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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Olga Custodio, America’s first Latina fighter pilot to speak at Gonzaga on Tuesday

When Olga Custodio was an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, she was denied the opportunity to join the school’s ROTC program because it didn’t allow women. Undaunted, she went on to become the first Latina pilot in the U.S. Air Force and the first Latina pilot for American Airlines.

“I feel that people who tried to set up barriers for me actually inspired me to work harder and do better,” Custodio said. “That’s one of the big lessons learned for me.”

Custodio will share her experiences and lessons learned from overcoming those barriers Tuesday night at a free event at Gonzaga University.

Custodio had a passion to serve her country like her father, who was a sergeant in the Army. Because of his job, he was stationed in many countries and she grew up outside of the United States. This gave her a broad perspective of the world and respect for other cultures, she said.

After she graduated, she tried again to join the military, but the recruiter would not offer her an officer position, even though she had a math degree with high scores on the entrance exam.

“Why take something less than I was qualified for? He wanted me to enlist, and I didn’t want to do that because I knew I wanted to be an officer,” she said.

Years later, when she was an employee of the Department of Defense at Howard Airforce Base in Panama, she attended an open house and learned the Air Force was looking for female pilot candidates for the first time.

She applied, went through the flight screening program and officer training, and still she encountered resistance from some instructors who had not trained women before.

One instructor tried to fail Custodio on a test flight by denying her materials she knew she was required to have. She appealed her case through the chain of command, he was reprimanded and she was allowed a do-over with the right materials. She passed and completed the pilot training in the top 5% of her class.

Custodio went on to become an instructor pilot in the Air Force, flying the T-38, the world’s first supersonic training jet. She served 24 years in the Air Force before retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

“I really enjoyed what I did,” Custodio said. “It was hard work for sure, but it was so much fun and I felt so successful knowing that I was good at this. It was something I never could have experienced had I not been at the right place at the right time.”

Persisting through those early setbacks brought her to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “We all have potential,” she said. “It’s a matter of finding it and staying open to the possibilities to find that opportunity.”

Custodio is particularly passionate about inspiring students from underserved communities to pursue careers in STEM, aviation and aerospace. Last week, she received the Hispanic Heritage STEM Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Custodio’s appearance in Spokane marks the return of the Presidential Speaker Series to the Gonzaga campus after a pandemic pause, and is part of the school’s celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month. Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh started the series in 2011 for distinguished authors, activists, leaders and researchers to share their passions with the Gonzaga and Spokane communities.

“Accomplishing many firsts during her career, Ms. Custodio has shattered stereotypes and served as a powerful role model for those aspiring to become a pilot,” McCulloh said. “From breaking barriers and overcoming challenges as a woman in a male-dominated profession throughout her career, she has gained essential life insights and perspectives that she will share with everyone, especially women working to achieve their dreams.”

Among past presidential speakers are scientist Jane Goodall, journalist Thomas Friedman, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, and Liberia head of state Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state of an African nation.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.