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I was a fighter pilot - but lost confidence after having kids
MANDY Hickson was one of the first female fast jet pilots in the RAF.
She had done three tours of Iraq, dodging enemy fire on an almost daily basis.
On the frontline she had taken part in numerous bombing and combat missions, flying a Tornado jet.
Her life was frequently in danger but she says she never felt any fear: “when you’re doing the job, you’re just doing the job,” she explains.
But when Mandy got back into a cockpit after taking a break to have her two children, she was gripped by panic.
“I’ve always been a confident person but when I went back after the ground tour when I had my two children, I felt so unsure of myself.
“It wasn’t just my skill set, it was my decision making process as well,” says the 39-year-old from Winchester.
“A friend said she’d take me up in a Tornado and I said ‘I actually don’t think I can do that’.
“It was an instructor plane but I was still so nervous. I was about to take a £50 million aircraft airborne and my stomach was flipping and I was thinking ‘I can’t do this’, but my hands went back to all the switches and I realised ‘actually I can.’”
Mandy’s personal experience of the difficulties women can face when returning to work after having children was an important step which has led her to her latest venture – Inspiring Women for Work, an event designed to give women confidence in the workplace.
It’s a big event to be putting on but Mandy is used to taking on challenges.
She was one of the first girls to join the Air Training Corps, when she was 13.
It wasn’t the prospect of flying which interested her but canoeing, which the Corps also ran, which attracted her, but soon she was hooked.
She started flying lessons when she was 17 and learnt to fly a plane before she could drive a car, joining the RAF aged 21.
Her journey to become an RAF pilot was a bumpy one. Applicants to the air force have to pass an aptitude test that they get two shots at in their lifetime.
Mandy failed both times.
“I was devastated but my commanding officer believed that I had what it took to make it so he asked for two impartial instructors to come and fly with me and they graded me as above average. I had a computer saying I couldn’t fly and instructors saying I could.
“They decided to take me on as a pilot as a test case. Women had only just been allowed to become pilots and they couldn’t understand why they were disproportionately failing the aptitude tests so they tried to see if I could prove the system wrong, and I did.”
Mandy was posted to the II (AC) Squadron, based out of RAF Marham in Norfolk and defended the no fly zone in the Gulf between the two Gulf wars.
“There were surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery – we were being shot at, if not on a daily basis, then two or three times a week.
“It’s very strange as a pilot because you’re still in your own environment. You see little puffs of black smoke around you and you realise someone is on the ground shooting at you.
She says that she never felt afraid and adds: “I’m often asked ‘did you not mind that you were going to be killing people’, but ultimately you’re doing it for a bigger picture and you’re protecting the lives of others.”
Although she conquered her nerves about flying again, after she had her children Mandy moved to a second line job in the RAF.
“I didn’t know if I would go back to active service or not but one of my children has quite severe learning difficulties so I realised fairly early on that he would need additional help.”
She left the RAF 18 months ago after serving almost 17 years, although she still volunteers with them, taking up air training corps cadets in a tutor plane.
She now does training in aviation companies and motivational speaking but her latest passion is Inspiring Women For Work.
“The big thing for me was I kept on meeting women through my work and at the school gates and thinking ‘gosh, they had such highpowered jobs before but what has happened since having children?’.
“A lot if it was about confidence.
I kept coming back to the idea that I really wanted to do something to make a difference and organise an event which involves life coaching.”
The Inspiring Women For Work event will include workshops and life coaches matched to women’s specific issues, whether they’re looking to return to work after their children have started school or are simply stuck in an employment rut.
“A while ago I kept having this recurring dream about putting this sort of event on,” she says.
“Then I met Rachel Maunder, a life coach and told her about it – now she’s my business partner.
“I’d been giving women tips from my own experience and they’d say that they were really working. I thought ‘Why am I saying this to everyone?’. I wanted to work on a bigger scale.
“This is a great opportunity to work with a life coach on a personal level. It’s about making a difference to people – that’s what it’s all about.”
Mandy does admit that she has some nerves about her new venture, but her son has helped her to get over them.
“I was getting stressed about it and my son said ‘Mum, you’re always telling me ‘dream it, believe it, do it’. And I thought ‘You’re right’. As soon as you have those worries you have to get them out of your mind and focus on the positive.”