Boomin’ in the Skies, with No Room for Errors

A Brazilian-American pilot-instructor makes a difference at the U.S. Air Force Base in Columbus, Mississippi.
Marcos Ommati/Diálogo | 8 March 2017

Capacity Building

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Karen Rubin-Santos, a pilot instructor at the U.S. Air Force Base in Columbus, Mississippi, poses in front of the airplane she teaches with, bearing her name on the fuselage. (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

U.S. President Barack Obama in December 2013 promoted Christine Fox to Acting Deputy Defense Secretary, the highest-ever ranking woman at the Pentagon. But despite a brilliant career, Fox may be better known to a lot of people as the inspiration for Kelly McGillis’s character Charlie Blackwood in the iconic 80s film Top Gun, in which she played a Ph.D. in astrophysics, flight instructor, and love interest to Tom Cruise’s character Maverick. Fox famously told People magazine in 1985, “I don't know anything about flying airplanes, but I know a lot about the guy in the back seat — his mission, his radar and his missiles.”

U.S. Air Force Major Michael James Labarbera (left), Boomin’s supervisor, described her in one word: excellence. (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

This is how many women used to think back then, meaning, they knew a lot about airplanes, but not about flying. Now, everything has changed. Meet U.S. Air Force 1st Lieutenant Karen Rubin-Santos. “Yes, I watched Top Gun, but I knew before it [the movie], [that flying] it was what I wanted to do. I always knew it. I believe the film inspired me in a sense that I did not want to be like Charlie, I mean, to know everything but never fly. I wanted to be in control of an airplane,” the pilot instructor at the U.S. Air Force Base in Columbus, Mississippi told Diálogo.

Brazilian-American

1st Lt Rubin-Santos was born in Miami, Florida to Brazilian parents (Danilo and Enilda). She is first generation Brazilian-American, which she thinks is “great.” She grew up speaking Portuguese at home and learning English in school. Since it is not common for Latinas to join the military in their countries – let alone to become pilots – she says it was a shock for her family when she decided to join the Air Force Academy, “but I always knew that I wanted to serve in some way. I wanted to give back to this country.”

She attended the Maritime and Science Technology Academy, commonly referred to as MAST Academy, a magnet public high school in the Virginia Key area of Miami. 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos joined the schools’ Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), which gave her the first sense of military structure and discipline, a perfect fit for a self-proclaimed nerd.

The U.S. Coast Guard-sponsored program allowed 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos to comply with all her required community service through the military service at their base in Miami Beach. “I became a part of it, and it was more of an extra class that I took in high school. Through the internships, I got a lot of military experience, and being a part of it was fantastic, even if I was just doing community service on the weekends.”

However, there was something missing. “I wanted to be like my uncle [Bruno]. He was a commercial pilot for [now defunct] Varig Brazilian Airlines. He used to fly me to many places and allow me in the cockpit, where he showed me all the buttons and what they did. He even let me make announcements like, ‘Attention all, we are arriving now,’ on the plane’s PA system,” she reminisces.

Upon graduation from JROTC, and in spite of being offered a soccer scholarship to attend the Coast Guard Academy, she pursued her dream of becoming an airplane pilot. “I knew that in the Coast Guard I would have to fly helicopters. I wanted to fly fixed-wing aircraft,” she says.

During a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, her mind was made. “That visit really confirmed everything I already knew. I stayed with other students at their dorms, and they told me what their lives were like. I went to class with them. The truth is, as soon as I arrived there, I thought: ‘This is it.’”

An eye-opening experience

The fact that only about 20 percent of students at the academy were female only made her feel more determined to fulfill her dream. “Everybody crawls through mud, wears these huge glasses… It’s not flattering, so there’s no time to think about gender discrimination. You only do what you are supposed to do, and you better excel because, in the end, only the best will advance, regardless of sex.”

More than being affected by gender discrimination during her visit to the USAF Academy, 1st Lt Rubin-Santos was surprised to learn that her faith, Catholicism, is not predominant in the United States, as it had been growing up in Latin America-influenced Miami. “You could say I was much more surprised with the fact that there are so many Protestants in the United States than with the fact that I was a [gender] minority in the classroom,” she joked. “The Air Force Academy has this beautiful chapel. I remember visiting it and going right to the top, to this huge beautiful stained glass ceiling… and thinking, ‘This is so pretty. I can't wait to pray here and go to Mass.’ The person who was giving us the tour said, ‘Oh no, this is the Protestant chapel, the Catholic one is downstairs.’ I went to the Catholic chapel, and it was much smaller but just as beautiful and it became a huge part of my personal growth while at the academy.”

