By Don WagnerSeptember 27, 2017
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. -- After going to an airshow in El Paso, Texas, at age 8, Sophia Matias knew that she wanted to be a pilot. Then in middle school, after reading a book about Army helicopters, "I was stuck on them," she said.
Today, 1st Lt. Matias is an Illinois National Guard officer who flies UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. She is also the only Hispanic-American pilot in the Illinois National Guard.
Matias said an average day of flying for the Army includes training and supporting missions such as air assaults, troop movements, sling load operations and static displays.
"The highlights for me are helping people and to always learn," Matias said. "I like improving and learning from the experience of others. It's rewarding to accomplish a flight successfully and support Soldiers in their training."
Matias, 27, is now commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, a unit that includes battalion staff and specialties that include flight operations for the Guard in Peoria, Illinois. She is in charge of planning battalion-level operations. What she loves most, however, is flying the Black Hawk.
Matias is also a part-time commercial pilot for a Chicago-based company that provides recreational helicopter flights. As part of that job, she conducts tour and photo flights in and around Chicago.
Flying commercially has stretched her even more as a pilot, Matias said. She describes a normal day as taking people up, often on their first helicopter ride ever, over Chicago. Her favorite aspect of flying commercially is meeting new people.
"I also like people's reactions to me when I tell them that I started flying in high school and that I'm a Black Hawk pilot too," she said. "When I have a chance to talk to girls about being a pilot, it makes my day."
The only obstacles that she has faced while in the Army are those she put in front of herself, she said. In the past, she said she has struggled with lack of confidence and the fear of failure, explaining that's partly because in aviation, there is so little room for failure.
"I've really had to face down those fears and decide I want to be a confident, capable leader and pilot," Matias said. "One of the reasons for me pursuing Army aviation, despite my fears, was precisely to defeat those fears. I've never wanted to live held down by fear."
Matias said her background has shaped her identity.
"My mother is a white American, a mix of English, Irish, and Swiss, and my dad is Puerto Rican," she said. "In addition to being one of the minority of females in Army aviation and civilian helicopter aviation, my background and identity, which has played a defining role in who I am, makes me part of an even smaller minority of Latina helicopter pilots."
In 2006, while in high school, Matias was a part of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps class at Union High School, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, due to her interest in the Army and Army aviation.
One of her teachers in the JROTC program was a retired aviation officer who flew helicopters and another was a retired Army helicopter mechanic. The two became her mentors and lifelong friends and encouraged her to pursue her dreams to fly.
In 2006, Matias completed a program with Western Michigan University called the "Flying for Learning and Inspiration Program," a camp where students take field trips to airports and aviation-related companies to learn about the aviation field. Instructors with the program told her of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals Solo Flight Academy. She won a scholarship to attend the two-week camp. While there, she got the chance to solo a single-engine airplane at age 17. After that experience, she said, she became certain that she wanted to be a pilot in the Army.
After graduating from high school in 2008, she applied for and won a four-year Army ROTC scholarship to Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois. In 2012, she graduated with a bachelor's in sociology and was accepted into the Illinois Army National Guard as an aviation officer.
After graduation, she moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama, and completed the Army Aviation Basic Officer Leader's Course, and flight school at the Army Aviation Center of Excellence. Upon graduation, she became a certified UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and earned an FAA rotary-wing commercial instrument license.
Matias has made it a priority to share her experience and encourage young people who are interested in aviation to pursue their goals. She has visited her former high school's JROTC program several times to talk with students about her aviation experience.
"I try to emphasize perseverance because what they're doing now and how they're doing in school will affect their future opportunities," Matias said. "I love to encourage students to keep going regardless of what their dreams are. It's so humbling to go back to the same school and JROTC program that encouraged me when I told them I wanted to fly."
Last summer, Matias was the keynote speaker for Girls in Aviation Day, a day camp held every summer at Lewis University for middle- and high school-aged girls that are interested in aviation.
For two years, Matias has also provided tours of Chicago's Army Aviation Support Facility for the middle and high school students involved with the Organization for Black Aerospace Professionals, the same organization that helped her learn to fly just 10 years ago.
Matias sees the need and value to have people of diverse background be exposed to the aviation profession.
"I've had moms bring their daughters up to talk to me and it's often the first female pilot they've met and talked to," Matias said. "Those encounters could be something they remember, so I feel very privileged to be considered a role model. If even one is inspired to go after their dream, it's worth it. Being a Puerto Rican also opens even more doors to relate to the people I meet."
"For females wanting to be in the Army, I'd say go for it," Matias said. "There will definitely be times you'll be aware that you're a female in a male-dominated field, but know that there are many women doing it past and present that have succeeded and you can too. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes, move on, and celebrate successes no matter how small.
"Reach out to people to be your mentors and read about woman pilots from the past who accomplished amazing things."