During Caribbean-American Heritage Month, today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Olga Custodio, the first Latina to graduate from Air Force pilot training.
Olga Nevarez, who later married Edwin Custodio and took his last name, was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Growing up, her father was in the Army, so the family moved around the world. Custodio lived in Taiwan, New Jersey, Iran and Paraguay. When she was a teenager, her father retired and the family moved back to Puerto Rico.
Custodio graduated high school when she was 16 years old and went to the University of Puerto Rico. She wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and in 1969, she tried to join the university’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. She took the exam but received word she failed. However, years later, Custodio found out the program rejected her because of a ban on women.
While working at the the Department of Defense in Panama, Custodio learned about Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. With this information, she went to an Army recruiter and told him she wanted to join and become a pilot. He reacted favorably, but after Custodio told him she had children, he said she could not be a pilot. Undeterred, Custodio applied for Officer Training School with the Air Force. This time, she received a slot.
Custodio attended flight training and then Officer Training School. In 1980, she graduated and received her commission as second lieutenant. Custodio then went to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, to attend undergraduate pilot training. She graduated in the top 5% of her class, becoming the first Latina to complete Air Force pilot training. Her first assignment was as the first female instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base. She taught flying the Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic jet trainer.
On one occasion, the engine on Custodio’s aircraft encountered a bird strike during bad weather. She landed safely and earned an Aviation Safety Award for superior airmanship. Custodio later served at then-Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, where she was the first female instructor pilot once again. In 1987, she resigned from the Air Force and joined the Air Force Reserve. In 1988, Custodio joined American Airlines, where she became the first Latina commercial airline pilot. She worked there for 20 years. After almost 24 years of military service, Custodio retired in 2003 as a lieutenant colonel.
Custodio has received accolades from the Senate of Puerto Rico, which recognized her as an outstanding and exemplary citizen two times. She was vice president of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals. Custodio speaks at schools, corporations and to military groups, encouraging young women and men to achieve their goals.
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Veterans History Project
This #VeteranOfTheDay profile was created with interviews submitted to the Veterans History Project. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war Veterans so that future generations may hear directly from Veterans and better understand the realities of war. Find out more at http://www.loc.gov/vets/.
Writer: Michael Veronda
Editor: Amanda Baker and Julia Pack
Fact checker: Crystal Moore
Graphic artist: Katie Rahill