Gabrielle L. Cole, of Chicago, Princeton University athlete and alum, now a second lieutenant with the Illinois National Guard, celebrated the milestone of graduating flight school at Fort Rucker as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum March 24, 2022.
Cole earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Princeton University, and went on to earn her master’s degree from the University of Chicago.
She initially returned home after college and worked at a company, but that wasn’t enough for her.
“I thought to myself, I’m a little bored. Maybe there’s something more,” she said.
At that point it seemed like a good fit to join the U.S. Army National Guard, so she signed up, completed basic training and then went on to become a Black Hawk repairer. Back at her unit, she decided to drop her packet for flight school.
“I mean, who wouldn’t want to fly that?” she said, pointing to a Black Hawk helicopter at Fort Rucker. “It really stuns me that people would chose anything else.”
“It’s just an incredible aircraft--the maneuverability, the functionality, the mission set, is just incredible. There aren’t many places in the world where you can fly an aircraft like that and where you can do the things you can do in the Army,” she said.
The Army appealed to her because she felt that as such a large branch it was the most representative of the nation.
“You’re going to find every type of person in the Army, and I have and it’s been incredible. The number of opportunities you have in the Army far outweigh any other branch I think,” she said.
She believed aviation would be challenging—and it has been.
“Definitely the academic portion came easier than the actual flying portion. The flying portion is more of a hand-eye coordination skill, I think, more of a physical body feel than, like, studying or getting into books, which is my happy place or my forte,” she said.
She compared being part of an aviation crew with her days as an athlete at Princeton.
Her rowing team won multiple Ivy League Championships, placed in the top three in the NCAA tournament, won the Head of the Charles Regatta, and were invited to Henley Royal Regatta in England. She also won an Under 23 Rowing World Championship in the women’s eight.
“Rowing is a pretty high-intensity sport,” she said. “The level of fitness you need as well as the amount of coordination with a crew. Within that boat you have eight people plus a coxswain and you have to be perfectly synched up with those other seven people. Just fractions of a second off can completely, like, topsy-turvy the boat. It can cause drag.”
“So it’s a finely tuned sport as far as teamwork, the dedication, the fitness level, the intensity level, the focus level required to kind of execute effectively. Similarly here. You’d think flying is an individual thing but it’s not at all,” she said.
Cole said crew coordination can make or break a mission.
“To be yourself competent, to work fluidly and seamlessly as a team, that type of synergy that you get, you know, the sum being greater than its parts, and kind of fitting everything together that way, I definitely think that the experiences kind of mirror each other,” she said. “The focus you need, the teamwork you need in that environment is definitely something that has helped me out here.”
Having now earned her wings, she looks forward to returning to her medevac unit back in her home state and contributing to the team as a Black Hawk pilot.
For anyone who may be thinking about becoming an aviator in the future, her advice is not to say they will put it off until later, because to her later means never.
“Do it, and don’t delay,” she said.
“The beautiful thing about the Army, I think, is like, they have a path, they have a system that can get you from Point A to Point B. You just need to decide what your Point B is, and they can get you there.”
“I would definitely encourage them to come and be part of this community. It’s an incredible community filled with incredible people, with an incredible mission set. I’ve got to do things here that I would have never done in my life, so I feel so fortunate,” she said. “It’s one of the best teams and one of the most diverse and talented teams I’ve ever been a part of.”
“So I would say, come on. The water’s warm.”