Requiem for a woman of firsts

Before her death on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF)’s first female combat helicopter pilot, flew fine lines, defending the territorial integrity of the nation from and through the air. She rose from the beacon of human struggles to lofty heights of nobility. The significance of her days on earth compelled celebration of her heroism and professionalism.

She had found no greater satisfaction than achieving success through honest dealing and strict adherence to the view that, for you to gain, those you deal with should gain as well. Though she was young, her storied life could have turned out differently had she not passed through an opportunity to willingly, ably and readily, fight to librate her Fatherland from the clutches of insurgents, bandits and kidnappers.

Dear Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, Just eight months ago, we celebrated you as Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot and, today, we are wondering how this could have happened when you were just getting started. You broke a 55-year ceiling and were deployed to Operation Gama Aiki in Minna, Niger State, where you served for some time.
On December 13, 1995, joy filled the home of Engr and Mrs Akintunde Arotile, natives of Iffe, Ijumu Local Council of Kogi State. Today, all they can do is rue your presence and how much joy you brought them in your 24 years on earth.

You went on to attend the Air Force Primary School, Kaduna from 2000 to 2005 and Air Force Secondary School, Kaduna from 2006 to 2011, before gaining a place into the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, as a member of 64 Regular Course on the 22nd September 2012.
Here, you began to make your mark in a profession once considered to be the sole prerogative of men. Five years later, on September 16, 2017, you were commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force as a Pilot Officer, with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the NDA. We celebrated you; so did the leadership of the nation, the Air Force, the media and, most of all, your parents.

Thanks to your performance at the 401 Flying Training School Kaduna, you were selected to continue training at the Starlite International Training Academy, South Africa. True to type, you clocked 460 hours of flying hours with a helicopter, within 14 months and, on October 15, 2019, you earned your stripes, decorated by the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Mrs. (Dame) Pauline Tallen and Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar.
Again, we celebrated and hailed you. Girls admired your courage and many fancied a career in the military, thanks to you.

You undertook tactical flying training on the Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter in Italy and, thereafter, introduced it to the the President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, during the induction ceremony of the helicopter at the Eagle Square, Abuja, on February 6, 2020.
You hailed your passion and the carriage of military officers as your inspiration for taking such admirable, enviable leaps. Truly, you were exceptional. You held the flag, fought the fight, won the battles and kept the faith.

We will tell our daughters about you and your uncommon courage. Our sons will be inspired to have daughters whose flight will not be inhibited by the wind of gender, environment or inequality.
Your light has gone out too early and your watch is ended but your legacy – a young one at that – will inspire many and your story will be told years from now. We will miss your light, your sun and all you have helped our nation to become, because you have lived. See you at dawn.
Adieu, Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot.
Pembi, a public affairs commentator, writes from Abuja.

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