During our conversation I had to make it clear that it has been many years since I attended OASC and even when I spoke to our youngest students it was also clear that it had been a few years since they had attended too. The RAF Recruitment Offices should be able to provide you with the latest recruitment information although I have heard that they are not always the best places to find out what serving on an RAF flying squadron is actually like. This is because few pilots can be spared for recruitment tasks as they possess a valuable skill-set that is of more use in a cockpit and not behind a desk but luckily you have me! I've gone and trawled the squadron speaking to staff and students on your behalf and some of the answers might surprise you, they definitely surprised me!
- Firstly, What do you believe are the most important skills/qualities for a potential pilot and officer to display in general?
Teamwork is essential in the military as the individual rarely works alone and unsupported and in the RAF, as it is a very technical service, teams can be made up of all ranks and trades. Sometimes the most valuable member of the team can be the most junior in rank. Being able to work in a team is just as essential as being a good leader and if you cannot work in a team then there is no place for you in the services. Remember, there is no 'I' in 'Team'!
'Team work makes the dream work!'
Having a broad range of skills or 'breadth of character' means that you can be of benefit in a lot of roles and you are not a 'one trick pony'. The services love people who are the 'UK's under-18s School's Triathlon Champion' but not if that is all they have done. I'll talk about becoming more rounded later but don't think that being amazing in one discipline will get you into the military - it is much better to be good at a few things.
The ability to handle failure is an incredibly important trait to have and you will probably be asked to give examples of when you have failed and how you came back from it. Now, we all know that there are people who never seem to fail and yes, we know that we are not one of them so be honest, failure just happens - it's how you deal with that failure that defines you as a person. I'll write a post later about my own difficult entry into the services and the struggles and failures I had - but it's how I dealt with those failures that kept me driving forward and eventually led me to becoming the most senior fast-jet flying instructor in the RAF today. My students asked me to make it clear that they felt that the ability to deal with failure and use it as a route to success was one of the most important traits to have if you were to be entering military flying training.
'Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.' - C. S. Lewis
- What do you believe is the thing that most pilots struggle with throughout the selection and training phases prior to becoming operational?
I teach students in Phase IV flying training, the last flying training that they undertake before moving onto to learn how to fly their front-line aircraft on the Operational Conversion Units (OCUs). Although we are not so knowledgeable about the current day selection process, it's been a few years since we all went through it, I can talk about what students struggle with in our flight school. The main things that students struggle with are confidence, not achieving when with other high-achievers, failure and the length of the training.
On the Hawk T2 we have no flying tests apart from a regulatory required Instrument Rating Test that both staff and students have to pass. There is no Final Nav Test, no Final Handling Test, no Progress Check, nothing. That is because you are being continually assessed in everything you do whether in the air or on the ground. Every sortie can be the start of the end of your flying career. If you are 'chopped' or fail fast-jet flying training you may be offered the chance to re-train on rotary or multi-engines but this isn't always the case. This is why you need to be able to remain confident in your ability to pass flying training and, as we know, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. You must be able to recognise that you will most probably not be the best performing student on the course. You may have been the top pupil at your school, won awards in sport or made Flight Sergeant in the ATC but in your military flying training you'll be with people who have done better things and achieved more than you - just deal with it. This can knock your confidence as, day after day, you'll be getting 3s for your flying and one of your course mates will be getting 4s - it will chip away at you. You have to realise that there are just some people out there who are more intelligent, better looking and are more successful that you - it's how you deal with 'not achieving whilst with other high-achievers' that will define how well you do in flying training. It is said that you are the average of the five people that you spend the most time with - go and hang around the successful people and learn from them. The length of training will grind you down if you let it, sometimes it seems like such a long road. One of my students has been in the Service for eleven years and is still not on the front-line yet! This isn't the norm however, he is part of the 'holding generation' and had a three year non-flying hold whilst he waited for the backlog of students to clear before he could start his flying training. When you couple this long journey with the possibility of failure you can start to appreciate why you need to have confidence in your own ability to make it to the end.
