Mandy Hickson, An Officer, Not a Gentleman: The Inspirational Journey of a Pioneering Female Fighter Pilot. London: Mandy Hickson, 2020. Images. Pbk. 294pp.

Reviewed by Mark Russell


Women have long served in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Female service in the RAF began during the First World War when up to 25,000 women served until the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), disbanded in 1918. Approximately 180,000 then served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War, followed by those who served in the re-formed WRAF, an administrative entity within the RAF from 1949. Finally, in 1994, the WRAF was merged into the RAF.  

Although 166 women flew during the Second World War as delivery and ferry pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary, it was not until 1991 that women began to serve as pilots, a decision approved in 1989. The first female pilot was Flight Lieutenant Julie Ann Gibson, who re-trained from her existing career as an RAF engineer before flying Andovers with No. 32 Squadron from RAF Northolt in 1991. However, the issue of allowing women to fly fast jets still raised questions. Nonetheless, in December 1991, it was announced that women were cleared to fly in combat roles. However, it was not until August 1994 that Flight Lieutenant Jo Salter breached the ‘holy of holies,’ the fast jet pilot role, when she joined No. 617 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth to fly the Tornado GR1B. She became the RAF’s first female fast jet pilot. As of 1 April 2019, there were 30 female fixed-wing pilots in the RAF, while as of July 2021, 15.1% of the RAF regulars were female. 

Mandy Hickson’s An Officer, Not a Gentleman, is the autobiography of only the second woman to fly the Tornado in the RAF. It documents her experience flying the Tornado and becoming an operational fast jet pilot. Some of what Hickson writes will also resonate with those working within large organisations that continue to grapple with issues of inclusion and equality. It must, however, be noted that the RAF of the 1990s comes out of Hickson’s recollections well – perhaps not as an organisation, but certainly in the attitudes of some of those individuals Hickson encountered during her service.

Hickson has said she did not feel like a pioneer: ‘no different to anyone else for being a woman’ (p. 161). The book describes Hickson’s life and her RAF career. Hickson’s description of her feelings. For example, Hickson describes her isolation on her first deployment to the Gulf in 2000 as the only female aircrew on the squadron (pp. 187-90). This type of insight sets this book apart from some of the more ‘traditional’ aircrew memoirs written by male aircrew. Indeed, to this reviewer’s knowledge; this is the first memoir written by a female RAF pilot.

Hickson’s story opens with her joining the Air Training Corps in 1986 before winning a Flying Scholarship and receiving her Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) in August 1991 at 18. As one of the first female pilots in the RAF, Hickson inevitably faced challenges. For instance, being six feet tall at 16, she was too tall for the RAF height to weight charts and was told she needed to lose weight to obtain the Flying Scholarship, although her doctor noted that she was a healthy weight. Having cleared that hurdle and obtained her PPL, she went to the University of Birmingham, where she joined the University of Birmingham Air Squadron (UBAS) in late 1991. During this period, Hickson appears to have had no problem fitting into the flying and social life of the University Air Squadron (UAS), and she does not describe any times when she felt that being a woman created additional challenges for her or saw her discriminated against in any way. This may have been because she was, as she describes, ‘a bit of a tomboy’ (p. 1) and ‘a sports-mad teenager’ (p. 2). 

The next hurdle Hickson faced was at the start of her third year at university, when, to remain in the UAS, she needed to demonstrate a more concrete commitment to an RAF career. In December 1992, the UAS was told women could train as fast jet pilots, which triggered Hickson’s application to become aircrew. Having attended Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre, she failed the pilot aptitude tests despite having flown over 100 hours with the UAS. Instead, she was offered a career as an air traffic controller. The Officer Commanding of her UAS, Squadron Leader Karl Bufton, allowed her to continue flying with UBAS and arranged two separate check rides with instructors from the RAF’s Central Flying School both of whom rated her as above average as a pilot. He believed ‘the tests are wrong. I have a feeling they are not designed for women’ (p. 13). Hickson had the support she needed to continue. 

