Awards 2010: Real 'Higher Education' For RAF Helicopter Graduates
Date posted: 22 January 2010
A female member of an RAF combat helicopter crew and her male colleague - both bound for Afghanistan - will be flying high when they graduate from the University of Derby.
Sergeant Stephanie Cole, 24, from Wiltshire, will graduate with a Foundation Degree in Applied Aviation Studies - a joint course with the RAF - at the University's Awards Ceremonies, held this Friday and Saturday (January 22-23) at Derby Assembly Rooms.
Stephanie works with several other female crew members - including Flight-Lieutenants Michelle Goodman and Joanna Watkinson, and Sergeant Wendy Donald - and is currently stationed at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire; a front line support helicopter base working within the service's Joint Helicopter Command. Stephanie is shortly due to be sent to southern Afghanistan for combat duty.
Whilst there, Stephanie and her colleagues will form part of Merlin helicopter crews flying missions taking troops and supplies to the frontline against the Taliban in Helmand Province. They will also airlift casualties.
Also graduating from Derby with the same Foundation Degree in Applied Aviation Studies is fellow helicopter Crewman Sergeant Lewis Tyrrell, 25, from Blackpool. He is also based at RAF Benson and due to be sent to Afghanistan later this year.
Neither of the RAF officers will be attending this week's Derby Awards Ceremonies because of operational commitments.
To prepare for their role Merlin helicopter crews train in the desert areas of California, USA, and at US airbase El Centro, to approximate the heat and dust they will have to deal with in Afghanistan.
Stephanie and Lewis's training has included gunnery practice on the helicopter's three 7.62mm general purpose machine guns, in order to be able to defend their aircraft in Afghanistan.
As a member of an RAF combat helicopter crew Stephanie said she accepted that whilst on duty they would come under enemy fire, with the possibility of being shot down or forced to ditch their aircraft in hostile territory.
Stephanie has been in the RAF for three years and is the youngest member of her crew. Her training chiefly involves being responsible for the passengers and cargo in the cabin, keeping the helicopter's pilots informed of obstacles around the aircraft and defending it if necessary.
She said: "If we are required to man the weapons it is to provide covering fire in a high threat situation to allow the aircraft to safely evacuate. In certain situations we will also be accompanied by an Apache or Lynx (helicopter) which will undertake the air assault role if required."
Asked what she thought male troops would make of a potentially all-female crew, Stephanie added: "I don't think an all-female crew would make a difference to anyone.
"We're all professionals capable of doing our jobs in the most demanding conditions and I don't think being female changes that in any way.
"There's always banter between the crews, and between the different Services, but it's all light-hearted and it is one of our coping mechanisms for the conditions that we face.
"I don't believe the guys on the ground would have any problem being picked up by females; the most important thing to them is that we are there to help them when they need it."
One of her toughest jobs is helping to guide the aircraft during dust landings.
Whilst practicing these difficult dust landings in El Centro, she said: "It's a lot easier by day than by night but it's been good. This is the great thing about the detachment to California before Afghanistan. Practice is the time to make mistakes.
"The Merlin is a great bit of kit, it's been great to fly. Because we've got the onboard communications you can actually get involved with the pilot more than the other aircraft; we can help offload some of their workload."
Lewis's family has a distinguished Services background. His mother was in the Navy, his father in the Royal Marines and his brother is in the Army.
He said: "I am nervous about going to Afghanistan but it's what I'm trained for. My parents support me in what I'm doing."
Lewis added that the Foundation Degree in Applied Aviation Studies, run by the RAF and Derby, had been useful in helping him assess his own leadership qualities, especially important for his role as a Crewman responsible for anybody boarding the helicopter.
The University part of the course is run through its School of Flexible and Partnership Learning (SFPL), which uses methods such as online and distance learning, and block release, to enable students to fit coursework in around their work and home lives.
Sarah Gibbons, Tutor in the Lifelong Learning Scheme based in SFPL and Programme Leader for the Foundation Degree, added: "Stephanie and Lewis's occupation is certainly an unusual one but, like all of our learners, they needed a course which would fit around the other parts of their life, which in this case are incredibly demanding. That's what our work is all about, really."
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