'If you do not believe in yourself you cannot expect anyone else to.'
- What is the toughest part of your job, both past and present?
Flying military fast-jets is tough in many ways both physically and emotionally and it affects each person differently. We recently had the Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert come and fly with us for his TV show 'Rhod Gilbert's Work Experience' and this is how he summed up his experience.
'This has been very, very hard. Tremendous difficult mental and emotional things done in the most demanding physical environment and it's all about training somebody so that they can do that several times a day, day in, day out in real theatres of war on real operations. Dedication to do this, the skill - you have to be one hell of a person to do that and it is too much for me.'
Emotionally it can also take its toll. You will lose friends during your career, not only from being 'chopped' from flying training but also from flying accidents. On our mobile phones we all have the phone numbers of friends who have been killed, they are rarely removed. Of course there is always the worry that you might join them if you aren't careful - that feeling is a constant though the best pilots learn to suppress it. A lot of pilots suffer from 'Imposter Syndrome' as do most high-achievers - they believe that they aren't good enough, shouldn't be there and that one day people will find out; this is quite common and, again, most learn to suppress it. We lose the odd student who decides that they don't want to kill anyone - incidentally, it's probably best to come to terms with this early on in your flying career as the RAF doesn't want to waste money training someone who won't fight and be under no illusion that this is what you are being trained to do - it isn't a flying club. On a different note, the nomadic lifestyle can be a challenge for some where others enjoy the moving about. You get moved on posting every 2.5 to 3.5 years, kids move school, you make new friends. This also means that there is a low-level tendency to not invest too heavily in relationships as they are normally transient but you do find it very easy to start back up a relationship when you meet up with your old buddies again.
War-fighting can get you down too. It is the most intense thing you'll ever experience but can also be the most dull - it plays havoc with your nerves. There was a period when I was deployed to Kabul with the US Army where whenever I went out in the city to meet with someone or do a site visit, about three weeks later there would be a bombing or an insurgent attack at that location. You get used to it but initially it can be hard to come to terms with; I just took more US Marines with me the next time, they love that sort of thing.
- What would you say is the biggest factor in having a successful career in the RAF and what was the highlight of your career?
You have to be able to work as a team member but also be a leader who lets themselves be informed by their team. It is easy to believe in your own narrative, the polemic you have created for yourself, but invariably you are all the same people and you are nothing special. Never think that you are indispensable, the service has redundancy built in and you won't be missed when you're gone - 'out of sight out of mind'. But if you get a bad reputation it will be hard to get rid of it so, by just being a fair and likeable person you'll go a long way - it's a big family, don't be the black sheep. Your ability to get along with people in order to progress your career is no different from any other walk of life.
'The Law of Reciprocity – when someone does something nice for you, you will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return'
As for highlights, flying in conflict is what every pilot wants to do more than anything, it is the ultimate challenge and we love challenges. You have a lot of sleepless nights and it can be quite intimidating but you'll have normally been on exercises to prepare you for it. I participated in many multi-national exercises when I was on the Tornado GR4 and one highlight was leading the night Close Air Support (CAS) side of Exercise Red Flag flown out of Nellis AB, Nevada in the US. I had to work closely with American Apache and A-10 crews and teach elementary CAS techniques to Israeli F-16 pilots. I remember my Navigator (now called a Weapon Systems Officer) calling 'stop, stop, stop' to me just as I was about to release a PaveWay II laser-guided bomb as he had just seen an Apache fly through the cross-hairs on the targeting pod - a close miss that night. So, operational flying will always be the highlight for many pilots but now I get just as much satisfaction from getting a student, who has become a problem child, over their issues and onto their front-line aircraft. The psychology involved in coaching someone over a troubling period in their flying training should not be underestimated; the work that goes into it is huge and proportionate to the money that's already been spent on their training. For a student to fail at this late stage in their training is a huge blow to both the staff and student communities and there is always a review of what, if anything, could have been done to have prevented it. Personally I enjoyed my time at BRNC Dartmouth where I completed Initial Officer Training. I spent five years in the Royal Navy before transferring to the RAF and it was something completely different and involved going to sea on a Type-22 Frigate for an operational tour of the middle-east.
