Her T-38 Talon fighter jet was airborne and then — bang — a bird strikes the windscreen, blotting out all visibility for pilot-in-training Olga Custodio.
“I look up and there’s blood and feathers all over my windscreen,” the trailblazing Latina said during her speech Thursday night at UW-Eau Claire.
But she calmly followed procedures she’d studied — checking her instruments, reporting her situation — and made an emergency landing safely back to the runway at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas.
Bounding out of the plane, she kept her composure and realized that handling the situation validated her skills as a pilot and everything she’d gone through to get into the U.S. Air Force.
Of course, 30 minutes later, reality set in as the adrenaline wore off and her knees did begin shaking after such a harrowing landing while still in her undergraduate pilot training.
Custodio shared her journey with those attending the university’s first guest speaker in this year’s Forum series, telling the audience in Schofield Auditorium what it took to become America’s first Latina fighter pilot.
Born in Puerto Rico, Custodio grew up a “military brat,” her family moving based on her father’s next assignment in his career in the U.S. Army, living in places including Taiwan, Iran and Paraguay.
“I always saw myself as an American that lived abroad,” she said.
Graduating high school at 16 from The American School in Paraguay, Custodio returned to her birthplace in 1970 and enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico.
“There were two things I knew — I love math and I love the military way of life,” she said.
She thought that becoming a military pilot would be the ideal career and met with the ROTC commander on campus, who hadn’t heard of a woman seeking that career.
“He just didn’t know what to do with me,” Custodio recalled. “He said, ‘The sorority is across the hall.’”
She switched to her back-up plan — changing from a math major to business, which landed her a job in the accounting office of Puerto Rico International Airlines before she graduated.
At that job, she met her husband, Edwin Custodio, and they married just three months later and have been together for 45 years and counting.
The couple then contemplated joining the military together. They took the necessary tests to be officers — getting the highest scores the recruiter had seen up to then. Edwin was offered a position, but Olga was told to enlist and then apply to be an officer later.
“Why am I going to take something less when I am qualified to do more?” she said.
The family ended up in Panama while the U.S. still had control of the canal, and Olga Custodio got a job in an equal opportunity office for the Department of Defense. Attending workshops for women on career planning and networking built her confidence. She wanted to get her career started instead of starting over at new jobs every time the family had to move.
And she’d heard that the Air Force had begun recruiting women.
With no Air Force recruiter nearby, she asked the local Army counterpart about aviation opportunities.
“The moment he found out I was married and had a child, he kicked me out of his office,” she said.
Though she’d been turned down twice before, Olga Custodio said this is the first time she truly felt gender discrimination.
“Now it was blatant,” she said. “It was like, sorry, we don’t want you.”
Determined to follow the dream she’d been denied for a decade, she researched regulations, forms, medical tests, test scores and all other factors that recruiters would consider before seeing an Air Force recruiter and telling him she would only accept being a pilot.
She was accepted — 10 years after the ROTC commander suggested she join a sorority instead — and entered pilot training in January 1980.
Earning her fighter jet qualification, she became an instructor, teaching other pilots how to fly T-38s.
She had become the first Latina U.S. military fighter pilot and also the first female flight instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base. When she switched from active duty to Air Force reserves, Olga Custodio went to work for American Airlines where she was the company’s first Latina pilot.
“These are things I never considered,” she said. “Being first was not my plan, not my motivation.”
Having the career she wanted for herself and her family drove her, she added.
In her message to the many students in the audience, Olga Custodio impressed upon them the importance of persistence, passion and patience.
“I learned that denial is sometimes just delay,” she said about setbacks she’d faced.
Sitting in the audience, UW-Eau Claire junior Sara Patoka jotted down that quote in her notebook as she took notes on Custodio’s presentation.
Aware that she may face some challenges in her job search after graduating, Patoka said the quote is something she’ll turn to for inspiration.
An economics major who has noticed that several of her businesses classes have mostly male students, Patoka is aware that she may be in the minority as a woman in her chosen career.
“It’s something I keep in the back of my head, but not something I let hold me back or deter me,” she said.