Major María Tejada Quintana is not just the first female fighter pilot in her country or in the Dominican Air Force (FAD, per its Spanish acronym); she is also in the first class of female cadets to graduate in the Dominican Republic, and the first Dominican flight instructor at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) in San Antonio, Texas. However, flying was not always her dream. As a girl, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. “Back then, I wasn’t dreaming of becoming a soldier, because women were still not being admitted to the academy,” Maj. Tejada told Diálogo.
But after watching her older brother during his Air Force training, she fell in love with aviation and the dream of a new career grew in her. “My brother was the inspiration for me to become who I am now. He’s also an Air Force pilot. He was the one who urged me to come this far,” Maj. Tejada said. “The example he set was the most valuable thing for me. I saw what he did, I saw the discipline that this profession entails, I saw how beautiful aviation is, and I fell in love with it. So when I entered the military academy, I decided to become a pilot,” she explained. “When I decided to enter the academy, I said, wow, I’m joining the Air Force and I’m going to be a pilot.”
Maj. Tejada began her military career in 2002 as a cadet. After four years of training at “Batalla de las Carreras” Military Academy, while still a fourth-year cadet, she attended the Dominican Republic’s flight school, where she studied for approximately three more years to graduate as a pilot. After finishing basic training, she enlisted for the combat squadron, where she became the country’s first female fighter pilot. “It was a huge challenge for me — very tough — because it’s an enormous responsibility to be the first woman, to be a pioneer,” she said, now with more than 500 flight hours under her belt. “You have to set an example and you’ve got to give it your best, so that other young women might be inspired and might learn the best from you.”
Maj. Tejada’s example has been groundbreaking for the Dominican Air Force, for the country at large, and for Dominican women. “When I joined the military, I had no role model to follow, because there weren’t any women. So I had to blaze my own trail as a woman,” Maj. Tejada explained from the classroom where she teaches instrument flying at IAAFA. “Because even though my brother gave me a lot of career support in a general sense, I couldn’t visualize what a female fighter pilot would look like, a point of reference for what it was that I should be doing, how to do it, or how hard it would be… so the fact that I chose this path has been good for other women because they now know what they’re in for.”
Maj. Tejada explains that when she is back in her country, many female flight candidates and young cadets seek her advice and she counsels them on their future military careers. “When we talk, I’m honest with them. I tell them the good and the bad,” she says candidly. “These women see how far I’ve come, and that it’s not impossible because here I am.”
Today, there are about seven female pilots in the FAD. However, no other woman has yet to join the combat squadron that Maj. Tejada belongs to. “I understand that there is now another class in flight school that has not yet graduated,” she says with pride. “Among those female students is one pilot who wants to join the squadron, but she hasn’t finished her training yet. Let’s hope that she does and that things go well for her and that she follows in my footsteps.”
As might be expected, the female fighter pilot candidate confided in Maj. Tejada that she had decided to enter the military academy in order to follow in her footsteps. “On one occasion, she told me that she entered the academy basically because she had seen me in some interviews, in some of the newspaper articles there, and according to what she told me, that was her inspiration. She saw my story and that’s why she chose to go to flight school.” Maj. Tejada is aware that being a role model carries with it some responsibility. “It’s a huge challenge because, as a woman and as a pioneer — and even if you’re not a pioneer in something — as a woman, you know that you are always being watched to see how well or how poorly you do things. So for me, this is a huge challenge and a great responsibility to have chosen this, and I have taken it on as such.”
Even though Maj. Tejada had to adapt to life in an almost entirely male environment, that environment has also adapted to her, and to the new reality of coexisting in a military where women and men develop equally, according to their professional abilities. “The men have also had to learn how to coexist with me in the squadron, because all this time they’ve been used to being among men, and suddenly I come in and… They also had to adapt to the change, changing many things.” But given our adaptability as human beings, this process ran its course and soon her peers began to see her for who she was, just another colleague in the squadron. “I think it’s also been a huge challenge for the men, but thank God I’ve had their support,” she says. “I haven’t felt any discrimination for being a woman, not at all. My peers have always supported me in whatever I’ve needed, so I think we’ve been overcoming this situation in the best way.”
Since her graduation and commission as a FAD officer, Maj. Tejada has continued specializing in her field and developing in her career through courses taught in her country and internationally. She has also shared her knowledge with others as an instructor. For example, she is an instructor specialized in the airplane that she graduated from flight school on, the T-35B Pillán. She is also the first Dominican woman to pilot the A-29 Súper Tucano, a light attack fighter that is in high demand in Latin America and other regions for its ease of use in air patrols. In the Dominican Republic, the Súper Tucano is instrumental in Air Force programs for defending sovereign air space and interdiction.
That was how one day Maj. Tejada got the news that after an arduous selection and qualification process based on her knowledge, experience, and rank, she had been chosen from among three finalists to report to IAAFA’s 318th Training Squadron as a guest instructor for two years - 2015 to 2017. “This really feels like the most wonderful experience I’ve had in my career. I’m learning a lot. I’ve been here for seven months now, and trust me, I feel like a completely different person than when I arrived, both personally and professionally,” she told Diálogo in May 2016 during our visit to IAAFA. “I have grown personally, as I’ve had to be independent and look after myself since I live alone. Coming to a country that’s not your own, with the language barrier, hasn’t been easy. But I’ve found support from people — and from my colleagues as well, thank God. They’ve really supported me here.”
In addition to her presence at the academy serving to foster the inclusion of women and their role in armed forces throughout the Americas, Maj. Tejada also teaches a course on instrument flight procedures to students from several nations across the two continents. “When we’re in the classroom, we see how in one country they use a procedure that is slightly different from what they use in another country. So all of this knowledge blends together and you reach a level of perfection in a given area. It’s important that we learn from other countries.”
Under her command, the students learn, for instance, how to fly a plane using only their instruments in the event that a storm does not allow them to fly as they normally would, with a clear view of the environment around them — a practice that requires a far more demanding skill level than in regular flights.
For her role at IAAFA, Maj. Tejada earned the Partner Nation Instructor of the Class Award for August-December 2016. “The award recognizes the partner nation instructor and their stellar teaching skills,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Monica Partridge, IAAFA commandant, told Diálogo. “Maj. Tejada has been a vital addition to our instructor cadre,” she highlighted. “[She] continues to help improve our course content and the level of flying instruction the academy provides to our partner nation students.”
This cultural and international exchange is also instrumental in developing shared learning. “When you teach, you also learn by exchanging knowledge from different countries. I’m delighted to be teaching students from different countries in Latin America, and it’s an exchange of knowledge, both with the students and with my fellow instructors — between where I’m from and the culture of the United States itself. That’s why I think this has been, without a doubt, the most wonderful experience that I’ve had in my military career.”
Maj. Tejada’s experience as an IAAFA guest instructor is not only a goal post in her own military career, but it is also seen as an important precedent for future female pilots in the Dominican Republican and throughout the world. “I think [this experience] is going to change me in a positive way, from the growth that I feel on a professional and personal level. I know that this knowledge that I am learning here at IAAFA is something that I will transmit to others in my country. I’m going to be able to be a communicator of what I’ve learned, and it’s not only going to help me, but it will also help my peers back home and future generations whom it will be up to me to teach when I return to my country.”
When her IAAFA assignment ends towards the end of 2017, Maj. Tejada will return to the Dominican Republic with an array of lessons learned through this opportunity. She will continue her career as an instructor, a vocation through which she will be able to impart new knowledge to new generations of Dominican pilots. “Before I came here, I was already an instructor. But now I’m leaving with new knowledge. My hope is to continue learning and to continue teaching as well.”