I am thrilled to once again be participating in Latinas for Latino Lit’s 2nd annual Día Blog Hop. Día de los Niños, Día de los Libros is a yearly celebration that occurs on April 30th meant to focus on children, books, and the importance of diversity in literature. For this year’s blog hop, which takes place between April 6th –April 30th (please check out the full schedule), 24 Latino author/illustrators have been paired up with top Latina bloggers.
It is with great pleasure that I get to share with you a beautifully written piece by Graciela Tiscareño-Sato, who is the author of a bilingual aviation series starring Captain Mamá and her children. The first book in the series is called Good Night Captain Mama/Buenas Noches Capitán Mamá and is the first bilingual children’s book about why mommies serve in the military. Can I get a WOO-HOO?!
Reflecting on my First Deployment in the Cockpit of a Military Airplane – One Lucky Latina
By Graciela Tiscareño-Sato
There I was, strapped in the seat of my navigator station in the cockpit, facing forward and ready for takeoff. As the pilots pushed the throttles up and released the brakes, I began my first international flight as a military officer and aircrew member. It was August of 1992 and I was headed for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for my first deployment. The first leg of the 6400 nautical mile journey to the Arabian Peninsula would be a nine-hour flight to Mildenhall Air Base in the United Kingdom, just over 4000 nautical miles.
“S-1……Rotate,” I heard through the crew intercom system in my headset as we accelerated to the proper speed for flying, suddenly breaking free from the runway at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. We climbed away from our homes and families that afternoon, destined for the other side of the planet. Although I had prepared a long time for this day, I couldn’t believe it was happening.
Unlike most girls born to Mexican immigrants with five children, I had been on many jet airplanes before this day. My university education was made possible by an Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship. It also afforded me free travel on military airplanes, a benefit I exploited eagerly to visit American cities I knew only in books. By the time I graduated from Berkeley, I had logged almost 60,000 air miles crisscrossing the nation during every break as an undergraduate. My last semester of school I worked more hours in San Francisco and hoarded money, planning for my post-graduation trip to Europe to celebrate. I took the four-country backpacking trip someone had suggested as a fitting reward for college graduation. I was in Barcelona, Spain 48 hours before reporting into Undergraduate Navigator Training in Sacramento. I loved air travel and was excited it would be my first career after college.
I had done all that, but this….being one of four professionally-trained military aircrew members in the cockpit of a specialized Boeing 707, an Air Force KC-135 refueling jet, this was nothing like being a passenger on those other flights. This was special and I knew it. I remember doing my after takeoff checklist, listening on the radios for our next climbing altitude, confirming heading and speed information with the pilots and smiling.
I was happy to have finished the three different phases of aviation training required over a two-year period. I was a fully qualified KC-135 navigator, one of three officers in the cockpit of our 4-person crew. I was pleased that my instructors had prepared me so thoroughly; I was ready to navigate to the other side of the globe. I was prepared to do the thinking and math required to successfully join up with other airplanes in mid-air, anywhere in the world, with the precise timing needed to conduct aerial refueling missions.
As we cruised north, we enjoyed extended summertime daylight and for the first time in my life, my eyes feasted on the beauty of Canada’s different provinces; her rivers, forests, mountains….vastness that reminded me of Colorado where I had spent my happy childhood. Several hours after takeoff, we were treated to the magical, unforgettable site of the aurora borealis, something I had only seen on TV science programs and photos in school books. Teal, aquamarine, lime green, lavender and magenta light flows dancing against the darkness – simply stellar.
As we continued to fly northeasterly toward the military base southeast of London, land mass gave way to ocean outside our window. Radio chatter was minimal on this transatlantic route – occasionally an airplane would broadcast their call sign, location and altitude, so other aircrews on that radio frequency would know their location. This was all part of our necessary “situational awareness” as we called it. On my navigation chart, I plotted our position and time every twenty minutes or so– across Canada, ocean, Greenland, ocean, Iceland, ocean while enjoying the starlight views outside our windows. Sunlight gave way to darkness which later became my first airborne sunrise. As the sun peeks over the horizon, visible from thousands of miles away at 37,000 feet, it’s an abundance of tangerine, yellow, magenta and red. Flying overnight in that part of the world was a spectacular, quiet treat.
