Click photo to enlarge
Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, right, is photographed with a KC-135R aircrew in an undated photo taken at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. (Photo Courtesy of Graciela Tiscareno-Sato)

ALAMEDA -- Graciela Tiscareno-Sato saw the Air Force ROTC program as a means to an end, namely a college education. What she didn't expect was that she would take to flying like a falcon to a wide-open sky.

Undeterred when she was assigned to train as a navigator instead of a pilot, Tiscareno-Sato placed in the top 12 percent of her training class. When it came time to pick an assignment -- trainees were allowed to choose their own in order of their academic ranking -- she decided to combine her love for flight with another of her passions: challenging barriers.

"So I walked up and said, 'F-15,'" said Tiscareno-Sato, a UC Berkeley graduate and Hayward resident who was the featured speaker at Saturday's Fabulous Flying Females salute on the USS Hornet. "See, by merit, I can do that. By gender, I was restricted from (flying on) that (plane). So why did I do it? Because I wanted the Colonel to have to say, 'I'm sorry, Lt. Tiscareno ... '

"It was embarrassing for everybody. And that was the point. Everybody had to take a moment and think about what that meant. Do we have the best of the best? Not really. We have the best ones with certain organs. Now women don't get denied."

It would take the Air Force two years to ease those restrictions. By then, Tiscareno-Sato had helped challenge another barrier, albeit in under-the-radar fashion.

Assigned as a navigator on a refueling tanker, her first deployment was to Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. This was in 1992, when the Air Force had an exclusion that prohibited women from flying in combat aircraft.

"We were already doing it," she said. "We were patrolling the southern no-fly zone in Iraq. Saddam Hussein still had his entire air force. So we would fly one, two, three times a day to refuel our fighters who were doing the no-fly zone. But they would launch the MIGS and come after us, the gas station. So we got chased. It was very much combat operations."

When it came time to award air medals for combat operations, Tiscareno-Sato said, the Air Force balked when it learned female aviators were involved. "In the end, we got our air medals," she said. "It's the highest position on my uniform. I've very proud of it."

Tiscareno-Sato, now 46 and the mother of three, looks back on her Air Force career with pride and satisfaction. She applied some of the same skills with which she earned an environmental design and architecture degree to navigation.

"My husband calls the navigator the professional back-seat driver," she said. "Because it's the navigator who's the math brain, it's the navigator who sets mission timing, tells the pilots when to turn, how fast to fly. And when the whole mission gets thrown into complete chaos because there's some sort of hostile action, or another tanker breaks down, the replanning brain on the plane is the navigator."

She also served as instructor before separating from the Air Force after a decade. She has started her own publishing, speaking and marketing business and has written two books, "Good Night Captain Mama" (something her son used to tell her at bedtime) and "Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them."

Her new mission is helping people strive for goals they might have considered unattainable.

"That's why I go back into my community, into the Latino community," she said. "That's why I speak Spanish. That's why I go back and tell my story because these kids need to be exposed to these possibilities. That's what we do with all young people but especially the Latino community. It's very traditional. They need to know how I fell into (an Air Force career). And the unlikeliness of it, but it happened. And now they can do it. So that's really motivates me to do what I do."

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.