She’s no longer a helicopter pilot at the moment but Jamie Collazo is the perfect example of someone that followed the dream of flying helicopters – and worked hard to do it.
Jamie Collazo’s career a as a pilot was not a long one but it was a lot more intense than most of the pilots out there. You see, she was a pilot for the US Army and part of none other than the last class to go through training on the Kiowa, becoming one of the 8 last persons to get training on this platform.
Currently, she is a Shadow Platoon Operations Officer with the 82nd Airborne Division and her flying time is limited to UAVs. But she still holds helicopters very close to her heart.
Hello Jamie! Thank you so much for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be able to ask you a bit about your career. Could you tell us how you got to be a US Army Pilot?
Right after AIT, I was assigned to 122nd ASB, 82nd CAB for 2 years and then assigned to 1-17th CAV, 82nd CAB for almost 5 years as an Intel Analyst.
I have 3x deployments to Afghanistan during that time and 1-17th CAV was a Kiowa unit. We always deployed as a Task Force and I was very lucky to see firsthand the mission sets and capabilities for each airframe.
Why helicopters? And why the Kiowa? How did it become your helicopter of choice?
I absolutely loved working in 1-17th CAV, but initially, I didn’t allow myself the opportunity to think I could fly. While the unit was at a training exercise prior to my last deployment, my old OIC/Supervisor asked me if I ever thought about flying.
I asked him if he was serious and he said yes, he thought I’d be pretty good at it and that’s when I started my flight packet. I chose the Kiowa because it would give me the ability to apply everything I learned as an Intel Analyst and wanting to directly support the ground guys versus being stuck in a TOC environment all day. Not to mention the ability to fly low, doors off, with guns… I was beyond sold!
How did it feel to be part of the last generation of pilots to fly that platform? It must have been somewhat of a bittersweet feeling.
It was very bittersweet, but I am beyond grateful that I even had the opportunity to fly the Kiowa the few years that were left. But I’m also very proud to be part of the community. There were, and still are, so many Kiowa pilots I worked with prior and going through flight school that I look up to.
How was your path to become a pilot? I mean: what were the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
There were a lot. I had to raise my GT score to a 110, so while deployed I went to a 4x week course to help raise my score. I knew very little about the mechanics and physics of flying so no kidding, I obtained a copy of the AFAST for Dummies to study.
Medically, I had to get a waiver for my eyes (I had PRK done), my height (I’m 5ft tall) because it was questionable if I would be able to reach the pedals and overhead panel on any aircraft, and I was recovering from a running injury where I had to rebuild my endurance from scratch.
When I made my decision to submit my packet, I was 3x months from deploying and 30 years old, about to turn 31. I couldn’t be older than 32 by the time I went through Warrant Officer School, so no pressure to get picked up on my first look!
Was the whole training program as you thought it would be? Were there any surprises (good or bad)?
The whole training program was exactly what I thought it would be, fast, furious, and highly stressful! And there were definitely a few surprises!
The best surprise was aircraft selection day. They only have so many of each airframe to choose from and depending how well you did going through school depends on the order of priority when you choose. The kid in front of me couldn’t make up his mind if he wanted to fly Blackhawks or Kiowas. He finally picked Blackhawks and I got the last Kiowa for that selection… A pretty good surprise but it was definitely nerve racking! As for bad surprises… Finding out the army decided to get rid of the 58D a couple of weeks into the Kiowa Program and you’re the last class.
Tell us something that really blew your mind about helicopters. Something that you didn’t know about them and you got to learn about during your training.
Some of the maneuvers we do for gun runs and/or evading fire from the ground or practicing a hydraulic failure emergency procedure. What do all of those have in common? Negative G forces that would initially plaster me into place for a few seconds and then give you the feeling of floating right afterwards...
I sometimes wondered if I weighed enough to fly! And don’t ask me how I was able to pull a negative G during a hydraulic failure EP, other than inexperience and using my strength!
