Meet the pioneering female fast jet pilot who smashed the glass ceiling

A pioneering female fast jet pilot, who was the second woman ever to fly a Tornado GR4 on the front line, has been speaking of her remarkable career and the influential role she has played in encouraging women to join the Royal Air Force. 

Former pilot turned motivational speaker and author Mandy Hickson was an extraordinary pioneer of her time. 

The air force veteran believes the armed forces were not prepared for women to be fully integrated into the air force when the Women’s Royal Air Force, established in 1949, formally merged with the RAF in 1994 and she says there was nothing the air force did to suggest "we are welcoming you with our arms open here".

Speaking with Amy Casey, BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster for the RAF podcast Inside Air, Mandy explained what that meant in practical terms, saying: "They changed the rules, but then they changed nothing within the system. 

"No female toilets, no female flying kit." 

During her RAF career, Mandy flew 45 missions over Iraq, completed three tours of duty and operated in hostile environments, including patrolling the no-fly zone over Iraq. But her journey to the top wasn't all plain sailing. 

She faced several obstacles which only served to develop her mental resilience and desire to succeed. 

Mandy's love of flying started in her early teenage years when she joined the Air Cadets at 14 - pictured below in the back row, second from the left. Three years later she was awarded an RAF flying scholarship and gained a private pilot's license.

Meanwhile, at this stage, women were starting to be accepted as pilots in the Air Force, but not on the frontline in fast jets. 

It was only when Mandy was at university that the rules were changed and women were allowed to fly on the frontline in fast jet operations. 

Mandy had proved to herself and others that she was a more than capable pilot but failed the computer-based aptitude tests, taken by all potential RAF pilots, twice. She said: "Because it was a stage when they were just opening the doors to women, actually there was a huge proportion of women that were taking the test and failing them, compared to men." 

With support from Karl Bufton, the leader of Mandy's University Air Squadron, and a dogged determination to achieve her dream of becoming an RAF pilot, she began her career as an air traffic controller and eventually became a pilot, following what she described as "a bit of persuasion and a lot of letters and it also being escalated through the ranks".

Mandy Hickson pioneering female fast jet pilot second woman ever to fly a Tornado GR4 on the front line (Picture: Mandy Hickson).
Mandy Hickson sat on a Tornado (Picture: Mandy Hickson).

When the time came for Mandy to fulfil her dream of being a fast jet pilot on the front-line, she was not mentally prepared for how it would actually feel to be the only woman among her peers. She said: "I don't think I'd really appreciated just how tough I would probably find it when I got out to The Gulf, being the only woman out there. 

"In my latter tour, I did have another female navigator that arrived on my squadron, Helen, and at least we had a little bit of a female camaraderie."

While Mandy says the Armed Forces of today has really got to grips with caring for the mental health of serving personnel, in the early stages of her career, Mandy did not feel that her wellbeing was supported or even considered, saying: "25 years ago we didn't talk about mental health and it just wasn't really mentioned. 

"There was this thing of PTSD, but no one really talked about it." 

Mandy Hickson pioneering female fast jet pilot second woman ever to fly a Tornado GR4 on the front line (Picture: Mandy Hickson).
Mandy Hickson holds a trophy while in uniform (Picture: Mandy Hickson).

The RAF veteran also felt there was a lack of role models for her to look up to – unlike the female pilots today who have a plethora of women in the air force who they can feel inspired and encouraged by. 

Mandy hopes that she and her peers have inspired women to join the Armed Forces and helped to make the process more straightforward, saying: "I really hope that the work that you know myself and some of those pioneering female aviation professionals has actually made a difference and has made it easier for people to follow in our footsteps." 

Being one of the first women to be fully integrated into the RAF meant Mandy faced some difficult behaviour from her male colleagues, like being told she wasn't feminine enough, being challenged by her CO for swearing at a mess do and having the nickname Big Bird, which she says "was just part and parcel to what went on". 

An Officer, Not A Gentleman Book Mandy Hickson
An Officer, Not A Gentleman by Mandy Hickson

It took looking back on those times while she wrote her book, "An Officer, Not A Gentleman", for Mandy to appreciate just how far the Armed Forces, and society as a whole, has come, saying: "It's only really when I was looking through the lens of writing the book now with what's happening in society now that you think, oh my goodness, that was really was inappropriate. 

"And I just think the military has changed immeasurably." 

Looking back on her career in the RAF, Mandy does not have many regrets, however there is something where she felt a little bit let down by the RAF and that she looks back on with a "sense of sorrow".

As one of the very few women in the RAF, she was not given many options to further her career after becoming a mother. She was given two options which was either she could go straight back to the front-line when the Tornado was deployed to Afghanistan or go to RAF Valley in Wales as an instructor. 

At this point, Mandy was married to a pilot who flew out of Gatwick, so following her to RAF Valley was not an option. Neither was taking her four-month-old baby and 20-month-old toddler to Wales and leaving her husband behind.

Mandy found herself at a crucial fork in the path of her life, as she explained to Amy, saying: "I just looked at that and thought I can't do that. 

"I had to make a really big choice and I found a job that was at Boscombe Down in Salisbury. 

"Second-line job, well within my rights to do it, but I was told if I took the job I would never be promoted again and I remember that really clearly in that phone call." 

Does Mandy see any change in the attitude towards women within the RAF now?

"Absolutely. So, returning to work, taking sabbaticals, having time periods off, flexible working hours, working from home. 

"I think obviously COVID has sped up that process somewhat, but it's actually made people recognise that it can work, it does work and actually you might end up with some really much better quality and more experienced people that are going to come back into the Air Force." 

Cover image: Mandy Hickson - the second woman ever to fly a Tornado GR4 on the front line (Picture: Mandy Hickson).