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.
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.”
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.
This is such a wonderful eye-opening piece.
Did you ever watch that documentary, ‘My Kidnapper’? It was made me a British guy who’d been kidnapped by members of FARC and was now going back to Colombia to confront the man in charge. Really fascinating stuff.
I’ve heard about it, need to watch it, thanks for the reminder. I’ve read a few books on FARC kidnappings and, as someone who is a control freak, slightly claustrophobic and clinically impatient, it would be my worst nightmare. I have shivers whenever I think about them – decades in the jungle, I can’t imagine it. Fortunately I think the ‘My Kidnapper’ guy was three months but still! (also not sure it was FARC, may have been anti-para or something of that ilk, definitely need to watch it though)
What an amazing post!
My past Bolivian boyfriend is a naval officer in Bolivia and was educated in Venezuela, so I learned a bit about the military in both countries….I know! Bolivia has no coast! However, they would sail the Amazonian rivers (where I met him) as well as Lake Titicaca. They have their navy also based in other countries like Peru and Venezuela…and of course, it is a little symbolic of the “one day” they would finally get their coastline back from Chile;).
Anyways, I actually found it quite interesting that he really supports women in the navy. Well, I guess he had to because he was one of the youngest in his family with 6 amazing sisters! His youngest beloved sister joined the navy due to him, and he had an ex in the navy as well. Interestingly, although they had “masculine” roles, they were quite “feminine” otherwise. His family is very proud of his little sister.
However, it goes deeper than this.. He works and has worked alongside a substantial amount of women in the navy in both countries, and there is actually quite a bit of female power in both navies as well. Venezuela appointed their first female admiral last year and Bolivia appointed their first female army general this year!
In some ways, I think that when my Bolivian joined the military he saw how women can be just as strong as men! He did however find that a certain type of woman could only do the job though, a very strong one (and I can see why…I could not do it that’s for sure haha).
This is all interesting because Bolivia is actually probably much more “macho” than Colombia in general. As such, I find it extremely fascinating how different sectors of society can be very different from others, how there are more layers, and how your personal experiences in life shape individuals no matter what the dominant thinking is.
Man, did he squash a lot of my stereotyped beliefs on Bolivian men and military men though, and he showed me a more nuanced Bolivia and Venezuela. He himself still was quite Latino though, luckily possessing many more of the good traits than the bad;).