While the motive for joining the military by some is to wriggle out of the burden of unemployment, for Tolulope Arotile, it was simply a passion she had fanned from childhood.
All that Tolulope Oluwatoyin Sarah Arotile dreamt of was to join the military and fly an aircraft.
“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 Punch newspaper interview.
Since that day she did not look back.
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.
She 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.
At her decoration last October, flanked by the chief of air staff, Sadique Abubakar, an air marshal, and the women affairs minister, Pauline Tallen, she marched to receive her “wing” with such immaculate finesse that mirrored her passion for the job.
“I joined the military simply out of passion for it. Being a military personnel has been a long term ambition for me,” she said in an interview shared by the Nigerian Air Force.
“The carriage and what they stand for is simply exceptional,” she added.
Not that she had no other qualifications to chase other job opportunities as she had a degree in mathematics. But for her, being in the military was all she craved.
Her profile was well scripted 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.”
‘Short but impactful service’
An official release by the Nigerian Air Force says as of October 2019, Tolulope had acquired 460 hours (about 19 days) of flight within 14 months in flying a helicopter.
Those hours of flying were partly spent as a squadron pilot in Operation Gama Aiki in Minna, Niger State, and across the North-central, where she flew her quota of the anti-banditry bombardments to rid the area of terror.
The native of Iffe area of Ijumu LGA of Kogi State and fourth child of her family attended the Air Force Primary (2000—2005) and Secondary Schools (2006—2011), Kaduna.
In September 2012, she was admitted into the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, as a member of the 64 regular course, where she finished from in 2017, bagged a degree in mathematics, and was commissioned as a pilot officer.
She was winged as the first ever female combat helicopter pilot in the Nigerian Air Force two years later, having completed pilot training courses at the Starlite International Training Academy, South Africa.
“While one of the two pilots is the first female fighter pilot in the 55 years history of the NAF, the second one is the first female combat helicopter pilot,” air chief Sadique Abubakar said at the October event.
“The second (Tolulope Arotile) graduated from Starlite International Training Academy. They both performed excellently well during their training.”
She would later become Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot to be so winged. The only other woman after her to reach that feat is Chinelo Nwokoye, who was winged May this year.
Ms Arotile held a commercial pilots’ licence and had also undergone tactical flying training on the Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter in Italy.
In February, during an induction in Abuja, she introduced Nigeria’s newly acquired Agusta 109 Power Attack Helicopter to President Buhari.
February 2020: Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot, taking the C-in-C on a tour of new combat helicopters acquired by the Nigerian Air Force @NigAirForce. pic.twitter.com/kpdv0QWCEg
— tolu ogunlesi (@toluogunlesi) May 6, 2020
How she died
Aged 24, the highflying start to the flying officer’s young career was halted July 14, 2020, a Tuesday, when, according to the NAF, she was “inadvertently hit by the reversing vehicle of an excited former Air Force secondary school classmate while trying to greet her” in Kaduna.
Returning from an operation on bandits in Katsina and on a week break, her father, a retired engineer with Transmission Company of Nigeria, recalled speaking with her at about 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
“Just yesterday (Tuesday), at about 1 p.m., I called her. She said she would later go out to make some photocopies and I told her not to stay long and to return home on time,” Mr Arotile told Punch.
“Around 5.30 p.m., somebody called me and asked if I had called her and I said yes. Then the person told me to call her which I did, but there no response.
“So, I called her colleagues. They were all crying on the phone. I asked what happened, but they were just crying. I called one of her bosses who told me she was in the mortuary. I said ha! Somebody I spoke with four hours ago and by 5 p.m. she was in the mortuary.”
Mr Arotile said it would be an understatement to say he is not devastated by the loss of his daughter, but he added he is a proud father.
“I just thank God that she was able to achieve her dreams as a baby before her death,” he said.
His late daughter’s commitment, diligence, intelligence and can-do spirit have also launched her into the consciousness of many Nigerians with condolences pouring in.
“Her memory will be indelible, and her efforts remembered,” President Muhammadu Buhari also said in his condolence message.