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Latinas in Aviation festival recognizes pioneering women

Latinas in Aviation author and light sport pilot Jacqueline Ruiz highlighted the courage, determination, and zeal of 22 Latin American female aviators in her 2020 book and acted as emcee during introductions for 15 of the pioneers who shared their aviation stories at the College Park Aviation Museum during the inaugural Latinas in Aviation Global Festival in College Park, Maryland, October 2.

Ruiz, a double cancer survivor driven to tell the women’s stories, was swamped by autograph-seekers who braved the additional security at one of the “Maryland Three” airports as soon as she stepped from a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Her advice to “dream high and touch the sky” was shared by many of the guests who told stories of dogged determination while making their mark in the historically male-dominated field of aviation.

Ruiz said her purpose in life “is two words: elevate women.” She also reminded them that “to achieve a dream, you have to be a dream catcher.”

The event coincided with National Hispanic Heritage Month and brought a diverse crowd of several hundred community members, aviators, and others celebrating the achievements and contributions of Hispanic American women.

Retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Olga Custodio of San Antonio arrived via Cessna 182 wearing her military flight suit and signed autographs for dozens of youths, adults, and fellow pilots. In the book, Custodio points out that she was the first Latina to fly the Northrop T–38 Talon jet trainer and it remains her favorite aircraft. Custodio went on to become a captain for American Airlines and celebrated a 20-year commercial pilot career.

Airbus A320 captain Jacqueline Pulido broke ground as the first female pilot at Volaris Airlines, a Mexican air carrier that now employs 50 female pilots. The transition from the airline employing one female Hispanic pilot to filling flight decks with dozens of Latinas was nothing short of “amazing,” she told attendees.

It was the first time many of the women met each other in person, so they shared selfies, hugs, and introductions to significant others under a glorious blue sky at the longest continually operating airport in the United States.

Behind the podium a U.S. Navy Sikorsky SH–60 Seahawk drew onlookers to the twin-engine medium-lift helicopter parked in the grass nearby. Military Sealift Command member Lt. Rochelle Balun took time to explain the helicopter’s anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, drug interdiction, anti-ship warfare, cargo lift, and special operations capabilities to a steady stream of curious attendees.

Student pilot Belen Lopez plans to become a commercial pilot and considered the event mandatory, so she traveled from California to Maryland to meet the potential mentors. She said the decision was “a no brainer” because of the networking and encouragement it would afford her. “It was very inspirational, to be honest. I wasn’t expecting to get emotional, but I finally found somebody that I can relate to, and somebody that can relate to me.” She said meeting the Latina aviation pioneers “felt good. It felt like home.”

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