Lea Gabrielle didn’t always want to be-come a pilot. That changed during her freshman year at the U.S. Naval Academy—when she saw the Navy’s flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, perform.
“I decided that not only do I want to be a pilot, but I want to fly that airplane,” she said of the McDonnell Douglas F/A–18 Hornet. “That drove me through the academy.”
That determination kept her going during the Navy’s competitive pilot selection—a process of elimination, she said. Her first solo—in a Beech T–34C at Corpus Christie, Texas—stands out. Transitioning to the F/A–18, the second or third flight is solo. So is the first carrier landing. Few females had flown the Hornet when she transitioned. “There were a handful of women who had flown F–18s,” she said. “And two of them were my instructor pilots.”
During a night training mission at sea on a combat deployment, Gabrielle had an engine fail. “It’s an emergency you train for,” she said, explaining that slower acceleration and the “burble” created by the aircraft carrier’s island combine to make it challenging. “I’m proud to say I didn’t only make it, I nailed it.” All carrier landings are graded, and an underlined “OK” is the best grade you can get. “We go out and fly combat missions but sometimes the trickiest part is coming back and landing on the carrier, at night, after wearing [night vision goggles] for hours.”
Gabrielle flew combat during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002, and left the Navy in 2009 after spending some time supporting Navy Seals in Afghanistan in a nonflying role.
Later, as a local news reporter, she flew with the Blue Angels for a story. “It was painful to get in the back of the airplane and not have a chance to fly it,” because there were no controls in the rear cockpit, she said. “We tested my G tolerance and it was still up to snuff.”
She bought her Cessna in 2004, while still in the Navy but not flying. “So few people get to fly airplanes. What an amazing, incredible skill to have! I didn’t want to lose that skill,” Gabrielle said. “I wanted something that would match the time I had to stay proficient—that’s important. And, it’s affordable.”
When Gabrielle was hired as a Fox News correspondent in New York City, she filed stories about her trip across the country, flying the Skyhawk from San Diego. “It was really exhilarating to go slow, and drop into little towns that I couldn’t drop into in an F–18.” She draws from her background—aviation and the military—to enhance the resulting coverage.
A frequent destination from her New Jersey base is Hatteras, North Carolina, where she goes kite surfing. “The challenges are different [from an F–18], but the view is the same,” she said. “The world seems so small. In a little airplane, you just get to take it in.”
Who | Lea Gabrielle
Hours | 1,117
Ratings | Commercial pilot, multiengine, instrument ratings
Favorite aircraft | F/A-18C
Memorable moment | First carrier landing. “There’s just no way to describe it.”