From crane operator to Black Hawk pilot

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Submitted Photo Rebecca O’Brien pins an Aviator Wing on her husband, Andrew, during a Nov. 2 ceremony at the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Novosel.

By Carol McIntire
As a youngster, Andrew O’Brien had an attraction to blue skies, puffy clouds and airplanes.
The Carrollton native earned his private pilot’s license while still in high school, June 25, 2007. After attaining his goal, he landed a job and left the field of aviation, but it never left his mind.
“There’s nothing cheap about flying and owning airplanes,” O’Brien said from his new home in Colorado last week. “I moved on, but it was always in the back of my mind.”
Several years later, a nudge from that section of his mind lit a spark that led him embark on a career change to become a Black Hawk pilot, which he attained in 2023.
As a freshman in high school, O’Brien moved from the Carrollton School District to Toronto, where he graduated. Following graduation, he made inquiries with army recruiters about the WOF (Warrant Officer Flight) training program.
“No one wanted to talk to me about the program,” O’Brien said. I couldn’t figure out why, but I moved on with my life.”
He moved back to Carroll County, landed a good job with the Operating Engineers Local 66 (heavy equipment operators) in Youngstown where he became a crane operator.
Life was good, but it became even better, he says, when he married his wife, Rebecca, Dec. 7, 2019.
“We bought what I thought was our forever home, a church near Salineville, we were renovating and turning into a home,” he said. “We’d been working on it about five months. On my birthday, April 12 (2020), I was reminiscing about life and began thinking about the things I regretted in my life. One of them was not joining the military and going through the WOF training to become a Black Hawk pilot.”
“I talked to Rebecca about it. The first words out of her mouth were, “Wait, hold on a minute.”
“We had a long conversation and she told me whatever I wanted to do she would support me 100 percent.”
Excited for the new opportunity, O’Brien contacted an Army recruiter in Canfield about the WOF program. The conversation began with the sergeant telling the then 31-year-old he’d never gotten anyone into the program, but he was willing to help.
It took about two weeks of working eight hours a day for O’Brien to “put the packet together.” There were letters of recommendation, physical fitness tests and pages of information to fill out.
Not only did he have to take the standards tests to qualify for the army, but he also had to take secondary tests for operators.
About a week before Thanksgiving (2020) the call came that he was accepted.
“I had three days to sign the paperwork, or my slot would be given to someone else,” he explained. “I was going into the program as a street to seat applicant while others who applied already had military experience. They take a smaller percentage of street to seat applicants than those with military experience.”
He was one of 43 applicants from across the United States accepted into the program on that selection.
He signed the papers March 15, 2021, put his ticket on hold with the union (just in case things didn’t work out) and headed to basic training at Fort Jackson, NC.
The first step
At 31-years old, O’Brien was entering basic training with a group of youngsters, many of whom just graduated from high school.

