VASTLY outnumbered by men, sheltered from combat and paid less money, being a woman in the Royal Air Force used to be a restricted experience.

But it didn’t stop them from having fun or grasping every opportunity that came their way.

The same camaraderie that held male squadrons together in tough situations existed in female-only units.

Little Milton resident Annie Coates, 56, is a former senior aircraftwoman who served as an air traffic control assistant in Scotland, the East Midlands and Cyprus.

She said: “It was a great experience to be part of the forces – it’s not for everyone but if you enjoy that world it’s great.

Witney Gazette:

  • Little Milton resident Annie Coates, 56, is a former senior aircraftswoman who served as an air traffic control assistant in Scotland, the East Midlands and Cyprus.

“I believe I had as many opportunities as I needed and I was fine with where we were at the time.

“There was so much camaraderie that you don’t get anywhere else than in the forces.”

Mrs Coates, originally from Lancashire, left school at 16 and initially worked as a civil servant but said she got so “bored out of her mind” she joined the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) three years later.

She was one of about 65 women who trained at RAF Hereford for six weeks, mainly kept separate from men, before she was eventually posted to RAF Kinloss.

Mrs Coates worked there in operations for four years, and was one of about 150 women in a 2,500-strong unit.

Witney Gazette:

  • Annie Coates while serving in the RAF

Women were in different blocks but would take part in the same exercises as men and shared guard duty shifts.

She said: “At first it was quite intimidating but it’s like anywhere with that kind of ratio.

“We got looked after by the boys and a lot of them would tease you.

“If you were a feminist you probably felt like a secondary force but I didn’t feel that way.

“We were treated differently because of rules and regulations but I never felt separated or that we weren’t part of the RAF.”

During Mrs Coates’ service Britain fought in the Falklands War but women didn’t see any slice of the action.

She said: “The closest women came was some nurses who were on a boat off the coast but as far as I’m aware no girls stepped foot on the island.

“Nowadays girls go to Afghanistan and see an awful lot more than we did – I have so much admiration for them.”

Mrs Coates flew on Hawker Siddeley Nimrod aircraft with men but women were never part of the air crew.

On one occasion she was the only woman on board during a flight to Gibraltar and the only ‘toilet’ was a bucket behind a curtain.

She added: “The rules are different now so I would have thought there would be a little more privacy these days.”

Mrs Coates was later posted at RAF North Luffenham and RAF Buchan, both radar units with no aircraft, before leaving in 1983 to join her then-partner at his new job.

She became a civilian air traffic controller and now tests software for the National Airspace System computer in Hampshire.

She is married to Andy and has two children, Amy, 16, and Laura, 14.

Fiona Morgan-Frise, 57, served from 1974 to 2007, including two stints at RAF Brize Norton, where she retired as a squadron leader.

She witnessed the change in politics allowing women to carry weapons in the mid-1980s and was deployed to every conflict after the Falklands War.

The married mum-of-one, who now lives in Erlestoke, Wiltshire, said there are now more female officers.

She said: “As a female officer in the air force you are leading men all the time and the ratio of female to male officers has grown.

“The air force is now made up of almost 50 per cent women, whereas before it might have been about 10 per cent.”

Carterton resident Adrienne Black, 42, who is doing the WRAF on Tour walk (see opposite page) served from 1990 to 2012 as an administrator, ending as a sergeant.

She travelled to Hong Kong and Australia to play volleyball for the RAF and was posted to Kosovo, Falklands Islands, Macedonia and the Netherlands for service.

The mum-of-two, married to Sgt Lee Black, a senior cabin crew member at RAF Brize Norton’s 101 Squadron, said: “When I joined up I was non-combatant but that changed after a few years.

“It was really exciting because we were handling a live weapon, stripping it down and putting it back together.”

1,000 take part in fundraising tour for charity

About 1,000 women are taking part in WRAF's on Tour, so far raising more than £11,000 for the Royal Air Forces Association and Macmillan Cancer Support.

It started in Stranraer on Saturday, June 28 and will end at the National Memorial Arboretum in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on Saturday, October 25.

They are walking, cycling and riding horses between each leg.

Six women walked or cycled 10 miles in the 67th leg from RAF Benson to Dalton Barracks in Abingdon – formerly RAF Abingdon – on Monday.

Annie Coates, part of the group, was due to walk to RAF Weston-on-the-Green yesterday but as she was the only one taking part she instead walked the equivalent 34 miles in her own time.

Today, a group of six women will walk or cycle from Weston-on-the-Green to RAF Brize Norton, and will be followed by at least 10 women walking 22 miles from the West Oxfordshire base to RAF Wroughton in Wiltshire tomorrow.

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‘A woman’s presence can be calming’

Being a woman in the military can be an advantage, according to a commanding officer at RAF Brize Norton.

Squadron Leader Olivia Steel, part of No 1 Air Mobility Wing, believes women can offer a different perspective to men during intense situations.

Witney Gazette:

  • Sq Ldr Olivia Steel is in a minority as a female commanding officer at RAF Brize Norton 

The 33-year-old said: “The RAF is a brilliant career for a woman because it gives you the opportunity to get out and travel, and puts you in situations you might not get to experience in a civvie world.

“We will always be in the minority and I’ve always been either the only girl or one of a handful of girls, but if you’re good at your job then you get treated like anyone else.”

Sq Ldr Steel, who lives on base with her civilian engineer husband Mark, 34, said she managed to use her femininity to control situations that could have escalated.

She said: “It’s a very male-dominated environment so sometimes the presence of a woman can really make a difference.

“It can calm a situation or bring a totally different perspective to a problem.

“When I went to work in the United Arab Emirates I was the only woman in a room where it would get quite heated, but by saying things in a different way I could calm the situation.”

Female mechanics gain ground 

The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was born out of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), which was founded on June 28, 1939, ahead of the Second World War.


Witney Gazette:

  • Corporal Sheila Pounder of the Woman's Royal Airforce wears a mask as she directs a spray gun at the tail of a meteor 7 fighter jet

At its peak strength in 1943, it had more than 180,000 members and they were among the 1,570 ground crew killed.

They did not serve as air crew, with the only female pilots in the civilian Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).

There were 15 types of duty, including catering, meteorology, transport, telephony, telegraphy, codes, ciphers, intelligence, security and operation rooms.

Members were paid two-thirds the wages of men in the RAF.

On February 1, 1949 it was renamed the WRAF, which had existed briefly from 1918 to 1920 to provide female mechanics.

As well as the renaming, it meant more trades opened up to women, who were given permanent roles in recognition of their wartime contribution, including driving and ground signalling, but they were not allowed in combat.

Witney Gazette:

  • A new style hat is modelled in 1958 by SACW Wendy Noyce and SACW Gloria Davies of Birmingham, left and right, with SACW Margaret Middleton wearing the current style of hat 

The first female aircrew were trained in 1989 and the following year Flight Lieutenant Julie Gibson became the RAF’s first operational female pilot.

On April 1, 1994, the WRAF formally merged with the RAF.

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