Former F/A-18C Hornet pilot and Principal Correspondent for the Fox News Channel, Lea Gabrielle, sits down with FighterSweep for 6 questions.
FighterSweep had the privilege of sitting down with Fox News Principal Correspondent Lea Gabrielle to discuss what else–Fighter Jets!–and, of course, a whole host of other things. FS readers will enjoy her perspectives on reporting about national security, women in fighter aviation, and what it’s like being a pilot. We also got her to give us an “I was there” story–and it involves a night trap on the boat. Yikes!
A US Naval Academy graduate from the class of 1997, Lea served as an F/A-18C Hornet pilot with the VFA-83 Rampagers assigned to CVW-7. She deployed on USS George Washington (CVN-73) and flew missions over Iraq and Afghanistan for Operations Southern Watch and Enduring Freedom. She also spent time embedded with SEAL teams as an intelligence officer. Needless to say, we had to talk with her.
These days you can see her regularly on the Fox News Channel as Principle Correspondent for Shepard Smith Reporting.
FS: Many folks may not know that you flew F/A-18 Hornets off of aircraft carriers before you were Principle Correspondent for Shepard Smith Reporting on the Fox News Channel. So what’s it like reporting on military action instead of being directly involved?
Lea: From my experience both as a fighter/attack pilot in the air, and later on the ground directly supporting Navy SEALs, I know how important it is that those who wear combat boots have their voices heard and their perspectives understood in news reporting.
As a correspondent, I am not there to achieve an objective like in the military, I’m there to be objective: to observe and report honestly. Mistakes are not as catastrophic in a life-or-death sense, but they are when it comes to my reputation as a journalist. It is a very different environment, but nonetheless a truly demanding and personally rewarding experience.
I was always an operator in the military, so when I’m reporting on our young men and women going into harm’s way, I naturally want to be there with them. I can no longer do that, but I am so grateful for the young patriots who are willing to do our nation’s bidding to keep us safe here at home. It’s an honor to be able to report on the work they do to protect us.
My goal as I report on military topics is always to honor them ….by getting it right. Our American democracy was built on the expectation of an educated citizen and voter, and I believe that’s my greatest responsibility as a journalist. I have to gather the most accurate information and pick out the most important details to keep the public informed.
FS: Now that you are no longer strapped into a F/A-18 Hornet on a regular basis, what do you miss most about flying fighters? Do you still do some general aviation flying on the side?
Lea: There is nothing in the world like walking up to an F/A-18 Hornet with your name on the side, climbing up, strapping yourself in, lighting the afterburners, and launching solo into the sky in one of the most powerful jets on earth. There’s nothing like being trusted by our country with one of their most important pieces of military equipment, carrying weapons that can change the calculus of the world in an instant. There’s nothing like the camaraderie of training with friends for years, then meeting them side-by-side in your jets over places like Afghanistan, or being there to protect other brothers and sisters on the ground, and to make a difference in an uncertain world. You ask what I miss most?
The truth is, I miss it all.
Flying F/A-18’s was an honor and a privilege and I will always be grateful that I am one of the few who have had the opportunity to strap on that powerful jet and fly with the full force of American “hard power” at my fingertips. But flying fighters has to end someday for all of us.
My friends and wingmen will always be with me, but what I miss the most is those for whom it ended far too early, my brothers who took off in their jets and whose souls never landed: LT Nathan “OJ” White (USN), LCDR Trey “Plumbr” Clukey (USN), LCDR David “Cashman” Casher (USN), Capt. Frank “Puj” Hooks (USMC), LCDR Kevin “Kojak” Davis”, and too many others.
To answer your second question, I am thankful to the Navy for the gift of becoming a pilot. It’s a gift I hope to enjoy as long as I can in this life. I maintain my instrument and commercial ratings, and I own a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
My plane is very basic, but I truly enjoy the blessing of flying it. It is a heck of a lot slower than an F/A-18 but tricky in its own ways. For example, I still fly in instrument conditions, and I don’t have any of the high tech avionics that makes it so easy these days.
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Although I don’t have as much time as I’d like to fly, it is pretty exciting having the autonomy of being able to go where I want, when I want, without needing government approval! It’s a great freedom, and that’s why I called my cross country from San Diego to New York my “Freedom Tour” which I shared as a story on Fox News.
I also cover aviation quite frequently for the Fox News Channel. I’ve even flown outside an airplane when I jumped with the US Army’s Golden Knights and their World Champion female parachute team. The Breitling jet demonstration team also has a special place my heart, since they’ve taken me up so I could fly formation with their team, and David Martin, Breitling’s World Champion aerobatic pilot took me up in his plane and let me tear up the sky. You can find those stories on FOXNews.com.
FS: In the history of fighter aviation, there have not been many women fighter pilots. However, that’s starting to change as more and more women are joining the ranks. What’s the best advice you ever received that would benefit young girls who want to fly fighters?
Lea: You are right, it’s been a male-dominated business as has most of the military. There are, even today, very few female role models in combat arms in the military.
But things are changing. I was privileged to be one of the first 15 women selected by the Navy to fly the F/A-18, but there are probably 75 or so in fighter squadrons today. Women are making their mark across the board. And we are finding that just like men some are okay, and some are very very good at what they do.