“Some had good heads on their shoulders,” he commented about the experience, while others needed a little guidance. I found myself helping them in any way I could.”
His new bride remained in Carroll County, working at her stat-care job and taking care of the day-to-day duties. The couple communicated through letters.
“I wrote her every day and sent the letters out once a week. She also wrote letters to me. We didn’t have a lot of time in the evening to read, but I made sure I read them and shared them with a couple friends who didn’t have anyone to write them letters. Then we could talk about things together. I even taught one of the boys how to address a letter so he could send mail back home,” the enlistee commented.
Basic training didn’t go exactly as planned as O’Brien came down with COVID-19, which extended his stay at Fort Jackson four weeks.
He graduated June 14, 2021. The next day, he was on a bus headed to Fort Rucker, AL, now known as Fort Novosel, and referred to by many as the home of Army Aviation.
Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS)
WOCS is a course candidates go through to become a warrant officer.
According to the Army Aviation website, “During the first phase of training WOCs are given a myriad of tasks to complete and time schedules to meet but finds there is not enough time in the day to meet all deadlines and requirements. The WOC therefore learns attention to detail and how to prioritize time wisely. During WOEC, the WOC does not appreciate learning these skills, however, they become vitally important when flying begins later on.”
“The physical aspect of the program was easy for me because I got in good shape at home and through basic training,” O’Brien recalled.
During training, he suffered a hip injury he deemed to be “minor” and pushed his body to complete the physical aspects of the program.
“We also completed a navigation portion where we had to find designated points in the woods. The academic part was very difficult. We had a study group of five people who helped each other get through it.”
Classes were eight hours a day, every day.
“They blast you with information and three days later you have a test. You don’t know what to study for because the test is over all the information,” he recalled.
Graduation day was Aug. 11, 2021.
The next step
To say things didn’t go as planned during the next phase of training would be an understatement.
Rebecca, still in Ohio, made plans to purchase a home. Two days before the scheduled closing, the sellers backed out. Having lived on a military base during training, O’Brien was not familiar with the community but embarked on a journey to purchase a house and was successful. While moving their personal belongings, his truck caught fire and burnt up along Interstate 64 in Kentucky.
Once the move was completed, O’Brien consulted a doctor for the nagging hip injury. A stint in physical therapy without success led to an MRI and a diagnosis of avascular necrosis (AVN), which is the death of the femoral head because of the bone not getting enough blood.
Hip replacement surgery followed, and although his doctor predicted he would “most likely” still be able to fly, there were no guarantees.
“I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get to fly and nine months of rehabilitation,” he called during the conversation. “My sergeant said as far as he knew at that time, I was the first one to go through flight school with a hip replacement.”
SERE school
Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, best known as SERE, prepares U.S. military personnel to survive and “return with honor” in survival scenarios, according to Wikipedia. The curriculum includes survival skills, evading capture, application of the military code of conduct and techniques for escape from captivity.
“It is very demanding on the body, both physically and emotionally,” O’Brien said. “I had to prove it was something I was dedicated to and really wanted to do. The flight surgeon at Fort Rucker (Fort Novosel) was a big help. I spent nine months waiting, not able to get a yes or no from anyone. All I got was a ‘we’ll see,’ answer.”
At this point, O’Brien began to question his decision to move forward.
“It ran through my mind that, if I moved my wife away from her family across the country and then get med-boarded out of the army after she quit her job of 17 years, it wouldn’t be fair.”
“I knew what I wanted to do. I decided I was going to make them throw me out. I knew what I wanted to do, and I was determined to move forward.”
In September 2022, the news he had waited for arrived, the application to go through SERE training.
Common Core
Flight School
The introduction to flying a helicopter was one O’Brien excelled at.
“I’d never been in a helicopter,” he said. “It was amazing! To think this monstrosity with a fan on top can lift you into the air is… well, just amazing,” he said referring to his training on a UH-72. “When you move to the UH-60, it’s even more exciting. It takes off so effortlessly.”
In March 2023, he and Rebecca celebrated graduation from Common Core.
Advanced Graduate Flight Training
The final step in the career change was advanced training on the UH-60 helicopter known as Black Hawk. A Black Hawk pilot is responsible for flying and operating the aircraft to transport troops, supplies and equipment to various locations, provide air support during combat missions and perform search and rescue missions.
The crew consists of a minimum of two pilots.
“During training, we (two pilots) took turns. One would fly the helicopter and the other navigate and operate the radios.
Nov. 2, 2023, O’Brien received his wings and the title of Warrant Officer Andrew O’Brien, U.S. Army Aviator, during a ceremony at the Army Aviation Museum. Rebecca had the honor of pinning the wings on her husband.
Fort Carson, CO.
The couple is settling into a new home in Colorado, where Andrew reported for duty at Fort Carson Dec. 5. It took about two and one-half weeks to in-process to the base and the company with which he will work. He is scheduled to begin flight progression (where pilots demonstrate their ability to fly aircraft) in February.
Words of advice
“I feel very fortunate to have accomplished this,” the aviator said. “I overcame a lot of obstacles and was still able to finish the program and move forward into something I’d dreamed of as a youngster. I’d tell anyone considering this kind of career, if it’s truly something you truly want to do, as long as you are dedicated and don’t give up, you can achieve it.”
“I remember the recruiters not talking to me right of high school and that initial packet I had to fill out at age 31. It was difficult. That packet weeds out most of those who think they want to do it but won’t make the effort. That’s why they made it so hard. If you truly want to do it, don’t give up. Move forward and reach your goal.”

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