CNN owned the coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 this past spring with its wall-to-wall commentary from experts like our own Contributing Editor Les Abend, a highly experienced Boeing 777 captain, and Editor-in-Chief Robert Goyer, but rival cable channel Fox News has a potent new weapon in its arsenal for covering aviation stories. And she’s a lot prettier than those guys, too.
With striking looks and on-air poise that seem tailor made for cable news, Lea Gabrielle, 39, was born to do this job. But when she suddenly begins discussing the specifics of laser-guided surface-to-air missile systems or tactical goals of airstrikes over Iraq, viewers get the sense that she really knows what she’s talking about.
Because she does.
A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Gabrielle served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a single-seat F/A-18 Hornet fighter pilot, providing close air support for ground troops while operating off the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. She also served with U.S. Special Operations as a human intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Her pilot callsign is “Flower,” but don’t let that fool you. This is one tough woman.
She’s also as patriotic as they come, making her a perfect fit for fair-and-balanced Fox News. After she took the job as an assignment reporter on Shepard Smith Reporting, she flew her Cessna 172 from San Diego to New York and documented the experience for a segment that she called her “Freedom Tour” across America. She says the welcoming attitude toward military vets makes Fox a great place to call home.
Making her epic trek earlier this summer with Fox News anchor and fellow pilot Jon Scott, the pair traversed 13 states in nearly 24 hours of flying to arrive in the New York area for a picture perfect nighttime touchdown at Gabrielle’s new home field, Caldwell Airport in New Jersey.
Flying at night into a 4,500-foot runway in a Cessna 172 is no sweat when your job used to be dropping an F/A-18 onto the deck of a carrier in total darkness. Once she had to do it after one of her engines exploded in mid-flight. All other fighters were ordered to land first in case she “fouled the deck” on her landing attempt — military jargon for a crash landing.
Gabrielle is learning fast to trade technical descriptions for more viewer-friendly commentary, but without dumbing things down. After leaving the Navy in 2009 she attended broadcasting school and landed a low-paying gig as an online reporter for NBC News. From there she went to San Diego to become the military reporter for the local NBC affiliate. That led to attention from the major cable news channels and an interview at Fox News.
Not long after starting the job she was pulled on air to provide live commentary as a light plane made a gear-up landing in San Antonio, Texas. She has been one of the network’s go to experts for aviation stories ever since, weighing in on the shoot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine and U.S. air involvement in Iraq, in addition to covering the breaking news of the day.
Gabrielle told me her interest in aviation was sparked by seeing the Blue Angels perform at an airshow when she was younger. But once she started flying in the Navy, first in T-34s at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida and later in the T-45 Goshawk in Kingsville, Texas, her goal was always to become a fighter pilot.
“We learned to fly the F-18 very quickly, soloing after just two or three flights,” she said. “From then on it was all about tactics. The flying is considered very basic. Using the airplane as a weapon and learning to fight is what counts.”
These days Gabrielle is getting used to life in New York as a single woman with a single-engine airplane and a great new job. She says she loves her 172, but she has her sights set on something a little more exciting.
“What I really want is a Yak 52,” she said, referring to the radial-engine Soviet-era trainer that she has flown with Top Gun buddies in California. “But that’s a long-term goal.”
To see Gabrielle in action, check out her terrific cross-country flying segment that aired earlier this month on Fox News here.
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