anybody if you don’t know something or need more information. There isn’t a bad or stupid question. If you want to ask about something, it’s because you don’t have an answer that you feel you need.

Ask for help. A lot of people don’t want to do that. As you’re working through things, you may not tell the world about it, but find the right people, vet them, identify those you can trust. As you identify your goals, reflect, seek out those people who can assist you… You’ll be surprised about how many are willing to help when asked. 

There are two key points to pursuing anything. First, show up, work hard, be flexible. Second, be open to opportunities. You may have wanted to go right, and find you have to go left… So, you’re taking a detour, go left and see where the path leads. You may eventually end up where you wanted to begin with.

Sometimes the path isn’t a straight line. Have the open mind to experience it. Take those opportunities! They will make you wiser, stronger, and give you the foundation you might need to end up where you want to end up. 

TEW: You’ve spoken a lot about how important leadership, advocacy, and mentorship were to your success. How can women support women to help us advance?

OC: Women have to advocate for other women. We’re not all the same. Some of us more vocal than others. Some of us are a little more insecure. Try to help others climb up that ladder. As you’re climbing it, look back, and see who you can help make it up. As you acheive things, actively keep your eyes and ears open, and let people know you’re open to helping.

When I get to spend time with women pilots as a group – they are some of my happiest times ever. Growing up in my career and profession, there were so few of us and we didn’t often have opportunities to share. I love getting together with women, discussing, sharing stories, comparing notes on how we did it. I couldn’t compare notes with men in the same way.

I did have some great male military and commercial pilot airline friends. I also had mentors and advocates for me and my career that were men. While I value those relationships, we didn’t share the experience of being wives, mothers, and pilots. We had different lives, so our conversation kind of ended at aviation.

There’s a camaraderie that men have, “the good old boy group”, if you will. Women need to establish that too, and know they find strength in numbers and can move ahead by helping, supporting, and cheering for each other. Something women need to realize – being with other women, their support, having a network to cheer you on – it’s so important.

TEW: So, Maureen keeps mentioning your starring role in a Modelo commercial… Spill the tea! How did it happen? What was this experience like?

The funny thing about this commercial… you think pilot and you think beer. Two things that should not be together – flying and drinking at the same time, you know. (Not that pilots don’t drink, but they shouldn’t happen at same time!)

Someone reached out via LinkedIn, and said “Hey we saw your story, we’d like to consider you for this commercial.”

I was like “Yeah, yeah whatever.”

They called the Women in Aviation chapter looking for me! I thought “What?!?”

Right then, I called them back asking them to tell me what this was all about. They explained that they wanted to pitch my story to their client – they thought it was a great story. I decided it sounded interesting, but I needed to vet them. So I asked them to send me what they’d done before… They did, and their commercials had football players, soccer players, etc.

I thought hey, well this looks legit. I did some research and it turns out this was the biggest marketing company in the world based out of London. So now this is for real! I showed my family, and my kids said I had to do this, there was no way I was not going to do this.

I asked them to give me the storyboard so I could make sure they were going to do this right. I wanted to make sure they were going to do an okay job of portraying me – hello this was a beer commercial, after all! But they did such a great job.

Once I learned the tagline I was sold:
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you’re made of.”

That experience was amazing. First class the whole way. 

TEW: What is your philosophy of public service? From your perspective, how is it important right now?

I think everyone should do some kind of public service. I would like to see women coming out as public servants more than ever. Women need to get out there and serve in what ever capacity they are comfortable with and want to do. Be comfortable, sincere, and authentic in type of public service you want to do. Do not be afraid to voice opinions, and know you shouldn’t be afraid. 

TEW: Who is your biggest role model? 

Besides my father, there are so many women to choose from.  Every year I learn about great accomplishments of women who have done so much without acknowledgement and credit for what they’ve done.

There are so many women who just get down to business, do the work, and accomplish great things, and it’s time we recognize them. Those are the women who I aspire to be like, and I want to find out how they did it.

I’m always wondering what did they do, how did they manage, did they have a family, did they have a relationship, did it work or not work out. To find women how have overcome so many things and still achieve success – it’s inspiring. I can’t pick one person, as each has their own unique success story and how they got there. But I admire and use their examples as something to look at and reflect upon. 

TEW: What is your greatest area of concern, and biggest source of excitement, about the future of military aviation?

Concern: The shortened pilot training syllabus that they’re trying to push. Yes, virtual format platforms are great and all this future technology is awesome. To fly these modern aircraft, I do see it as a necessary platform. But just being in the airplane, flying the actual aircraft, is just as important or more so. I am reading about so many incidents and accidents in the Air Force alone. I know training flights cost money and that has a lot to do with it. But in order to stay safe, you need to fly, you need to have experience in the airplane. Shortened training concerns me, especially as a former instructor pilot. 

Excitement: I love exactly where it’s heading. The new aircraft we have are incredible. Technology, avionics, etc., are amazing! I wish I were starting now so I could get my hands on some of it. 

I’m also very excited about space and the future of aerospace – NASA and SpaceX working together is incredible. That we can partner with outside corporations, groups outside of government, in order to advance in aerospace is a great new thing on the horizon.

That we can go to the moon and establish a place there, and go on to Mars. I wouldn’t want that ticket, but it’s exciting to me. Partnerships between corporations and government, working toward a common goal, present so many opportunities.

You know, all technology we as civilians are using was developed in some shape or form by the government initially. The fact that they are developing technology and sharing with civilan community just helps us advance. That now we can just take flights to the space station – “Hey, I’m just going to go up and spend a week” – it’s just amazing. I’m fascinated by space.