Today’s aircraft are great equalizers and the enemy’s weapons are gender-blind. The fighter pilot community is actually one of the few “tip of the spear” places in the military where men and women can compete on a truly equal basis.
I would tell any young woman to set goals, relentlessly pursue them, and don’t listen to anyone who tries to discourage you. Learning to fly jets requires about three years of hard work and study and it doesn’t stop there. Flying today’s weapon systems are a continuous learning process.
You’ll meet some jerks who will try to make you feel like you are not part of the team, so grow a really thick skin. If you fall down, get up and try harder, but never forget to enjoy the trip along the way. You only get one turn on this merry-go-round we call life. That’s a summary of advice that’s helped me, and what I’d like to share from my own experience.
But here’s my bottom line to women who want to fly fighters: Forget you’re a girl – the jet doesn’t know the difference.
FS: You regularly cover military topics for Fox News. What are some of the hot button military topics you see shaping the news cycle these days?
Lea: Of course everyone is concerned about ISIS, our post-withdrawal losses in Iraq, and the humanitarian and military disaster in Syria. But I think we need to be very concerned about how the world is becoming more and more bipolar in terms of the East and the West.
We see Russia, China, and Iran working together more and more. We see Russia grabbing land, China grabbing international waters, and Iran grabbing influence all over the Middle East. North Korea is testing nuclear weapon technology, unfettered. We’re seeing an East and a West with much stronger and separate centers of gravity.
And in the meantime, our defense strength is diminishing because of the effects of sequestration. We have been focused on non-state actors, terrorist organizations. They are critical, but we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture in this more and more bipolar world.
FS: Our readers love “There I was” stories from aviators. Can you give us one of your best “There I was” fighter stories?
Lea: I was a “nugget” in the first half of my first deployment as an F/A-18 pilot. As I was checking in with the ship and given an altitude to hold while waiting my turn to come in and land, I noticed my right engine felt very “rough.”
There’s not much you can do in “bluewater” operations at the ship at night, the aircraft carrier – known as “mother” – is the only place to land. So I mentally noted it, and did everything else I needed to prepare to land. I was coming in on an ACLS approach and as I recall around 800 feet when the entire jet shook with a huge “bang,” and the whole canopy lit up the color of fire. Then for what was probably less than a second but seemed like more, everything went black.
I felt like I was sinking.
If you lose both engines in an F/A-18 with your gear and flaps down that low, you don’t have much time to get out of it, so I had to think fast. I went full power on both engines. More explosive bangs, the canopy lighting up with them. That turned out to be reflection from my right engine, which was explosively stalling.
As I focused in, I could see and hear every bell and whistle going off in the cockpit letting me know I had a right engine fire, right engine failure, and the right engine was stalling. Learning your right side from your left is one of the most basic things you learn as a kid, but I’ll never forget thinking “you better be right” as I shut down my right engine, and started climbing out with my left in full power.
The rest was a matter of going through emergency procedures, waiting for all the other aircraft to land on the carrier, and focusing on every bit of training I had ever had. I was about to come in for a single engine landing at the ship at night – one of the least desired emergencies to ever have to deal with. Having only one engine means your response time has to be twice as fast in those 15 seconds from when you “call the ball,” to when you “trap” aboard the carrier.
I can thank my great instructors for working with me on single engine carrier landings in the simulator, and my own intuition for practicing this type of emergency almost religiously before deploying, because I got aboard on my first try. What we call the “pucker” factor only set in after I was already sitting in my parking spot. Training, God, and my own hard–earned competence kept me strong and steady when it mattered. The LSO’s scored my landing with the best grade you can get in an emergency – the coveted “OK”. (Editor’s note: Said as “okay underline” the”OK” is extremely rare and considered the perfect pass)
FS: You are probably the only person to personally interview President Barack Obama one-on-one AND land a fighter jet on a pitching aircraft carrier at night. So we’ve got to ask: What makes you more nervous…. a night trap or interviewing the leader of the Free World?
Lea: I’ll say they are both “exciting” in their own way. There is nothing like a night trap on a carrier. I shared my story about having to do it in an emergency, but every landing is its own unique challenge.
The plane is moving in three dimensions, the ship is moving in three dimensions, it is pitch black, and you only have the “ball” to guide the way. Effectively, you have to thread your helmet though about a three-foot by three-foot window at around 150 miles an hour. A little too high, you miss the wire with a bolter and have to do it all over again…and the mind game becomes exponentially more difficult. A little too low, you either wave off early enough, or hit the ramp and die.
It is a high-risk game and can really get the heart pumping. But the Navy prepares you for this. You practice and practice and practice, in the simulators, on practice landing fields, in slower and cheaper airplanes, and then you practice again and again and again. And you practice everything that could go wrong. Now when it comes to interviewing the most powerful man on earth, there is no practice – you have to get it right on the first go.
I will say this: When the President walked into the Roosevelt Room of the White House, and I stepped forward to shake the hand of our Commander-in-Chief, I had a little swagger in my step knowing between the two of us, only one had ever landed a jet on an aircraft carrier at night.
Many thanks to Lea for her time and effort in helping put this great interview together.
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