Hickson joined the RAF, and in November 1994, a month into her initial training at RAF College Cranwell, she was told that her request to transfer to the General Duties branch had been approved so that she could train as a pilot. ‘My grin stretched from ear to ear’ (p. 26). Later Hickson discovered that she ‘had been taken on as a test case to see how far I would get before I failed’ (p. 27). Discovering this when qualified as a fast jet pilot can only have made the achievement all the sweeter, but at the time, her feeling was: ‘They’d opened the door. I was ready to barge through it’ (p. 27). 

However, she soon came up against some of the less enlightened aspects of the RAF’s expectations of women. Most notably, Hickson describes her first performance appraisal with ‘Flight Lieutenant Beige’ as she nicknamed him. Hickson was told she should ‘be more feminine’ (p. x) and not buy two half pints of beer in the Mess at a time so she could drink pints – despite, as she puts it, having ‘spent three years at university doing exactly that’ (p. x). Hickson describes this experience as being ‘the first of many encounters with more senior officers who had a problem with women taking on new roles in the RAF’ (p. 38). Being six feet tall, extroverted, and athletic, one suspects that Hickson may have struggled to meet the RAF’s definition of ‘femininity’ (as being described as ‘Amazonian’ by Flight Lieutenant Beige indicates). However, it would be interesting to know more about the experience of other female officer candidates through this period, who may have been more ‘feminine’ and to understand the extent to which the culture at Cranwell has changed since the mid-1990s.    

There is evidence throughout the book of just how male-centric the RAF was at this point in its history. In addition to the requests that she be more ‘feminine’, there were also comments which she believes were ‘undoubtedly […] all meant in humour’ (p. 88) from instructors along the lines of ‘Off to apply your lippy, are you’ which Hickson says she had not noticed until fellow male course mates raised them with her, saying they felt it was wrong. Her coursemates raised these comments with the squadron commander, who immediately resolved this and apologised to her. The instructors who had been making these comments also apologised. Hickson reflects on this: ‘It’s shocking how I had normalized this behaviour to simply ‘get through’’’. This is another insight into how far the RAF had to go to make the most of female talent and invite work on where it is now in terms of its culture and ethos. 

A more positive story is how Hickson’s coursemates rallied around to teach her the mechanics of ‘battle turns’, leading to her instructor saying he had ‘never heard of a course coming together like that’ (p. 97). This is interesting on two levels: firstly, the willingness to help a female coursemate, suggesting) that the new generation was rather more enlightened than the organisation, and, secondly, with fast jet seats likely at a premium, one might have expected a more ‘dog eat dog’ attitude from Hickson’s fellow students – one person failing means more chance of a fast jet seat for the remaining students. The collegiate attitude is a tribute to her coursemates and, perhaps, to the supportive ethos that the training had inculcated to date. 

Mandy Hickson stood in front of a Panavia Tornado.

Her lowest point career-wise came on her first two-month operational tour in Kuwait in 2000. She says, ‘I don’t think they had any empathy for how hard it was being the only woman’ (p. 187). During this tour, Hickson had issues with more senior squadron members, although when she later discussed it with one specific individual, he was unaware of the stress he had placed her under with his attitude (p. 196). ‘I was their first female pilot, and they weren’t used to it’ (p. 187), and they either consciously or unconsciously were not including her in squadron life, to the point that she felt ‘bullied’ and ‘marginalised’ to the point where she was confused about ‘who – and what – I was trying to be’ (p. 187) and considered handing in her resignation (p. 190). ‘Do I try to fit in […] or do I stand out?’ – another conundrum that, 20 years later, minorities continue to face despite inclusion programmes in many workplaces. ‘I was just trying to fit into the mould of junior fast jet pilot, regardless of gender’ (p.188) without the benefit of role models or (understandably) feeling able, as the most junior pilot on the squadron, to have any real impact on the definition of what a junior fast jet pilot was expected to be.

