WASHINGTON — Army 2nd Lt. Gabrielle Cole has always been dedicated. She rowed crew for Princeton University, winning several Ivy League championships before graduating with a bachelor's degree in engineering in 2013.
She then got two master's degrees — one in physics from the University of Chicago and one in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, Chicago — before landing a job as a systems engineer with defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. in early 2015.
But after a few months, her daily routine became a little too routine, and she felt she needed a new challenge. So, she joined the Illinois National Guard with the plan of eventually becoming a pilot. This past March, after 15 months of flight school, that dream came true. Since then, she's been on a leave of absence from Northrop getting up to speed with her Guard unit.
Army 2nd Lt. Gabrielle Cole
Job Title: Black Hawk pilot
Hometown: Oak Park, Illinois
Stationed: Kankakee, Illinois
Unit: Illinois National Guard
So what made her join the Guard, and what has the process of becoming a pilot been like? Cole filled us in.
What made you choose the National Guard for your next adventure?
"I knew that I always wanted to join the military, but I didn't know that I wanted to leave the life that I had built already behind. The National Guard seemed like a perfect way to keep my present life while really giving me an opportunity to do something a bit unusual."
How did you get the itch to go to flight school?
"I definitely came in wanting to be a pilot. I initially signed up as a Black Hawk repairer, just to get an idea of what that would be like. At that point, I had only really seen Black Hawks on TV. So, I went away to boot camp, went to [Advanced Individual Training] and came back to my unit. I was out on the floor working on a Black Hawk, and one of the captains there asked me what I was doing. We started talking, and she was a pilot, and I was like, 'Oh, that's really where I want to be at some point.' So, she was kind of instrumental in taking me under her wing and shuttling me through the process, which took some doing."
What was the hardest part of flight school for you?
Cole explained that the main helicopter flight controls are the cyclic, a control stick, and the collective, a lever. She said using them is kind of like playing a video game — something she was not really into — and the fine motor skills needed were the toughest part for her to get used to.
"When I got [to flight school], a lot of it was being able to correlate those fine motor skills in your right hand with the cyclic to get the feeling in your body of what the aircraft's doing. It was just a bit of a foreign concept because … I'm used to tasks that are more like, 'study this, memorize that.' And those are more discrete tasks. I think I definitely struggled with learning and continuing to refine that process."
Are there any skills that you honed from your collegiate athletics days that helped with flight training?
"I definitely think that there are elements of rowing that popped up. What comes to mind first is time management, particularly during Common Core [training, when you're] running a really tight schedule as far as being able to make it to the flightline, getting all your assignments done, making it to the classroom, and then trying to fit in a workout and some time for yourself. I think rowing and college definitely prepared me for those time management skills.
"And then of course, one of the beautiful things about sports in general is that it really is a unique way to learn teamwork. Aviation is definitely more of a team activity. None of the aircraft are single pilots. In order to fly a Black Hawk, you need to have two pilots and crew coordination between you and the other pilot. Then, in many cases, you're going to have two crew chiefs in the back, and it's mission-critical that that be seamless and that there be synergy there. Those community skills and those team-building skills definitely come up.
"And then I would say the last thing is confidence. Sports gives you a way to build your confidence, and I definitely think in aviation, confidence — not arrogance — is rewarded. For example, being able to speak up if you see something. There are a lot of pilots who have flown thousands of hours, but if you're sitting in the right [co-pilot] seat and you have sight on something that [the left-seated pilot in command] can't see, I think you have to have the confidence to say that and to step into that space."
You're finished with flight school, but not completely done with training, right?
"Now, we do what we call progression. Flight school is basically — think of it as a very extended primer. Then, when you get back to your unit, there are unit-specific tasks that they need you to be proficient at. For example, I'm a medevac, so hoist operations, evacuation operations, the medical equipment that we have in the back — those are things I need to get spun up on that are not taught to me coming out of Fort Rucker [flight school]. And then, of course, my unit has to validate that I can do the maneuvers that flight school should have taught me. So, that whole validation process and then learning those additional skills are what I'm doing now. Then, in August, I'll be returning to my office job."
What has been your best Guard experience so far?
"It's got to be my very first annual training. We went up to Fort McCoy. I just got back from advanced individual training. I was basically hanging out with my unit and getting to know those guys and gals, and they're just an extraordinary group of people. The beautiful thing about the National Guard is you have people who have their own really robust careers on the side. So, you're not just meeting people for whom this is their first full-time gig. They have a variety of other skillsets that they're bringing to the table. They have this wealth of knowledge that they bring from these different fields to this endeavor that we're doing together. It was just a great time and incredible people, and I think that's what really stands out."
Do you think what you're learning in the Guard could be incorporated into your day job?
"Northrop does a lot of things, but one of the things they do is provide anti-missile defense equipment for various aircraft across the broader military — and the Army, specifically. I wasn't involved in those projects prior to leaving, but I'm interested if there might be a way that I can contribute going forward upon my return. When I was going through flight school, some of the equipment I was using, like the heads-up display, had actually been designed and made by the company I work for. It's really awesome to be the pilot using this equipment and seeing how the customer experiences the product. A lot of times as an engineer, you don't really get that tactile feeling — that day-in, day-out, 'What is useful here?' — that practical experience. So, it's really given me an eye for design as far as what's going to work for the end user."
Do you have any advice for college grads considering joining the Guard?
"I would say talk to someone about it — but not a recruiter. Talk to someone who's actually in the Guard and talk to them about what they do on the weekends and at their annual training. Figure out what it is that resonates with you. At the end of the day, you don't really want to get seduced by a path that makes someone else happy but might not make you happy. Sometimes it's important to do a little bit of information gathering but also self-reflection about what you want out of life more broadly.
"And I always have two cardinal rules in life: do things that are fun, because that'll make you happy; and do things that are hard, because that'll give you satisfaction."
Speaking of, what do you like to do for fun?
"I play rugby. I picked that up after college. It's a great group of girls and guys. I do that, and I play recreational basketball. I'm trying to learn how to play the piano, but I've been less consistent with that hobby since COVID-19 started."