KANKAKEE, IL – “Once I saw this helicopter I thought ‘that’s the one’. It was kind of love at first sight.”

That’s how Oak Park native second lieutenant Gabrielle Cole described the moment she saw a Black Hawk helicopter and decided she wanted to become a pilot in the Illinois National Guard.

Cole already had a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Princeton University and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. But, after she returned home and worked at a company, she realized that wasn’t enough and she needed more in her life.

“I happen to have always been the type of person interested in the military, but I didn’t necessarily want to be full time active duty. And someone suggested to me to join the National Guard.” she said.

Cole recently celebrated the milestone of graduating flight school at Fort Rucker and earning her Army aviation wings as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot. The Illinois Army National Guard has a total of 66 Black Hawk qualified helicopter pilots. Cole is one of six women helicopter pilots with five flying the UH-60 Black Hawk, and the sixth flying the UH-72 Lakota.

According to Cole, Flight school training can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. She said preliminary training includes learning how to be an officer in the military, auxiliary tasks, and Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.

Cole said pilots then learn the basics and fundamentals of aviation in a smaller aircraft as part of what’s called Common Core. She learned in a Dakota helicopter before advancing to the Black Hawk. “They take you out of the economy car that your parents gave you and they give you the Ferrari.” Cole joked. “You learn how to fly at night, you do what’s called terrain flying, which is kind of fast and low flying. You learn how to maneuver around terrain. You learn how to perform recon operations. You learn a whole host of things that are kind of unique to this helicopter. “

During terrain flights at Fort Rucker, Cole said she flew 50 to 100 feet above the tree line and was close enough to see the leaves. ” Typically, you’d be going maybe 100 knots which in MPH is a little over 100 miles per hour. I mean, I guess some people travel that going down the Dan Ryan but for the rest of us it’s pretty fast.”

Cole calls the Black Hawk the United States Army’s utility helicopter. “It’s really multifunctional. We can carry troops in the back, we can do insertions, we can pick up troops.” She said. “I’m part of the medivac unit here so we can pick up people who are wounded, soldiers who are wounded. We can also do disaster relief; we can airdrop supplies. This is kind of like the Swiss army knife of aircraft. We can go anywhere and do anything, and we can do it pretty well. “

Cole said teamwork and crew coordination can make or break a mission. She often draws on her experience as an athlete at Princeton and believes both have comparable dedication, intensity and focus levels for executing tasks. Cole was on the rowing team which won several Ivy League Championships, won the Head of the Charles Regatta, and placed in the top three in the NCAA tournament.

She believes pilots not only get a rush of adrenaline from the maneuverability of the Black Hawk, but also from the sense of responsibility they may feel. “It’s pretty agile. You can do some things in this aircraft that will terrify you.”  

Cole now plans to learn more about the aircraft and become more proficient with how it works and moves.

Whether you want to go into aviation or not, Cole encourages people to follow that spark once they see it. “Not everything sparks something within everybody, but I think you know it when you see it.” she said, “I think a lot of times people follow money or follow popularity or follow whatever TikTok is saying, and those are all great things, but I think that a really meaningful life is kind of spent finding that spark for you and having the will to just go after that and the confidence to go after that. “