Hickson also got used to being assigned rooms on postings whose walls were covered in porn. She was not sure if this was how all rooms were or whether they had been prepared as a special welcome for her. However, Hisckon recalls that she took this in her stride, ripping the pictures down and throwing them into the corridor with a shout of ‘Porn’s up, boys’ (p. 175). While such interior decoration was considered acceptable, concerns over the impact women would have on the RAF’s prevailing culture are highlighted by Air-Vice Marshal Roger Austin, the Director-General Aircraft. In March 1989, a mere five years before Hickson arrived at Cranwell, Austin lamented on the coming day when the RAF would be ‘powdering its nose as it admire[d] Robert Redford and Tom Jones on the Flight Safety calendar.’[1]  Austin went on to become Commandant, RAF College Cranwell later in 1989. Culture continues to be a challenge for women in the military in the UK.

Being six feet tall, Hickson did not have some of the practical problems documented by other early female aircrews in terms of flying clothing not fitting and simply being the right size and shape for the aircraft. This had been a critical part of the debate about opening up fast jet cockpits for women, and it was a genuine issue. However, Hickson does document the consequences of the RAF not having thought through how to allow female aircrew to urinate while strapped into an ejector seat. The options available meant unstrapping from the seat, which was not an option when Hickson was policing the no-fly zone over Iraq, for example (p.194-195). Hickson being grounded due to a kidney infection that resulted from being unable to urinate in the air shows the need to think through these things. The solution on offer – a form of nappy – was described by Hickson as ‘awful’. Other female aircrew concurred, recalling that ‘they tried to avoid using them.’[2]  

Hickson left the RAF in 2009, having had two children in 2003 and 2004. She left in part because she was unable to be promoted under the RAF rules of the time, which required her to take another flying job to be promoted to Squadron Leader. In addition, she felt this was incompatible with having two children and a husband who was an airline pilot. ‘If you’re on a flying squadron, you’re on a flying squadron’ is how she puts it, and ‘You can’t just say “Oh sorry, I can’t do this bit today”’ (p.275). 

One recent reviewer of Hickson’ book in The Journal of the Royal Air Force Historical Society has suggested that it ‘is not a major work of moment.’ While one day we might view memoirs of female aircrew as being ‘seen as nothing remarkable’ as there no longer anything unusual about that experience, that day has still yet to be fully realised. Indeed, this book is a work of the moment because it is a pioneer’s story. While it has many elements of what one might call the ‘standard aircrew memoir’ that chronicles the path from air cadet to operational flying, it also provides many insights into the culture and ethos RAF of the time – the early post-Cold War period – and how the Service adapted to the introduction of female fast jet aircrew. In doing so, both Hickson and the RAF emerge well from the telling. A highly recommended book on many levels that may provide valuable insights to future historians, especially those interested in the RAF, military culture, and the role of gender in the military.

Mark Russell graduated with a 2:1 in History in 1985 and has worked in professional services ever since. He returned to academia in 2015 and graduated with an MA in Air Power: History, Theory and Evolution from the University of Birmingham in December 2017. Since then, while working in professional services, he has published articles and reviews in various publications, including the RAF’s Air and Space Power Review, the Journal of the Royal Air Force Historical Society, The Aviation Historian and From Balloons to Drones. Longer term, he is interested in organisational culture and how the coming of unmanned aircraft might impact on the culture of air forces. He is currently researching a possible article on Squadron Leader Freddy Lammer DFC and Bar.

Header image: A Panavia Tornado GR4 in grey colour scheme and special markings for the 95th anniversary of No. 2 Squadron in 2007. This was the type flown by Hickson with No. 2 Squadron. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Kathleen Sherit, Flying Roles for Women in the RAF, Journal of the Royal Air Force Historical Society 63 (2016), p. 63.

[2] Kathleen Sherit, ‘The Integration of Women in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Post-World War II to the Mid 1990s’ (PhD Thesis, King’s College London, 2013), p. 235.

11 thoughts on “#BookReview – An Officer, Not a Gentleman: The Inspirational Journey of a Pioneering Female Fighter Pilot

  1. This comment will not be welcome but I make it anyway. This review says to me this book is remarkable only in that the author is a woman, otherwise being a “‘standard aircrew memoir.'” Who cares about a ‘Hey look at me, I’m a girl in the boys club. I’m special.’ book? That is the author asking to be credited for something she had nothing to do with, the accident of being born female. It is asking us to credit that accident as an accomplishment when it is not. Nice job, you made ithrough jet training just like thousands of others. Next.

