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Defying Gravity:

Becoming a Naval Helicopter Pilot

"Lieutenant Junior Grade Kayla Alexander!" The emcee's announcement echoed throughout the auditorium, prompting a loud round of applause and cheers. Alexander rose to her feet, walking confidently to the stage.

On the chest of her mostly blank dress white uniform, there was a space that would soon be filled by a pair of shining, golden wings - the culmination of more than two years of what Alexander said is one of the most difficult and prestigious training pipelines the Navy has to offer.

Alexander's journey began more than a decade prior: When she was a child, she remembers seeing helicopters flying over her home and being both perplexed and intrigued.

"I thought they were the weirdest things ever," said Alexander. "It was amazing to me how they could just defy gravity like that."

The curiosity and interest in flying stuck with Alexander, but she never thought she'd actually have an opportunity to do it; instead she focused on a future career in health care. When speaking to a Navy recruiter after college, she thought back to her interest in flying, and decided to take the plunge, signing up to be a naval aviator.

"I knew from the get-go I wanted to fly helicopters - that's why I joined the Navy," she said.
Three photo collage of Lt. j.g. Kayla Anderson and MH-60R helicopters that she will be flying.

After completing Officer Candidate School, Alexander reported to Naval Air Station Whiting Field, near Milton, Florida, for primary flight school. The training pipeline to become a naval aviator is two years long, and guides students who may have never flown an aircraft at all into capable pilots. In addition to basic flight operations, students learn advanced skills such as flying with night vision goggles, landing on platforms in the ocean and emergency maneuvers.

For Alexander, just getting in the cockpit for the first time reinforced that flying helicopters was what she wanted to do: "I was hooked - I loved it," she said. "Once you get in there and get going, you realize this is what you're meant to do."

While she enjoyed learning how to fly, flight school was still a constant challenge, two of the most difficult years of Alexander's life.

So finally standing on the stage of the auditorium during the "winging ceremony," where new pilots receive their naval aviator insignias, was almost overwhelming. As she looked down at her uniform to see the golden wings shining under the stage lights, Alexander reflected on what they meant to her.

"It's a representation of all the hard work and all the dedication of all the people who have gone before you as winged aviators," she said.

Alexander was selected to fly the MH-60R Sea Hawk, and will depart NAS Whiting Field to begin advanced training specific to that aircraft. As she prepares to leave, she had one piece of advice for students preparing to enter the pipeline to become winged aviators.

"You have to be the best," said Alexander. "If you're not willing to give your all - why are you here?"