Andrea Bottner servies as a Senior Coordinator in the U.S. Department of State's Office of International Women's Issues.
I was flying deep into the jungle of Colombia to meet Bogota’s nominee for the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award, Captain Erika Pedraza Murillo, the only female Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Colombian National Police.
In this traditionally male-dominated field of aviation, Captain Pedraza stands out as a woman of true determination and grit. This brave pilot puts herself in harm’s way on a regular basis as she fights in Colombia’s counter-narcotic, counter-terror battle. To say I was anxious about flying with her in the Blackhawk is an understatement.
I met her during the morning briefing and she had a strong handshake and a warm smile. She spoke effortlessly about her love of flying and the challenges she faces every day. I saw the small room where she sleeps, segregated from her male colleagues. The room was decorated with pictures of her almost two-year old daughter. Captain Pedraza’s smile was warmest when she spoke of her daughter.
We went out to the landing pad together and suited up. I strapped myself into the Blackhawk and couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. I could barely get my headphones on straight due to my shaking hands (you need earplugs or headphones in a Blackhawk, because it is so incredibly loud).
Captain Pedraza went through her control check calmly and swiftly. The noise grew louder and suddenly, we just lifted up. It wasn’t abrupt taking off, it was a soft ascent. We hovered momentarily and then that strong forward motion kicked in and we were off.
In a Blackhawk, the noise and the wind works together to lull you into a hazy state. It can be a strangely calm place. Captain Pedraza is a great pilot. We had a successful mission and landed smoothly.
We evacuated the plane and said a quick goodbye to the captain. She was off on another mission. As I stood on the landing pad and watched her go, I was incredibly proud of this woman. I see why women in Colombia can, and should, look to her as a role model.