- What would you say separates a successful and an unsuccessful pilot candidate?
- What would you expect a successful candidate to have done (Voluntary Work, Work Experience) in their spare time?
Your spare time should be a period when you get to relax and unwind after studying or working so don't beat yourself up if you haven't been building an orphanage in Uzbekistan whilst designing the next generation of water purification devices. But having some interests is important as it gives you something to talk to the panel about other than being a legendary Halo 5 online gamer on your Xbox. Playing a musical instrument, participating in school plays/concerts and conducting work experience will all give you ammunition to use when asked what your hobbies and interests are. Voluntary work, although in no way essential, would probably help to give you an edge over those who haven't done it but have some reasons why you did it and not just 'so I could use it in an interview'. Making a difference in your local community will give you a great sense of self-worth and you'll meet some interesting people too. Being in the ATC or CCF will show that you have an interest in the Service and are actively learning about it in one of these organisations as does any attempt to get airborne in gliders or light aircraft. I used to cycle 30 miles every Saturday morning to a local airfield near Chichester where I'd clean the flying club aircraft for free in the hope that they give me a flight sometime. Just being around PA-28s and Cessna 172s at the age of 15 was an amazing experience for me and sometimes I was allowed in the flying club crew-room where I'd be able to meet guys and girls a few years ahead of me who were getting flying lessons. The school let me fly once a month in return for all of the cleaning I'd done and I ended up telling the OASC panel of this experience - they recognised my desire to fly and awarded me a flying scholarship giving me 30 hours of flying. Incidentally a met a guy on the scholarship who became a great friend and later the best man at my wedding; he went onto become the Royal Navy's most senior Lynx helicopter instructor and is still flying today. The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme is also a good thing to be involved with for developing leadership and teamwork as are team sports. The services love leaders so the only thing better than being in the first XV rugby team is being the captain of the first XV rugby team. When I failed my first Admiralty Interview Board with the Royal Navy I was told to go away and play some team sports, so I joined the Portsmouth Rugby Club in their forth team and gradually worked my way up to the second team. You show more leadership by being the captain of the forth team than by being a team member of the third.
- What advice would you give a 18 year old with aspirations of becoming an RAF Fast Jet Pilot?
Have a plan B, really think about what you will do if you don't get in. There are fewer fast jet pilots in the RAF than there are Premiership footballers so, statistically, you are more likely to become a Premiership footballer than a fast jet pilot. But someone has to do it and why shouldn't it be you? My brother has had an exceptionally varied career flying the Hercules all over the world in some of the most hostile environments imaginable so don't just look at fast jets - think rotary and multi-engine too. I recently spoke to a friend of mine who is looking at applying to British Airways as his 16 year military career comes to an end. He said that if he gets an interview he'd take two weeks of leave just to prepare for it - he takes it that seriously. Don't waste your time at OASC, make sure you prepare fully, use online forums, practise being interviewed and prepare your answers to some complicated questions you will most likely be asked. Remember that there are two other services out there too. I spent my university time in the Officers' Training Corps (OTC) in the infantry company specialising in a long range patrolling competition called the 'Cambrian Patrol'. Most of my buddies joined the Army after university whereas I joined the Navy. My friends from the University Air Squadron (UAS) joined the RAF but we are were all the same people, you'll find this out when you join. There is also movement within the services so if you are 5 years into a career with one service and an opportunity pops up in another you can normally transfer as I did; so don't neglect the other two services - there is a lot of fun to be had in all of them! For flying you'll need to practise your mental arithmetic and aptitude tests but you know that already.
But do have a plan for what you'll do if you don't get it and, if you haven't been to university, the panel will probably tell you that you should. This isn't saying that you aren't good enough to join it's just a way of saying that they would like you to gain some more experience and mature a little, they can't take every 18 year old, in fact they can only take a very small number.
But do keep applying, and if one service turns you down maybe talk to another - just 'keep on keeping on!'