    Here is a related cultural question though that I have never seen posed. What will happen to the push for female aircrew when wartime aircrew casualties reach what is the more typical historical norm -say Bomber Command in 1943, Luftwaffe fighter losses in 1944-45, F-105s in Vietnam etc.? Since Vietnam being combat aircrew is one of the safest things you can be (western aircrew anyway) so Western countries have been able to indulge in this historical experiment. What happens when the danger goes up to RFC circa 1917 levels? Will we still be willing to put potential and actual mothers in harms way? That seems unwise.


  2. Carl
    Thanks for the comment – always good to hear what people think.

    In terms of your first point, I do say that the book provides insights that set it apart from the ‘standard aircrew memoir’. Mandy Hickson was a pioneer, even if it is simply accidental that she specifically had this role, and it is surely important to record what it felt like, and what hurdles she faced. It is also an interesting insight into how the RAF was handling this significant cultural change – and I was surprised at how well the RAF did that. So that is also of historical value. To say Mandy Hickson’s experience is not worth recording just because she ‘made it through jet training just like thousands of others’ misses the point that she was a pioneer – after all, if you adopt that logic, why would anyone write a memoir? Very few of the many authors of air crew memoirs really do anything different from their peers – whereas Mandy Hickson did face specific challenges due to her gender, and it is worth recording those. That is why I think this an important book – if you do not have books like this, then you lose a part of the information that can be used to make up the historical record.

    In terms of your second point, I’d make a few points:
    1 armed forces have seen female casualties in the past – per Wikipedia, the British Army had at least three female soldiers killed while serving in Afghanistan, and I do not recall these deaths prompting significant commentary at the time based on their gender, so maybe society now accepts a wider role for women than just as ‘potential or actual mothers’
    2 one of the attractions of air power is its ability to limit casualties within our own forces in comparison to ‘boots on the ground’ – so it seems unlikely that there would be the level of female aircrew casualties to spark the type of debate you discuss given the low numbers if female aircrew in the RAF (an FOI request in 2019 showed 30 trained fixed wing female pilots in the RAF – I am waiting on a reply to my request for numbers as at 1 April 2022)
    3 Far more likely to generate this debate would be female casualties in the much more numerous British ground forces. In December 2021 the House of Commons was told 11% of the armed forces were women as at 1 April 2021, being 16,740 personnel, up from 6% in 1990. Given all arms are open to female personnel now, a proportion of those must be in the ‘teeth’ arms although given what we are seeing in Ukraine now, a driver in a logistics company may be as much at risk as an infantry solder.
    4 As you say, historically we have seen much higher aircrew casualty rates. However, I would argue that World War One and Two rates are just that, historic, in comparison with what has been seen recently, and that in terms of numbers, the RAF is never going to again lose the sorts of numbers of aircrew it lost in World War Two – it is hard to see the defence-industrial base being able to gear up to support a 1m+ RAF with associated numbers of aircraft, as it did in World War Two.
    5 Finally, I would argue that society has changed and is changing, and seeing women as people to be kept out of harm’s way is an outdated notion, at least in many people’s eyes. I am sure the women serving, and who have served, in the Armed Forces do not think that way, and I suspect that many in wider society would agree that as equal members of society, women have the right to take a full part in its defence. And after all, Britain suffered c. 67,000 civilian casualties in World War Two – so not serving did not mean women were safe.
    So, even if we lost 100% of female aircrew in combat, then the number is likely to be under 50, and would likely be outnumbered by the number of ground casualties. At that level of casualties, I see it as unlikely that this would then focus on the gender of the dead and prompt a rethinking of whether women should be serving in the Armed Forces or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mr. Russel
    As a point of historical data, the book as reviewed does have value, narrow though it may be-what this woman RAF pilot experienced when there weren’t many women RAF pilots. This again is just an accident. How she was treated doesn’t surprise me. I came up through commercial civilian pilot ranks around 50 years ago when there were very few women. They were always treated well. That is what you do with fellow aircrew.

