High-flying woman: Q&A with the RAF’s first female Air Marshal 

Royal Air Force (RAF) engineer Sue Gray was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal in February, making her a three-star commander and the most senior female military officer in the British Armed Forces. Berenice Baker talks to Gray about her career in the RAF and the importance of inspiring girls and young women into engineering careers.

RAF Air Marshal Sue Gray. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

Air Marshal Sue Gray joined the RAF in August 1985 and has held a wide variety of roles, from engineering on VC10 Transport aircraft and working with the Joint Helicopter Force during both Gulf Wars to leading the Combat Clothing Project Team. She will soon be taking up the position of Director General of the UK Defence Safety Authority and is keen to inspire girls and young women into technical careers through her role as the RAF’s STEM ambassador.

RAF Air Marshal Sue Gray. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

// Berenice Baker:
Did you always want a career in the military? 

// Sue Gray:

No, I think it was pretty mercenary, actually. They agreed to sponsor me through university and I thought that’d be good, someone else can pay for it, and I wanted to do something that was different. I always knew I didn’t want to sit in an office and do a nine-to-five job. They made me sign up for six years and 33 years later I’m still here, so I’m not sure who got the best deal!

Why did you choose the RAF out of the three services?

Because of the technology, really. Although the Army and Navy would say we’re equal now, in those days it was the glamour of the aircraft.

You have served in a number of different roles during your time in the RAF. What has been your proudest achievement to date?

Deploying on the second Gulf War with a team of about 1,000 people and several different helicopter types. We had to plan, deploy, get there, set ourselves up and then actually go into battle. We weren’t actually in a fight, but [on] the first night we were the first people across the border in response to anti-ship weapons that had been launched into our camp.04

It was a kind of early entry, we weren’t really expecting to go quite so soon. But, you know what, everyone absolutely did what they were supposed to do. And then at the end of the three months we were out there, with lots of different activities that we had to do, bringing everybody safely home. That was probably my most satisfying and rewarding experience.

What kind of opportunities does the RAF offer engineers that civilian companies don’t? 

Working on different aircraft types, or even in the communications world, you often don’t see the complexity, the variety that you get to work on in the military. You also move around quite regularly and do different things without having to apply for a different job.

I’ve worked on body armour and helmets for the Army, I’ve worked on helicopters, I’ve worked on procuring fast jets, I’ve worked as the head of media and communications for two years. The types of role you’re asked to do are more varied than you would get by being in one company.

Then, of course, you get a tremendous amount of leadership experience at a really young age. Many a night when working on VC10s [Vickers VC10, used by the RAF as strategic transport aircraft and for refuelling], as the only officer on the station actually awake, if you had an emergency landing, it was up to you, which is enormously satisfying when it goes well.

My favourite aircraft type is helicopters, though – I probably shouldn’t say that, but I’m helicopters through and through. And that’s where I’ve done some of my toughest assignments: deploying with helicopters.

Gray visited the Defence College of Technical Training in RAF Cosford for International Women’s Day and met with some of the 45 female apprentices currently studying STEM trades at the college. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

You’re also the RAF’s STEM champion. Is inspiring the next generation important to you?

Yeah, really important. Where am I going to get the next generation of engineers if I don’t inspire [young people], particularly young women, to go into it? The UK is 51% female, so I need to tap into that equally as tapping into the male population in terms of their interest in engineering and STEM activities.

And we have struggled in the past, as has all industry. Over the last year, RAF100 [the RAF’s 100th anniversary celebrations] would have been an ideal opportunity to promote what the Air Force does.

There is much more interest, and much more willingness from the parents, to think about a career in the armed forces, which many would not have considered before.

How important is it that all British Armed Forced roles are now open to women? 

It’s important that everybody should be able to do what they want to do. I think there were good reasons [for restricting roles for women] at the time, but slowly over time, we’ve knocked those hurdles over.

A lot of it is around flexible employment because there’s no getting away from the fact that if a woman wants to have a child, then she’s going to have to bear the brunt of it for at least a certain time. Therefore we need to be more flexible in the way we employ people, and I think we’re pretty good at looking after people.

But it’s about the family, especially if the husband or wife is a serving officer or airman, looking at it as a family unit, that family unit is hugely valuable, so we need to make it work for them. We can’t afford to lose highly-prized female engineers because they can’t make it work around looking after family.

Air Marshal Gray. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

Do we need a critical mass of women in senior military positions to act as mentors to other women coming up through the ranks? 

I would contest that we need a few role models, but when I go around schools they don’t really want to listen to someone who probably should have retired by now; they actually want to listen to someone not much older than them who is doing something really, really interesting. I think that’s what inspires them to have a career; even if it’s only a short career, it’s still taking part and adding benefit to the Armed Forces and themselves.

What one piece of advice would you offer to girls or young women a woman consider a career in the military?

Go for it, there’s nothing you can’t do, and take every opportunity that’s offered. If you don’t like it you can leave!