Her perseverance turned tragedy into powerful advocacy, paving the way for a successful career in public service.
US Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) was among the first handful of army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003–2011). In 2004, she was deployed as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot with the Illinois Army National Guard. Her aircraft was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) on Nov. 12 of that year, causing her to lose her legs and partial use of her right arm. The experience led Duckworth to become an advocate for veterans.
After her yearlong recovery, Duckworth served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, as assistant secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and two terms in the US House of Representatives before being elected to the US Senate in 2016.
ROTOR: Please share with us your helicopter experience.
Duckworth: I’m an instrument-rated commercial rotorcraft pilot with an airplane private pilot license. I earned my commercial instrument rotorcraft ratings at the army flight school in Fort Rucker, Alabama. I used regular flight schools for my private pilot airplane license. I flew Black Hawks throughout my military service.
What are some examples of how your helicopter flying experience has shaped who you are today?
Flying for the army was more than the best job I’ve ever had—it became my identity and is who I am today. But I wouldn’t have even landed the job if it weren’t for hard work and persistence, values I’ve carried with me throughout my career and life.
Determined to be a combat arms officer and fly Black Hawks, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way on my path to flight school. I filed away every piece of advice from the commanders and officers of my reserve unit, completed the Army Aviation Branch’s preflight course, and called the Army Aviation’s flight school assignments manager at least once a week to see if there were any empty slots for flight school.
Once I finally landed an opening at Fort Rucker, I begged the sergeant major every chance I had to be assigned to one of the training slots with Black Hawks. One day, after he practically dared me to get 100% on my systems test and graduate at the top of my class in instruments to even consider me for the slot, I did exactly that.
In my flight school class of 40 commissioned officers, only 3 of us got Black Hawks. I attribute that to one simple fact about me: if there’s something I really want and you tell me what I have to do to get it, then I will do that thing.
It was a lot of work, but flying helicopters was worth it. Flying a helicopter is nowhere near as graceful as flying an airplane, but I loved the machinery, the technical challenges, powering through the sky—all of it. Contrary to what some might think, it’s not necessarily the big macho guys who are good at it. Being a great helicopter pilot takes the ability to multitask and act quickly: you have to be able to work the controls while monitoring and responding to radio traffic, maintaining situational awareness, and more. And for a US senator, multitasking is everything. While I can’t fly combat missions anymore, it’s an honor to use my current role—serving no longer from the cockpit but in the Senate—to ensure that our armed forces are the strongest they can be.
How has what you learned in flight school, combat, and helicopter flying in general helped you in your career as a US senator?
Throughout my military service and to this day, I take the Soldier’s Creed seriously: you don’t leave a fallen comrade behind. That’s why I work hard every day to find new ways to better support our service members, their families, and all Americans.
In the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I’m proud that a modified version of my Improving Military Aviation Readiness Act of 2022 was included to authorize the Department of Defense (DOD) to include FAA-certified overhauled parts as part of its supply chain, improving both aircraft readiness, by increasing access to repair parts, and value to the taxpayer, by purchasing overhauled, used parts instead of new ones.
Given ongoing supply-chain delays and the increasing cost of new parts, utilizing used serviceable materials in DOD maintenance operations can contribute to decreased costs and increased readiness. In this NDAA, I also supported funding for modernizing fighter aviation technology for the US Navy and Marine Corps’ F -35 programs. This funding will allow for updates to 24 aircraft, ensuring that war fighters are able to maintain the most advanced platforms needed to meet evolving threats.
What inspired you to pursue a career in politics after your service in the military?
After my helicopter was shot down and I woke up in Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland], I promised myself I’d do whatever it took to honor my buddies who saved my life on that dusty battlefield in Iraq and repay them for their sacrifice. I became an advocate for our nation’s veterans, and I realized that the best thing I could do to continue to serve our country and help make it better was to run for office. Veterans should be in Congress to hold the government accountable for the promises we make to our military men and women, who go out and do an incredible job at our behest, and their families.
What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing a flying career, particularly young women, from your perspective as both a former pilot and a professional in a nonaviation career?
You can be anything and can do anything, but make sure you give yourself permission to struggle and be frustrated as you take on new responsibilities. There’s no perfect work–life balance, and you’re not going to be able to do everything you’d like to do. You may try something, and it may not work out. But as long as you keep your head down and work hard, that’s when the victories come. That’s how you can make a difference in people’s lives.