by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
The recent observance of Cinco de Mayo, combined with the various “heritage months’’ that start off our new year, got me thinking about the many Hispanic aviators who, over the course of their lifetimes, proved to be exceptional Airmen. As people of color, they often had obstacles to overcome, especially in those early years when minorities found it hard to chase their dreams of becoming pilots, especially military pilots.
Three pilots really stand out to me as legendary, proving that the skills needed to be an Airman had nothing to do with skin color, sex or where they came from — it came down to a burning passion to be a pilot, and never giving up on that quest.
Lt. Col. Hector Santa Anna was a B-17 pilot in World War II. He flew his flying fortress, the Umbriago, on 35 missions over Germany. He was one of just a handful of Hispanic pilots to fly in combat in World War II. A descendant of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna of Alamo fame, Hector was born in 1923 in a small mining town in Arizona.
Moving to California in 1940 to earn money for college, he was soon sidetracked when he visited an Army Air Corps training field. He was hooked, and made up his mind that being a pilot is all he would settle for. On July 29, 1943, Hector was the only Hispanic of 97 graduating cadets to receive those silver wings that day.
Many times Hector distinguished himself in combat and earned the respect of all those who flew with him. After the war, he went on to fly during the Berlin Airlift, making 127 flights to the city locked down by the Russians.Hector went on to work for NASA, the White House and the FAA.
Gen. Elwood Richard “Pete” Quesada was the son of a Spanish businessman, and attended Maryland and Georgetown Universities. In 1924 he enlisted in the Regular Army, but soon became a flying cadet when the aviation bug got him. By the time he left military service in 1951, he was a three-star general and served in both the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force.
Quesada first really stepped into the limelight as a member of a flight crew in 1929 that remained in the air for more than 150 hours, breaking all endurance records at the time while demonstrating the new concept of refueling in mid-air, with hoses dropped down from other aircraft.
During World War II, he flew many combat missions and was in command of some pretty important outfits, like the 12th Fighter Command and the 9th Tactical Air Command. He flew combat missions, and his pilots called him “Pete” and the “Pilots General.” He was proficient in the P-38, P-47 and the P-51. He helped to lead D-Day air operations over Europe and took a very active role in the air operations planning for the invasion of Normandy. As a matter of fact, on D-Day plus one he moved his command to Omaha Beach, to direct fighter sorties in support of the advancing tanks and infantry. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would only fly over the battlefields with Quesada at the controls. That is how much faith those in leadership had in his ability when flying an aircraft.
After the war the general went on to many challenging commands and became frustrated with the Pentagon, which was putting all its funding into the Strategic Air Command and letting the Tactical Air Command die a slow death. So he moved on and retired early, only to be vindicated when the Korean War broke out and the need for fighter operations in the air resurfaced. During his civilian career, which included serving as the first administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, he formed many of the regulations that made air travel for commercial airline passengers safe and more efficient, by being a champion for many of the hard-core rules that improved air travel.
Olga Custodio, nee Nevarez, demonstrated perseverance and determination in her ambition to become a pilot. This Puerto Rican-born girl, after many tries and never settling for less, finally found the path that put her in the cockpit as the very first Hispanic military woman to pilot supersonic aircraft in the military.
Graduating from high school at the age of 16, she attended the University of Puerto Rico where she tried to join the ROTC program. She was denied, as they did not accept women at the time.
After college, she then turned her focus on the U.S. Air Force Officer Training School, but that also failed. After getting married and having a child, she accepted a job in Panama with the Department of Defense. At the age of 26, a chance meeting with a recruiter saw her apply for the U.S. Air Force Officer Candidate School. When she was asked to list three jobs she wanted, she responded pilot, pilot and pilot.
In January 1980, she entered pilot training. Upon graduation at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, the Air Force assigned her as a pilot instructor, where she became the first female Northrop T-38 Talon UPT flight instructor. A subsequent assignment took her to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, where she became the first female T-38 instructor pilot.
In 1987 she resigned her commission and entered the Air Force Reserves, serving until 2003 and attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. In June 1988, American Airlines hired her and she subsequently became the first Latina airline captain in the United States, flying 727s, 757s and 767s. Custodio flew for 20 years for American Airlines and retired as a captain with more than 11,000 hours.
Custodio is very humble about all this. She downplays her firsts, saying, “Everything I did was for me and my family.
”I was not out to prove anything. I didn’t even know I was the first Latina military pilot until I had my first female student at pilot training.” She was the first Latina to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Custodio’s mantra is “Querer es poder” which loosely translates to “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Looking at all three of these Hispanic Airmen, I pretty much think that Custodio’s mantra would fit them all very nicely.
Until next time, Bob out …