Do you believe you’d ever become a pilot if not for your military background? Was it something that you’d like to go after even outside of your military career or was it an opportunity that presented itself and you took it?
I definitely believe it was an opportunity that presented itself. I initially lacked the confidence in myself to think I could fly one day. It’s crazy to say that, but having that opportunity taught me to not doubt myself and to always put forth the effort and time, because I will never know if I don’t.
How was it for you up there as you were flying? Some pilots say it’s a rush for them, others say they feel a lot in peace. Obviously, on a combat helicopter, things can get… Tricky. But overall, when you were doing a regular check ride or simple flight, how was it for you? How was your “high”?
My best day flying, the feeling I had, nothing has come close to how I felt that day. To have that one day made everything worth what I went through to have those few hours and reflect back on. But I have a few feelings depending on what kind of flight it was. Gunnery, for sure a rush! The climb to altitude for a diving fire in order to be at the speed you need, I compare it to a roller coaster. I loved when Gunnery Qual came around.
This next question is a bit odd to me because I believe that for equality to exist, things need to be “normal”. There should not be the need to ask something just because you are female or male. Unfortunately, we still have to make questions based on gender. I don’t want to focus too much on this, but I feel that it should be addressed since – let’s face it – there are not a lot of female pilots out there.
Do you believe your gender had any kind of positive or negative influence in your path to becoming a pilot? If so, how?
Yes, because a previous OIC/Supervisor I had was a female Kiowa Pilot, and when I made the decision to submit my packet, it was courage knowing that she made it happen for herself.
She demanded everyone in our shop to work to our max potential because she wanted the best for herself and those around her. It was those qualities I continue to use to better myself and be a good leader. However, I had a lot of the guys that gave me their support, help me study to raise my GT Score, look over my packet, and/or give me study material for the AFAST and for flight school.
I am forever indebted to everyone who had a hand in helping me!
If you had the opportunity to try and influence other girls or women out there into become a pilot, what would you like to tell them?
Never take no for answer and find another route to get to your dream. And let yourself the opportunity to succeed! You will never know what you are capable of until you try!
Do you believe being a helicopter pilot had an influence on other aspects of your life? Do you think you changed your way to face or address challenges or tasks because you were a helicopter pilot? Some pilots say they now always try to have a plan and a plan B in any decision they make because, while flying, they trained their minds to do that as well – in case your engine goes out, you need to know where you’ll be landing in the next few seconds or minutes, for example.
Did flying do that for you? Are you using any “piloting skills” in your daily life?
Oh gosh yes! I have learned that I am able to do way more than I EVER thought I could and I am way more receptive to new experiences and potential challenges, but having a plan B is something I’ve always done. I have a bit of a tendency to overstress myself out and having plan helps bring me down to reality.
What would you say your best experience as a helicopter pilot was?
All of it! I’ve learned so much from my best experience to my worst, it would be a huge discredit to take any of it away.
You are currently on a completely different area. You are no longer an active pilot, but you are still in the Army. Do you still fly outside the military life?
No, I don’t.
And do you see yourself going back to flying in the future?
I was diagnosed ADHD 2 years ago and it put an end to my flying career. When the Kiowa was retired, I was getting ready to go into my third job change in the army I sought help because I wanted to relieve some of the frustration for myself and others around me when learning something new and being able to retain what I just learned.
It was very frustrating when I was a kid, and even more as an adult. It makes learning even harder when you know what most people’s reactions will be towards you.
What do you miss the most about flying helicopters?
I miss hearing the rotors turn during flight because I’m the one flying.
If the Kiowa had not been retired, do you think you’d still be a pilot today?
Yes, I would!
All right Jamie, thank you so much for your time and for sharing a bit of your life and career as a pilot. Any last words to your readers? Inspire them!
It is OK to fail! You learn so much more and have that experience to empathize with others who are struggling. Your failure may also lead you down a different path to something you truly enjoy but NEVER don’t try because you’re scared to fail!!!