Today Thursday 23rd July, 2020, the remains of Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile were laid to rest at the military cemetery on Airport Road, Abuja. The Nigerian Air Force announced on Tuesday 14th July, 2020, that Flying Officer Tolulope died from a road traffic accident at the Nigerian Air Force base in Kaduna State.
Flying Officer Arotile was commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force as a Pilot Officer on 16 September 2017 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the Nigerian Defence Academy. According to Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, Director of Public Relations and Information, Nigerian Air Force, ‘Flying Officer Arotile was winged as the first ever female combat helicopter pilot in the Nigerian Air Force on 15 October 2019, after completing her flying training in South Africa. She holds a commercial pilot license and also underwent tactical flying training on the Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter in Italy.’
On February 6th, 2020, Tolulope ‘introduced the newly acquired Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter to the President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, during the induction ceremony at Eagle Square in Abuja.’ It is on record that before Tolulope’s change of address on Tuesday July 14th, 2020, she ‘made significant and outstanding contributions to the war against terrorism, armed banditry and other forms of criminality in the Country, flying several combat missions.’ Tolulope was accorded full military honours as the hierarchy of the Nigerian Military led by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Gabriel Olonisakin and the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Abubakar Sadique paid tributes.
Tolulope’s passion was to be a part of the military aviation exploits around the world following the examples of Wilbur and Orville Wright, two American aviation pioneers that took flight on Dec. 17, 1903. Women did no gained full access to military and commercial cockpits until 1908. The first group of young women pilots became pioneers, heroines and role models as members of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in 1943. They were not considered military pilots until 1977 when American Congress declared that they were indeed veterans of World War II, hence WASPs were ‘the first women trained to fly American military aircraft, they paved the way for today’s Air Force women, who now comprise 19 percent of the force and work in 99 percent of all Air Force career fields … Women began entering Air Force pilot training in 1976 and fighter pilot training in 1993. So it took more than 30 years to get women back into the cockpit after World War II and another 17 years for them to fly combat missions.’
In the Nigerian context, it was in 2011 when the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan ‘introduced females into the Nigeria Defence Academy to train as combatants, for the first time, it was to give equal opportunities to all men and women of the armed forces and encourage highly driven female officers.’ Six years later, Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile became the Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot when he was commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force as a Pilot Officer on 16 September 2017. Tolulope, a pioneer in her military chosen career in Nigeria like the American Army’s first female military helicopter pilot, Colonel Sally D Woolfolk Murphy, laid a good foundation worthy of celebration. Sally Woolfolk received her wings to fly UK-1 Huey helicopters on June 4, 1974 after she graduated from flight school at Fort McClellan, Alabama. Like Sally.
Tolulope excelled in her military chosen career, irrespective of her gender and this position her as a model for the Nigerian youths. I belief Tolu read about Sally who entered the Army in January 1973, a month after receiving a master’s degree in history from Kansas State College of Pittsburg, Kan. She attended an 11-week orientation course for women officers at Fort McClellan, Alabama and then went to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., for the Military Intelligence Officer Basic Course. Meanwhile, the Army opened its flight training program to women. She applied and was accepted.’
Tolu excelled like Joanna Mary Salter, the Britain’s first female fast jet pilot flying the Panavia Tornado ground attack with 617 Squadron. Just as Joanna went on to train as a pilot at a young age after the British government announced that women would be allowed to fly Jet aircraft in 1992 and later became Britain’s first RAF female flight instructor, Tolulope at a young age
joined the Nigerian ‘military simply out of passion for it.’ For Tolulope, ‘being a military personnel has been a long time ambition, the carriage and what it stands for are simply exceptional.’ Tolulope, a military heroine made positive impact through her military actions. She dedicated her time, energy and enthusiasm to promote peace in Nigeria and inspires people around her.
Sir Folorunso Ogunjuyigbe, a former Methodist Lay President, Diocese of Ilesa, described the death of Tolulope as a rude shock. According to Barrister Ogunjuyigbe who lived in Kaduna for many years, ‘Tolu was a good girl in the Sunday School at the Wesley Methodist Cathedral, Kaduna. It was a sad news to all of us who knew her birth, her academic developments and her brilliant performance both at the Nigerian Defence Academy and Air Force Training School in South Africa.’
The words of Mary Frye invites us not to stand at Tolulope’s grave and weep. Tolulope lived an exemplary life and a model for her generation and generation yet unborn. Tolulope’s soul is free but she did not die because her legacy and exemplary example lives us. Tolulope never say goodbye because her heart is with us. To the living, Tolulope is gone. To the sorrowful, Tolulope will never return. To the angry, especially through the way he was killed, Tolulope was cheated. To the happy, Tolulope is at peace resting in the bosom of her Saviour, Jesus Christ. To the faithful, Tolulope have never left. She lives on. Because Tolulope lives on, her abiding heart with us and her impactful legacy summons Nigeria youths to arise and bring the best within us for the development of our nation.
Please remember Tolulope’s parents, siblings, families and the Nigerian Air Force in prayer.