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Veterans Day Speaker: Olga Custodio, Military Fighter Pilot

First female Hispanic U.S. military fighter pilot to speak at Alma College.

Lt. Colonel Olga Custodio, a former Air Force officer who became the first female Hispanic U.S. military fighter pilot, speaks at 7 p.m., Monday, Nov. 12 in the Dunning Memorial Chapel at Alma College. 

Admission to the annual Veterans Day talk is free and open to the public; no ticket is required. 

Turned away from flight school because she was a woman, Custodio went on to break barriers — including the sound barrier — as the first Latina to complete USAF military pilot training, the first to become a USAF pilot, and later, as the first Latina commercial pilot for American Airlines. She also was the first woman flight instructor at two major Air Force bases. 

Now retired, she continues to lead and inspire, championing STEM and motivating women and girls to pursue aviation and male-dominated professions. 

“Lieutenant Colonel Custodio models the Alma College mission statement,” says Bob Cunningham, associate professor and chair of the economics department. “She has lead purposefully and served generously throughout her career. Perhaps more importantly, her drive and perseverance to break boundaries are also model behaviors for all of us in the Alma College community.” 

Growing up in a military family, Custodio sought to follow in her father’s footsteps and serve her country. In college, she wanted to enroll in a military training program, but women were not yet being accepted. Ten years after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, she entered USAF undergraduate pilot training (UPT) and graduated in the top five percent of her class as the program’s first Latina graduate and graduate of Officer Training School. 

Custodio received her fighter pilot qualification and became the first female T-38 UPT flight instructor at Laughlin and Randolph AFBs. She also was awarded the Air Force HQ Air Education and Training Command (AETC) Aviation Safety Award for superior airmanship during an emergency engine failure due to a bird strike, during which she executed a safe heavy weight landing. 

In 1987, Custodio resigned her USAF regular commission, entering the USAF Reserves and beginning a 20-year career flying for American Airlines. Her career at American began as a flight engineer on the Boeing 727, quickly moving up to First Officer. Within a short time, she flew the B-727 internationally. 

Now retired from both American and the USAF Reserves, Lt. Colonel Custodio is an active charter member of the Women Military Aviators Association, a member of Women in Aviation International and the Order of Daedalians. 

Dedicated to attracting more women and young people to aviation and STEM careers, she 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 also the vice president of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals (HAAAP). 

 “Lt. Colonel Custodio’s visit to campus is an exceptional opportunity for students to recognize and be inspired by one of our country’s veterans,” says Deborah Dougherty, professor of modern language. “Her professional accomplishments, as a woman and a Latina, serve to remind us that our strength as a nation is rooted in our diversity.”

Story published on October 23, 2018