A Flying Career Cut Short

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Tolulope Arotile

By Ferdinand Ekechukwu

Adeath so painful. This is perhaps, how best to describe the passing of Flying Officer Tolulope Oluwatoyin Arotile, Nigeria’s first ever female combat helicopter pilot. Arotile did not die in an aerial operation as many would ordinarily have expected. She was killed in a freak accident at the Nigerian Air Force Base in Kaduna state. The 24-year-old was hit by a car driven by an unnamed ex-classmate who had excitedly wanted to greet her. Arotile fell and hit her head on the tarmac.

“Flying Officer Arotile died on July 14, 2020 at the age of 24, when she was inadvertently hit by the reversing vehicle of an excited former Air Force Secondary School classmate while trying to greet her,” NAF Director of Public Relations and Information Air Com. Ibikunle Daramola revealed in a statement in Abuja on Wednesday. Arotile lived and died for the sky when her life and career were just starting.

Her resolve to join the military was simply a passion she had nurtured from childhood. “One day, when she was very small, she pointed to one small aircraft parked on a field and said, ‘Dad, one day I am going to fly that aircraft,’ and I said amen,” her father, Akintunde Arotile, recalled in a report.

In an earlier interview, Tolulope said: “I joined the military simply out of passion for it. Being a military personnel has been a long time ambition. The carriage and what it stands for are simply exceptional.”

Born in 1995, that childhood yearning would become a reality September 22, 2012, after she was admitted into the Nigerian Defence Academy and commissioned five years later. Arotile made history in October 2019, when she was winged as Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot in the Nigerian Air Force’s 55 years of existence. Then she was decorated by Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Sadique Abubakar.

At her winging ceremony alongside Kafayat Sanni, the first female fighter pilot, she marched to receive her “wing” with such immaculate strictness that mirrored her passion for the job. Her finesse was such that after she was winged at NAF headquarters Abuja, Abubakar noted: “They are not only female officers but outstanding aviators. While one of the two pilots is the first female fighter pilot in the 55 years of the NAF, the second one is the first female combatant helicopter pilot.”

They both performed excellently well during their training. Interestingly, she made a lot of Nigerians proud, particularly her parents, Engineer Akintunde and Mrs. Arotile, from Iffe, in Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State. Her profile was well pronounced in a tribute released by NAF, where she was described as a “very intelligent, disciplined, confident and courageous young officer who added value wherever she served.”

Arotile must have known no other world, except flying. Primary education at Air Force school, Secondary, too. Then, enlistment into the Air Force, commissioned an officer, and further training abroad to hone her skills. The native of Iffe area of Ijumu LGA of Kogi State and fourth child of her family attended Air Force Primary School from 2000 – 2005 and Air Force Secondary School 2006 – 2011, both in Kaduna.

She later gained admission into the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna as a member of 64 Regular Course on September 22, 2012. Arotile was commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force as a Pilot Officer on September 16, 2017 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the Nigerian Defence Academy. She was winged as the first ever female combat helicopter pilot in the Nigerian Air Force two years later, after completing her flying training programme at the Starlite International Training Academy in South Africa.

She held a commercial pilot license and also underwent tactical flying training on the Augusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter in Italy. Incidentally, she introduced the newly acquired Augusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter to President Muhammadu Buhari, during the presentation ceremony at Eagle Square in Abuja on February 6, 2020, explaining the features of the fighter helicopters at the Air Show held at the Eagle Square, Abuja.

Before her untimely death, she made significant and outstanding contributions to the war against terrorism, and banditry and other forms of criminality in the country, flying several combat missions.