Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Twenty one years ago, Jo Gordon joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps as a Private. After training to be a Chef, Jo transferred to the Army Catering Corps and travelled the world. As part of her duties, Jo (then a Corporal) was posted to be a chef with the Army Air Corps in Germany and it was during a deployment to the Balkans that she realised that she wanted to fly helicopters herself. Despite her humble beginnings as a chef, Jo has recently turned thirty nine and she has just completed her second four month tour in Afghanistan flying the potent Apache AH Mk 1 helicopter.

Jo is very keen to highlight the opportunities available to females in the Army Air Corps and the wider Armed Forces. In particular, Jo singles out the uniqueness of the diverse rank range flying Army helicopters, starting at Sergeant through to commissioned junior officer. Although Jo left school with a handful of CSE’s, her rapid climb through the ranks continues and she was recently commissioned and now wears the rank of Captain.

Constantly seeking the next challenge in life, Jo emphasizes that women in the Army need to be prepared to take the plunge and give it a go. Following successful completion of her helicopter flying training, Jo flew the gazelle helicopter and undertook her first operational flying in Northern Ireland. Back then she was already looking for her next challenge so she volunteered to become an instructor and trained the next generation of pilots at Middle Wallop. Getting restless once more, Jo pressed to convert to the highly capable, but immensely complex Apache attack helicopter.

The intricacies of learning to fly the Apache (which takes around seven months) entails a long ground school and initial conversion course. Weapon systems and tactics then follow and this takes a further eight months. Posted to 653 Squadron of the Army Air Corps based at Wattisham Airfield, the home of 3 Regiment Air Air Corps, Jo then completed a period of consolidation and enhanced training that saw her finally declared ‘combat ready’. This takes about two and a half years in total and is one of the longest training programmes in the Armed Forces.

Jo sometimes misses the lack of many other female pilots and highlights that it is important to get more women to consider the Army Air Corps. Light-heartedly she says that fewer women than men have the spatial awareness to fly and draws humorous comparisons to the female ability to reverse cars. On a more serious note, she firmly believes the Army needs more female helicopter pilots and with the right level of conviction more are capable of achieving this than they might believe. She adds “The Apache is very complex and can be quite daunting at first; the girls just need self belief, confidence, application and skill as well as being a fast learner and quick thinker.”

The Apache helicopter is at the cutting edge of technology. It can operate in all weathers, day or night, and detect, classify and prioritise up to 256 potential targets in a matter of seconds. It carries a mix of weapons including rockets, Hellfire missiles and a 30mm chain gun. In addition to the distinctive Longbow Radar located above the rotor blades, the aircraft is equipped with a Day TV and Thermal Imaging sight. Quick decision making is crucial; superb judgement is required when supporting the troops operating on the ground, in particular to avoid collateral damage and danger to Afghan civilians.

The Apache is a vital element of the rotary capability being provided by the Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) based at Camp Bastion in the heart of Helmand province. The Tri-Service detachment comprises personnel from all three services and operates Royal Air Force Chinooks and Merlins, Royal Navy Sea Kings and Army Air Corps Lynx and Apache helicopters.

Being an Apache pilot in Afghanistan sees long working hours, often at ‘VHR’ (Very
High Readiness), where crews scramble to respond to incidents that support troops ‘in contact’ with insurgents. Alternatively they escort the vital Medical Emergency Rescue Team (MERT) Chinook helicopters which extract casualties often under enemy fire.

There is probably no such thing as routine business, but the more traditional missions saw Jo providing mutual support to larger support helicopters transporting troops or equipment. A lot of these missions have been part of OPERATION MOSHTARAK, a joint operation with Afghan and coalition forces to bring greater stability to areas around Marjah and Nád-e `Ali.

Jo describes the best part of her current job being “The satisfaction that we get from the feedback from the troops on the ground.” Jo articulates “When you leave a situation on the ground that has been quite arduous for the guys and they actually thank you when you move off station is very humbling.” Jo knows that they genuinely mean it, and she adds “It is fantastic and you can’t beat that feeling as you can hear the gratitude in their voices and you feel so proud to be able to help when they really needed it.”

The arrival of the Apache to the scene of an incident often sees the insurgents blend back into the local population but able to fight another day. Jo is pragmatic and believes such an approach is appropriate and this reflects the policy of ‘courageous restraint’ which aims to minimise collateral damage and regain the trust of the local population. The same effect has been achieved in the tactical situation, the safety of our troops at that time, but the risks to the local civilian population are dramatically reduced.

The challenges of making such decisions so quickly should not be underestimated. Jo describes “Making the right decision in a very short amount of time is very challenging; we only get one chance to get it right.”

Camp Bastion is comfortable compared to the conditions experienced by the troops in some of the Forward Operating Bases (FOB) and Patrol Bases (PB). Jo makes good use of the limited spare time she has and regularly undertakes fitness training in the well equipped Gymnasium at Camp Bastion. She also does indulge occasionally and treats herself to a pudding on a Friday night! Jo has been looking forward to returning home to some creature comforts. Having a bath for the first time in four months was top of her list as there are only showers in Camp Bastion. Hair and nails quickly followed and then some much needed retail therapy before a well earned holiday with her partner. Jo was also looking forward to a curry in England with a refreshing Tiger beer as there is no alcohol in the British bases.

Jo has now completed twenty one years Army service, twelve of which have been flying. Never one to sit around, Jo is already seeking out her next challenge and certainly holds her own in what some would see as a traditional male dominated environment. She enjoys the banter and camaraderie with her male colleagues but is happy to be treated as one of the boys. She does not wish to be judged on her gender as that is just condescending. She is doing the same job to an equally high standard as her male colleagues and highlights that teamwork is vital.

Jo is frustrated when she is singled out in isolation to her male colleagues just because she is a woman. In addition, she shies away from being compared to a heroine “I would never call myself brave. The guys on the ground are the brave ones – we just do whatever we can to support and keep them alive. I am just another person in another vehicle; it just so happens that I am a woman and I am in the air.”


  1. Thoroughly humbled.
    Go Jo!

  2. So proud of you, and all the gang in Afghanistan.

  3. Wow Jo, great girl well done very good interview very humbling, bought tears to the eyes. Good luck to all the troops out on the battlefield.

  4. Awesome responsibility and aircraft! Keep up the great work! We are praying for the soldiers including you!