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

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

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

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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. 

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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.