The T34 airplane made an elegant landing on the runway at the Ecuadorean Air Force Academy (Escuela Superior Militar de Aviación), amid the applause of cadets and officers who were observing the pilot’s every maneuver. On that morning in February 2011, Johana Belén Santacruz made her first solo flight and, at the same time, wrote her name into the record books as the first female combat pilot in the 90-year history of the Ecuadorean Air Force.
Minutes later, she had to shoulder a cross, and her classmates “baptized” her with the traditional bath of airplane motor oil, part of the ritual of a pilot’s debut.
Santacruz’s journey toward turning her dreams into reality began many years earlier, however, when she was fascinated by the daring pirouettes made by military airplanes during an air show in Ibarra, her home town. “That day, I knew that I wanted to be a pilot … not a commercial pilot, but one flying military planes,” she remembers.
In those days, however, the Ecuadorean Air Force did not allow women at Cosme Rennella B. Air Force Academy (ESMA). For that reason, when Santacruz completed her pre-university studies in 2005, she went to Chile to study aeronautical engineering at Federico Santa María Technical University in Santiago.
Two years later, a call from her father changed her life forever. Finally, ESMA was admitting women to the pilot training program. In a matter of days, Santacruz packed her bags, said goodbye to her friends, and returned to Ecuador, determined to become a fighter pilot.
The entrance examination for the academy was far from trivial. Hundreds of women presented themselves for the exhausting physical, medical, psychological, and academic exams. In the end, only 49 were accepted across several fields, and only a handful entered the pilot program, among them Santacruz and María José Narváez.
Narváez, who completed her pre-university studies in 2007, had thought about traveling to Argentina in order to study to become a pilot. It was her mother who talked to her about ESMA and the opportunities to study in Ecuador. “I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to be accepted in a culture that had always revolved around men, but I persevered, because I wanted to be a pilot,” the young woman explained.
During their four years of study at the academic institution, Santacruz and Narváez, together with other female cadets who aspired to become aviators, distinguished themselves in their studies.
First, they trained with Cessna A150 planes, before moving on to the single-engine T-34, which the academy uses to teach flight control, take-off and landing, acrobatic maneuvers, instruments, navigation, basic maneuvers, and finally, the use of combat planes as weapons.
“All the sweat and tears were worth it. You don’t know what an emotional experience it is to pilot a plane. It’s something indescribable,” Santacruz admitted. In October 2011, Santacruz and Narváez graduated at the top of their class, and the former obtained the rank of Brigadier-Major, an honor reserved for those with the best grades in their class.
Now graduated and holding the rank of second lieutenant, both women are polishing their skills with an extra year of flight training. Subsequently, the Ecuadorean Air Force will determine what kind of pilots they will be: search-and-rescue, transport, or fighter pilots.
“We will continue smoothing the way for those who follow us,” Narváez indicated.
As far as the future is concerned, the dreams of these young Ecuadoreans fly as high as the planes they pilot: “After being a fighter pilot, I hope to rise to become commander-in-chief of the Air Force,” Santacruz indicated. “Some day, I would also like to be a general … In fact, why not head of the Armed Forces?” Narváez asks herself.