‘It’s an exhilarating feeling, blazing your way across the surface of the Earth’

The American military does not publish such statistics, but it’s a good bet that Gabrielle Cole ’13 is the first Princeton philosophy-majoring, Under 23 World Rowing Championships-winning, Black Hawk-flying Black woman in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Cole earned her Army aviation wings in March 2022 after a grueling 15-month training camp that entailed psychological conditioning, survivalist skill-building, and an array of flying tests fit for a high-budget action film. By the time she walked across the stage at southern Alabama’s Fort Novosel, she knew the limits of a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter like an elite athlete knows the limits of her own body.

“As you’re plummeting in and out of the tree line, your hands might be moving an inch,” says Cole. “It’s an exhilarating feeling, blazing your way across the surface of the Earth. And there’s nothing like trying to sneak your way into nooks and crannies — places you could never go in a fixed-wing aircraft.”

To speak to Cole is to be struck by her seemingly total fearlessness in the face of new challenges. She had never rowed a boat before she arrived at Princeton, but after walking onto varsity crew as the team’s only Black woman, she contributed to three Ivy League titles and a second-place finish at NCAA Championships, and was recruited to the U.S. Under 23 National Team in the women’s eight. She focused on the humanities at Princeton, but soon after graduating she decided to complete a master’s in physics at the University of Chicago, and then another master’s in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She had been interested in military service since her Princeton days, and in 2018, while working as an engineer for Northrup Grumman, she decided to fly helicopters for the Army.

“People are always telling you stories about how they want to do something but have never gotten around to it,” says Cole. “I didn’t want that to be something I heard myself say. I thought, ‘Why don’t I take this leap here?’ So I went for it.”

As a member of the Illinois National Guard, Cole now commands a medevac unit, a position that involves training medical officers. She particularly enjoys the teamwork involved in her military work — a streamlined coordination that reminds her of her Princeton crew days.

“One of the best things about crew was getting to the point where you are collectively having this feeling together, you’re all in rhythm,” says Cole. “And if you have a whole flight and ground crew operating in synergistic collaboration — everyone knowing their role and being able to slot in — there’s something kind of fluid about the whole process. It’s an incredible feeling.”

But her deepest joy has come from outreach. This spring, she took part in a Women in Aviation program that exposed young women in Illinois to the possibility of flying. While the number of women — and especially Black women — in aviation remains small, Cole hopes that stories like hers will open new horizons.

“Flying helicopters wasn’t on my radar growing up,” says Cole. “Neither was being an engineer. That wasn’t anyone else’s fault. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen that there are more stories out there, and there are more women in these spaces. You see someone else doing it, and that sparks something in you, and you think: ‘Man, wouldn’t that be cool?’”