Boomin’ shows one of the flight simulators at the U.S. Air Force Base in Columbus, Mississippi. (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

After graduating from the academy in 2013, 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos took a short hiatus to chill in the Caribbean and backpack through Europe. Then, she began her two-phase, 13-month pilot training program at Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, Mississippi. During the first months of training, students learn the theory of flying, systems, about the aircraft they will pilot, how it works, and how it flies. After many hours in simulation machines, students move to the T-6, which is used as the training aircraft. In the practical training phase, students learn to land, do aerobatics, fly with instruments and, in the end, do formation, where they fly at a distance of 10 feet from another aircraft. “A pretty cool experience,” according to 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos.

A very capable instructor

The jump from student-pilot to instructor is not so easy. “There’s no room for error in what we do. There’s no room for second chances,” said U.S. Air Force Major Michael James Labarbera, 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos’s supervisor and chief of Standardization and Evaluations of the 37th Training Squadron, at Columbus Air Force Base. Known to him and their peers by her call sign “Boomin’”, Maj. Labarbera considers her a very capable student and pilot. “Now, [she is] also a very capable instructor. In the end, that is what is important. It is great that she is a female and can serve as an inspiration to young girls – and I say it based on my own experience because I have three daughters at home – but what really counts is that she is excellent at what she does. Actually, if I had to pick a quality to define Lt. Boomin’, it would be ‘excellence.’”

A different kind of background

Demonstrating excellence at school and in flying is one thing. It is another to teach, and that is when Boomin’ feels her background played a major role in her career advancement. “I’ve always been really friendly and easy to get along with, but I think the different languages I speak helps a lot,” she explained. “Here, at Columbus, we have a lot of international students, and sometimes the difficulties come not from a lack of understanding the program, but they need some motivation to feel more at home, so when I speak to them in Portuguese, or in Spanish, or in French, you can see how their semblances change completely.”

Wait a minute, French?! “Well, growing up in Miami, everybody there speaks Spanish. I already had Portuguese at home and from spending my summers in Brazil. English was just natural for me because of school and my friends, so because I wanted to learn another language in high school, I chose French,” she explained.

A true inspiration

Boomin’s conjecture was common to the international students who spoke to Diálogo during our visit to Columbus. “It is an enormous privilege to be here, but we do feel homesick, and speaking to someone – especially an instructor – in your own language, helps tremendously to alleviate that feeling,” said Peruvian Air Force Second Lieutenant Rafael Hoyos Vásquez, who is taking the Aviation Leadership Program at the Columbus Air Force Base. “The fact that she’s a woman is an add-on value, since in my country there are no female fighter-jet pilots, for instance. I am sure instructor Boomin’ is a great inspiration for women from all countries.”

Having accomplished so much at such a young age – she is only 25 – results in Boomin’ having only one more thing to look forward to in the near future. She would like to live closer to her husband, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. David Miller, a KC-10 pilot. “Right now he’s serving at Joint-Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, in New Jersey,” says 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos with teary eyes. They hope their next assignment will be at the same base, hopefully at the Travis Air Force Base in Vacaville, California, close to Sacramento. “But I still have at least 1.5 years to go here,” she says with no regrets about her life.

Finally Boomin’

Diálogo would be remiss to end this article without explaining 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos’s call sign. “It turns out that when I am in the airplane doing aerobatics, I like to surprise my students and say, ‘Boom!’ when they do something properly, or do something really well. I did not realize I said it all the time until my peers pointed it out, and from then on, I became ‘Boomin’.’ Also, my colleagues can usually tell I am in the building due to my ‘booming’ volume in the hallways,” she said with a laugh.

But there is another interesting reason for the nickname. To add to 1st Lt. Rubin-Santos’s seemingly never-ending list of talents, she is also a quasi-professional singer with a “booming” voice. If you want to have a little taste of it, just pay a visit to Columbus, Mississippi, during one of the events organized at the Air Force Base. 1st Lt. Boomin’ often sings the U.S. National Anthem during such events.

Diálogo was going to start this article by saying: “This is the story of a 25-year-old Latina U.S. Air Force pilot instructor who excels in everything she does, plays soccer, and is also a singer,” but who would have believed it?

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