There was no time for pilot Erika Pedraza to think. She could see the blood soaking through her right glove as she gripped the controls. She was aware of the sharp sting of a bullet. But she couldn’t feel the pain.
Moments earlier her colleague’s helicopter had plunged into the Colombian jungle and now her own aircraft was hit. She had no choice. Erika tightened the grip of her injured hand and prepared for the inevitable emergency landing.
Today Erika, 31, recalls the day she was shot in quiet, matter-of-fact terms. She is a typical pilot in her smart green uniform yet hardly typical – a police officer, a mother-of-one and one of a handful of women quietly fighting one of the world’s longest running guerrilla wars.
Colombia remains plagued by conflict, not least with the left wing rebels who have lurked in its jungles for decades. Ever since they turned to cocaine trafficking to fund their arms, the war on drugs and against these wannabe revolutionaries has been the same – with Colombia’s police and army fighting hand-in-hand. Cocaine is particularly loathed by the US Government, not least because of crack and how using crack cocaine affects your body and mind.
But while every young Colombian man faces a draft to enter the military, these highly-trained women are battling a different enemy – the surprise and doubt they inspire as pilots in a nation where women are still seen as homemakers, rather than warriors.
“At one time I was the only Black Hawk pilot in the whole of Latin America,” Erika recalls.
“I went to the United States for a training course once. There are loads of women pilots there but they were still surprised to see me. Latin American culture is famous for being pretty chauvinist.”
It may be because several of the women have chosen a particularly risky role in their nation’s conflict. As police helicopter pilots they transport Colombia’s elite police commandoes to the frontline and extract the officers who have been wounded by mines or gunfire or, worse, those who have died fighting.
Extracting the bodies of your dead colleagues is a grim task, admits fellow pilot Kelly Garcia, 30, but she says it’s one someone has to do.
“We can’t just leave them there,” she shrugs sadly.
“But our work can be gratifying too. My family are the proudest people in the world of my job. My parents tell everyone their daughter is a helicopter pilot even though they don’t know too much about what I do. If they did, they would probably have a heart attack.”
The women’s work does not stop at supporting the commandoes’ clashes with the guerrilla. They also play a frontline role in the war on drugs – escorting the mostly US-funded crop spraying planes that seek to destroy the cocaine farms. But whilst the peasants who farm those drug crops are generally unarmed and used to switching to other areas of land when their yields are targeted, their best customers are not so relaxed.
Desperate to protect the drugs, the guerrilla have been known to stretch wires between the trees – hoping to snare the planes in a deathly makeshift web.
Some of the women claim their work in cocaine eradication is more dangerous than supporting the troops who are making direct assaults on the rebels – particularly when the fields are too well protected to be sprayed from the air and must be eradicated on foot.
“I was taking food to troops in the mountains who were eradicating crops just last week,” Kelly recalls.
“We always ride with two sniffer dogs because the crops are so well protected. When we were returning to the chopper one dog found a mine and blew them both up. It was really sad to lose the dogs but thank goodness it wasn’t a cop.”
The women work in 15-day stints, rotating between bases situated in the most dangerous areas of Colombia. While some of those stations have installed facilities for them, others are more basic – with all of the pilots thrown together to sleep and shower in giant metal containers.
“The police are working hard to give us our own space, such as our own bathrooms, but before we shared absolutely everything,” says 30-year-old pilot Francoise Valencia, laughing as she recalls how the women often rose early to beat their male colleagues to the tiny bathroom.
But the real problem, at least in the early days, was the attitude towards their tiny group. Kelly remembers a few officers telling her “if it were up to them” women would be banned from flying helicopters on the frontline. Time, she insists, has proved the women right.
“We are not the weaker sex, we are really calm in tough situations and we have risked our lives in the field,” Erika adds, pulling up her sleeve to reveal her tiny scar – a permanent reminder of the bullet that passed through her helicopter’s undercarriage and sailed clean through her hand.
Erika is something of a heroine amongst the other women. Besides performing an expert emergency landing the day her aircraft was attacked (“Thank God there was another chopper close by to extract us,” she says) she is also married with a five-year-old daughter, Sara.
“Erika was flying the Black Hawks when she had her baby but she still did it,” Kelly says proudly. “Even after she was shot they asked her if she wanted to switch to flying the force aeroplanes but she refused.”
Still Erika admits juggling her work with her family life can be tough. Heartbreakingly, Sara soon learned to count the 15 days of her mum’s rotation and frequently asks her mother “how many fingers it will be” until she next comes home.
“As kids get older they start to understand why you are away so much,” she says. “My life has been made a lot easier because my mum helps us a lot with Sara. I feel I have been really blessed. There’s only a small amount of us but I feel we’ve opened the door for other women.”
All of the women hope their work will change the way female pilots are viewed, both in Colombia and across Latin America. Francoise – who has so far escaped injury despite her helicopter being hit several times – says she has already noticed the attitudes change.
“At first I think some of the men were a little scared to see women doing this job, but now they trust us completely,” she says.
“Time has made them see we are good pilots.”
Like all the women, she loves her job and believes she wakes up every day ready to use her skills to help someone.
“That’s why there’s no difference between us and the men,” she grins.
“We have a job to do and we need to get it done. It’s not like the boss will say: ‘Oh no, we can’t send in the girls,’ because it’ll be too late. We’ll already have gone.”