    On the broader point of the value of aircrew memoirs. To my mind they have value for the more general reader because they are well written or they recount something extraordinary. Think Edwards Park’s ‘Nannette’ or Desmond Scott’s ‘Typhoon Pilot.’ Ms. Hickson’s book book didn’t seem to check either of those boxes.

    Regarding your other points.

    Three deaths amongst women in a conflict isn’t even a footnote when it comes to assessing the effect on society of female combat casualties. A real honest to goodness war (which I would argue Britain hasn’t seen since Korea and we haven’t seen since Vietnam) has casaulties thousands of times greater. Then we would see.

    It may be true that there just aren’t enough airplane to be lost anymore so as to cause a reaction against females in combat airplanes. I do not at all think that aircraft losses on the scale of the past are never going to happen again. There was an article in War on the Rocks about a war game involving the US fighting hard against a Red Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They projected we would lose fully 1/2 of our total fighter inventorys in 4 weeks.

    You are right that losses in other forces are much more likely to generate the debate. The USN at least has high proportions of females on most all ships I believe. Loss of two carriers and few destoyers that resulted in the incineration or drowning of a few thousand women would have an impact.

    An F-105 pilot going over North Vietnam stood about a fifty fifty chance of being shot down before finishing his tour. In the old days when talking to a Vietnam helicopter pilot, you didn’t ask him if he’d been shot down, it was how many times he’d been shot down. This bit of history isn’t so far back as WWII. It is still a long time ago. I think it isn’t a matter of high aircraft losses not being a thing anymore; I think it more high aircraft losses are part of big wars and those aren’t so frequent as before.

    I most emphatically disagree that society’s view of women roles has changed much. We just think that wars won’t happen and if they do, not many will be killed. We can afford this experiment because we don’t think it will ever be put to a real test. When a major war occurs again, and it will, and the prospect of drafting the daughter arises, things will get very traditional very fast. This will cause severe disruption to the war effort, the more women are in combat roles, the greater the disruption. It would be better to avoid that now, but it is not possible. I hope various staffs are preparing to deal with it.

    Going to war isn’t a right, it is a duty, a duty that many have to be forced to perform via a draft or social pressure. Is society prepared to draft females? Going to war is scary and many try to get out of without shaming themselves in front of their mates. (The 357th Fighter Group had a big problem with P-51s losing tailwheel tires on taxing out for combat missions. The problem stopped when the mechanics set up a flying tailwheel repair party that could fix the problem without the airplane taxing back and shutting down.) They find it too hard and off they go. Women have an out. If the task group is going to sail in a week and the female crew member gets pregnant, are we going to force her to go? Will we force her to become unpregnant and sail? You want to create a stir, try that. We haven’t thought these things through.


  4. Carl,
    I think we disagree about the role of women in society, how that may or may not have changed over the last 80 or so years, and what that might mean of armed forces that allow women into combat roles – so maybe lets just leave it at that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark,
      Fair enough. I note that when I have brought up the subject of women using pregnancy to avoid combat on other forums, nobody cared to discuss it. The conversation shut down immediately. Same thing here. That is not helpful. The problem is coming and it would be best to think about and discuss it before it arrives.


      1. That’s because the concept of women using pregnancy to avoid combat is as laughable as it is insulting.


        RAAF’s most senior female pilot, Commanding Officer of a front line flying squadron, veteran of more than one war

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Carl, even before Wing Commander Jovanovich replied, I would have commented that I think you are being very harsh on servicewomen in assuming a significant proportion of them would become pregnant to avoid combat. I don’t know what the levels of self-inflicted injury were among male combatants in previous wars – but we know men behaved in that way to avoid or escape from combat, so why castigate women for the same behaviour? I have never personally been in that situation, and like everyone I do not know how I would behave if put to the test, but part of training is to help service personnel remain at their posts, and I don’t think there is any reason to believe women would be any more likely to abandon their duty than men. Regards, Mark

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ms. Jovanovich: Your answer is a simple assertion that there will be no problem. It is not an argument as to why it won’t be a problem. Why won’t it be a problem? Given history, the extraordinary lengths people will go to to get out of combat, and human nature, which hasn’t changed, I think it will be a problem.

