SAN ANTONIO – The only woman to operate a law enforcement helicopter in the entire Lone Star State will retire at the end of the year after serving 32 years with the San Antonio Police Department.
“The freedom of flying, yes, I’ll miss it,” Officer Kathy O’Connor said. “And I’ll miss the guys I work with.”
Finally becoming a pilot — and working with “the guys” — took years of tenacity.
Before flying, O’Connor worked as an SAPD patrol officer and was shot in the line of duty, earning honors for her brave police work. She then became a tactical flight officer, sitting next to the pilot in the chopper.
“Running the camera system, calling the chases, talking to the dispatchers while the pilot flies,” O’Connor said. “And I did that for about three and a half years and I finally said, ‘I want to do that other side.’”
But O’Connor was told it would never happen.
“I was told for those couple of years that I came in as a tactical flight officer, that this unit would never have a female pilot,” she said.
Each "no" she heard only bolstered her determination.
“I kept knocking on the door and applying every time they had a pilot's position open, and I said, ‘One of these days, you're going to let me in.’ And finally I got in,” O'Connor said.
O’Connor said flying the SAPD Eagle helicopter is the best job in the department. She calls it “searching for bad guys from the sky.”
“The day begins with everything from robberies in progress to foot chases of wanted people to looking for missing children who hadn't shown up from school to elderly people who have walked away from nursing homes,” she said.
Growing up in a housing project on the south side of Chicago, O’Connor’s yearn to fly began while watching planes go in and out of Midway International Airport. She joined the Army, in part, as a way to go to college. Her service brought her to Military City, U.S.A., where she stayed after leaving the Army.
O’Connor joined SAPD in 1986. It was in the 1990s when she began to see more women enter the ranks.
Besides landing the job as a pilot, O’Connor doesn’t feel like she has faced any challenges unique to being a woman in the male-dominated skies. So what’s it like to be the only woman in her position?
“It's great! The guys I work with are great. They’ve all accepted me very well,” she said. “It's a great working environment.”
Don’t expect her to brag. O’Connor knows what she has achieved is extraordinary, and others have taken notice, too. She earned a lifetime achievement award from Texas Women in Law Enforcement and won an Inspiring Women's Award from the Silver Stars, the city's former WNBA team.
As her three decades in law enforcement come to a close, O’Connor said she hopes to see even more women soar.
“If there's something you want to do in life, go do it,” she said. “Don’t take no for an answer, because if you really want to do it, you'll find the way to accomplish it.”
O’Connor has one more promotion coming her way before retirement: She’s about to become a grandmother.