Sunday, November 22, 2009
From left: Stephanie Cole, Michelle Goodman, Joanna Watkinson and Wendy Donald at their US training base
THE RAF is to fly its first all-woman combat helicopter crew into action in southern Afghanistan.
The four women are expected to fly a number of missions taking troops and supplies to the frontline against the Taliban in Helmand. They will also airlift casualties to the hospital at Camp Bastion.
The Merlin crew includes Flight-Lieutenant Michelle Goodman, 32, from Bristol, the first woman to win the Distinguished Flying Cross. She and her co-pilot, Flight-Lieutenant Joanna Watkinson, 28, from Reading, have been preparing in California for the difficulties of flying in Afghanistan. The hot air, dust and high altitude pose particular problems for helicopters.
Loadmasters Sergeant Stephanie Cole, 24, from Wiltshire, and Sergeant Wendy Donald, 31, from Liverpool, have also been training at the US airbase at El Centro.
Alongside their main role of ensuring that the troops and supplies are properly loaded on board, they will man its 7.62mm machineguns.
All four would have expected tours of duty in Afghanistan at some stage in their careers. It is coincidence that a full complement of female helicopter crew will, for the first time, be in Helmand simultaneously.
Goodman and Watkinson have been training in evasive flying to avoid Taliban missiles while Cole and Donald practised their gunnery skills. All four women are aware that they might be shot down or forced to ditch the aircraft in hostile territory and have prepared for the possibility.
Goodman, a veteran of four Iraq tours, said: “Obviously we always bear it in mind but when you’re in the middle of a dangerous sortie you just get on with your job.
“If we thought about the threat continually we would never be able to do our jobs. It’s only when we compare notes during the de-brief that you know the full extent of what happened on a dangerous mission.”
Goodman won her DFC in 2008 for the night rescue of a soldier wounded by mortar fire in Iraq. She said she was expecting some “banter” from the infantry about female aircrew picking them up.
Watkinson’s husband is an RAF navigator. Her grandfather was an RAF pilot and her grandmother was one of the first women to be commissioned into the army.
“When I was younger, I always just thought that it was one of those make-believe dreams that you could one day be a pilot,” she said.
“There will be people that will always turn round and say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that, you’re a girl’. I’ve had a few people tell me that in the past and I’d like to see them one day and go, ‘hah, told you’.”