Quite suddenly, we checked in with London Center and the radios buzzed the busyness of European airspace in the morning. We were cleared to begin our descent and everyone worked through arrival checklists. I remember very little since I was monitoring and confirming our altitude instructions from air traffic control, updating our arrival time with the base command center on our special military frequency, verifying routing changes given to us and updating our navigation computers. On this day, I needed total mental focus to keep up with everything I had trained to do during this critical phase of flight. I recall looking out the window for just a second and thinking to myself, “Wow, I’m really in England!” before returning to my duties.
My aircraft commander (AC) Captain Wayment landed the plane expertly and exited the active runway. He gave control of the plane to our copilot John to taxi to our assigned parking space. After engine shut down checklists were complete, I heard the AC say, “Lt. Tiscareno, welcome to England!”
We had been airborne for 9.3 hours and awake for hours before that for our mission briefing, weather briefing, preflight checks and other preparations. Yet, on this side of the globe, the day was just beginning. It was 8:30 a.m. After our required briefing with the maintenance crew we stopped at the command post to store the communications materials I was entrusted to protect. I had been awake close to twenty hours. I was beginning to think it was time to get that night of sleep that disappeared along the way. My crew however, knew better. We secured our aircrew quarters from the base lodging office, dropped off our bags in our rooms and agreed to meet in 30 minutes for breakfast.
As we ate breakfast and drank more coffee, Captain Wayment shared his wisdom with me, the only one on the crew on her first deployment. “When traveling across many time zones like this, you’ve got to tell your body you are where you are going and not where you are coming from, as soon as possible, then behave accordingly.” I knew he was right, but wow, the thought of staying awake another eight hours was not at all appealing. But, I was beginning to learn how to conduct myself as one privileged enough to wear the flight suit of a United States Air Force aviator.
After breakfast, we walked around the base and surrounding community. My naïve, raw young officer eyes marveled at the beauty of everything, like fields of flowers on the military base. They showed me the key facilities- the gym, grocery store, chapel, exchange (department store), bank, recreation center the important stuff. Then, we headed for the Officers’ Club, played video games and darts and worked on staying awake. Being together made the day pass quickly. I knew I was going to enjoy this lifestyle. Finally, it was dinner time and our copilot said, “Let’s show our nav the Smokehouse.” This was a local restaurant just off base, a favorite of transient aircrew members.
I marveled that I was really in England and that I was getting paid to be here-it was my job! We enjoyed some traditional British food, beverage and dessert in the 29th hour of being awake. Halfway through the meal, in this cozy, warm, restaurant decorated in soothing hardwood, I fell asleep at the table momentarily. Apparently I slowly tipped sideways hitting my head on the window sill. I remember laughter as I regained consciousness followed by “Sorry I’m laughing Lt., but that was funny to watch.” Maintaining my composure and sense of humor, I excused myself to the ladies room to splash water on my face so I could finish my dinner.
An hour later, we had walked back to our rooms, stopping by the command post to confirm our show time for the next morning. I set my alarm clock and drifting off to sleep, I recall thinking “In 24 hours, I’ll be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. What an adventure lies ahead for me as a member of this aircrew community. I can’t wait to share these stories with Mami and Papi. I’m so happy I decided to leave home and go to college to see where life would take me. I am one lucky girl, one lucky Mexicana!
About Graciela Tiscareño-Sato
Daughter of Mexican immigrants, Graciela Tiscareño-Sato is CEO and Founder of Gracefully Global Group LLC, which publishes award-winning, multicultural books and eBooks for K – College readers showcasing positive contributions of highly-educated Latinos. She’s won four international book awards for Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them; recently released Good Night Captain Mama/Buenas Noches Capitán Mamá, the first bilingual children’s book about women serving in the military, was inspired by Graciela’s service as an Air Force KC-135 navigator and instructor. She received an Air Medal for combat air operations over Iraq.
The White House recently honored Graciela as a “Champion of Change” for creating award-winning K-College literature showcasing contributions of innovative, highly-educated Latino Americans to shatter stereotypes and to raise expectations of Latino students.
Graciela is a bilingual STEM consultant for K-college educators serving diverse student populations. She is also a forceful education advocate for children with special needs and other children who face low expectations.
Image of Graciela by Jonathan Pece