    Since you are high up in the RAAF, has this been discussed at all in the Aussie government and military services? It would be interesting to know one way or the other.

    Since CVs are being presented, here’s mine.

    Current status: Active civilian.
    Past status: Same as above.
    Notable accomplishments: None
    Born in the USA by the grace of God.


    1. Carl,

      Not quite. I am saying that this has not been a problem, is not a problem and will continue to not be a problem.

      The relevance of my CV is that I am one of the front line servicewomen at whom you are casting baseless aspersions. My comments are based on lived experience of decades spent in uniform.

      The relevance of yours is that it at least explains why you know so little about women in the services. Your comments are based on outdated assumptions and prejudices. You are entitled to your opinion, of course. But you are not entitled to having others value that opinion, because it is demonstrably misinformed.

      I can assure you that in a crisis the very servicewomen you denigrate will still come to your assistance. Good luck to you sir.


      1. Ms. Jovanovich:

        You are still asserting. Your assertion is backed by an argument from authority, the authority being you. That leads to the question as to whether your experience is pertinent to the question I am posing, which is: What will be done in a actual big and dangerous war if or when women get pregnant in order to avoid combat? From what I was able to gather your experience of flying large fixed wing over Iraq and Afghanistan is not pertinent to the question. As I stated earlier in the thread, flying military aircraft in recents wars is about as safe a thing as can be done (to exclude helicopter operations, especially scout helicopters.) USN P-3s flew ISR ops in those countries as far as I know. Those kinds of ops are even safer than other fixed wing. Aussie P-3s I don’t know about but I figure they did the same type of job though. Maybe not. I do have some knowledge of these things because for 11 of the 13 years between 2007 and 2020 I flew light fixed wing ISR as a dirty contractor in ratty old King Airs over both Iraq and Afghanistan. My employers called it combat time. I disagree. The scouts flew combat, we droned around boring holes in the sky.

        The point of the above long winded peroration is the given our respective experience, I don’t figure either one of us is an authority on this. I am posing a question based on historical experience and knowledge of human nature. For example a recent historical point that is useful is the Daily Caller got info from the USN that 16% of women sailors on ship got pregnant in 2016. This is to be expected. Young people are irrepressable. Those ships were in no danger. To me it stands to reason that that will happen more if you throw in the possibility of the ship being blown to pieces by the PLAN.

        I assume from you lack of response that Australian civilian and military authorites have not given this probability any thought. This is a great disappointment to me. Bill Slim had his people think about the best that could happen and the worst that could happen. He figured they were better prepared for things that way. He was a very accomplished fellow and his advice should still be heeded.

        “Outdated assumptions and prejudices”? Perhaps. Unlikely though. Human nature doesn’t change. Fabius Maximus wrote something about motivating men that I thought very valuable, though I was assured by a junior American officer that it couldn’t possibly apply nowadays. I didn’t believe him either.

        I read that you are a graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School. That is something, sort of the acme of piloting. It is a great thing. I towed gliders in Tehachapi many years ago and the TPS students would come up to fly the gliders. Some of them even used the gliders as subjects for papers. Did you guys fly the gliders when you went through?


  6. Mark: If I gave the impression that I think “a significant proportion” of women service members will get pregnant to avoid combat, I am sorry. I don’t know what proportion will. I am convinced that given human nature some will and we had better start thinking about how to handle that. Combat avoidance has been a problem since men have been forced to go off to war and will be a problem if we force women to go off to war. It is not a matter of castigating one sex more than the other.

    Keeping humans at their posts is a hard thing to do, involving not only training but service and society wide mores and attitudes, not to mention severe legal penalties. Pregnant women have a unique status. Carrying a child is different than knocking your front teeth out. You do the one and you are viewed as a cowardly s.o.b. . You do the other and I think soceity will view you as a mother to be protected. That makes a big differnce in my view, when it comes to getting away with it.

    Maybe there is no reason to believe women will be any more likely to abandon their duty than men. There is no reaon they won’t be less likely either.

    (This is just an aside, somewhat off the subject. You say you don’t know how you would behave if put to the test. That is valid. You can’t predict the future. The important thing though is how you think you should behave.)


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