Ever since she was a child holding her father's hand while they walked along Salvadoran Air Force (FAS, per its Spanish acronym) hangars, the young Salvadoran girl dreamed of being a pilot. Two decades later, after much discipline and perseverance, First Lieutenant Aviator Pilot María Elena Mendoza has become the first female fighter pilot in Central America to pass the FAS A-37B Aircraft Transition Training.
“My biggest challenges were probably physical because the treatment of women and men is equal. We [women] need to make a greater effort to finish the strenuous exercises,” reflected 1st Lt. Mendoza. “Nevertheless, I had to make the same effort as everyone else to stand out academically. Now I see the aircraft with a lot of respect, and know that nothing is impossible,” she added.
Her motivation to fly came from her Salvadoran military family. With their backing, she was admitted to the “Capitán General Gerardo Barrios,” Military School in Cuscatlán at the beginning of 2010. After the first two years of training, she was trained as a fixed-wing pilot. But her memories from childhood came back to reaffirm her aspirations when she found out she would be able to reach her goal because her school would begin offering a tough six-month training program. She would finally become a fighter pilot.
During training, she took intensive theoretical classes on flight manuals; aircraft control systems; aerodynamics; meteorology and limitations; and emergency events when flying Cessna A-37 Dragonfly attack aircraft.
According to First Lieutenant Aviator Pilot Elías Romero, FAS fighter aircraft instructor, the example set by this Salvadoran woman could become an inspiration for other women who want to command the powerful engines of these aircraft. “The demands that she has overcome are the same ones that men face. She has fought against the existing stereotypes about certain activities that are almost always done by men. She has demonstrated that her abilities are equal, if not better,” said 1st Lt. Romero.
During the practical phase, 1st Lt. Mendoza remembers her long daytime and nighttime flights, which included evaluations on navigation techniques, instrument flight, formation flying, tactics, and other training areas that are necessary for mastering the aircraft. “The learning process is demanding, with very high standards, so your grades have to be excellent. I consider my best ally to be my passion for detail. In terms of the delicate aspects of aviation, you can't take an order or training for granted because our lives and the lives of our copilots depend on it,” she said while getting ready for a training flight.
When she received the golden patch last August, she immediately headed for the “Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez” International Airport. There, she joined the Second Air Brigade's Air Operations Group. This group is responsible for monitoring the territorial integrity of Salvadoran air space. It identifies planes used by drug-trafficking and illicit smuggling organizations that move drugs and other contraband to the United States and the surrounding region.
“Piloting the A-37B is no easy task. Its high speed, approximately 700 kilometers per hour, is one of its main advantages for combating aircraft belonging to drug-trafficking groups. Anyone who attempts to pass drugs through the country is pursued at that speed,” added instructor 1st Lt. Romero.
1st Lt. Mendoza has acquired 270 hours of flight time by now. A lot of that time is filled with extreme experiences. “The engines of a Dragonfly went off suddenly while I was copiloting over the department of La Paz, next to First Lieutenant Efraín Campos, a FAS fighter pilot,” she said.
Her intense days in the air helped her to assist the pilot, control the situation, and land on the water near the suffocating Salvadoran coast. “Everything happens in the air. You've only got seconds, and you see it in slow motion. But in that moment, I was able to defuse the situation according to the book, thanks to my training. I helped the pilot follow the manual's steps from memory during the emergency, and we successfully reached the ocean,” she remembered with much pride.
For 1st Lt. Campos, his partner's help was invaluable. Faced with two engines that were not responding, she became the theoretical counterpart who confirmed the instructions from the manual. “All of our instructors’ training and experience was our best strategy, our best weapon. Thanks to my copilot, we were able to land on the water without putting our lives or the lives of the nearby civilians at risk,” he said during a break from his training.
With a big smile, 1st Lt. Mendoza expresses her enormous pride at continuing to move forward with her professional goals. “Being a FAS fighter pilot is a great responsibility. The most important thing is for other women to realize that the doors are open in any field we want to get into,” the new FAS fighter pilot concluded.