December 29th, 2009
09:43 AM ET

Female aircrew eager for Afghan mission

(CNN) - Sgt. Stephanie Cole joined Britain's Royal Air Force more than three years ago to fly into battle - and not, as she says, to stay on the ground and "fly a desk."

Soon, she'll finally get to do what she signed up for - working on a helicopter crew in dusty and rugged southern Afghanistan, where British, U.S., other international forces and Afghan soldiers are slugging it out with Taliban militants.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Cole, 24 (on the far left in the photo above).

She will be among four female air crew members deployed to a pool of more than 100 pilots and loadmasters beginning New Year's Day to handle the newly-deployed Merlin helicopters in battle-scarred Helmand province, a haven for insurgents and an illegal drug trade.

The other three are pilots Flight Lt. Michelle Goodman, 32, the first woman to win Britain's Distinguished Flying Cross for her actions in Iraq; Flight Lt. Joanna Watkinson, 29; and loadmaster Sgt. Wendy Donald, 31 (pictured left to right after Cole). Three others are still in training.

Royal Air Force spokeswoman Lesley Woods said their presence in the Afghan war zone reflects a British societal trend: More women are considering careers in wartime and are realizing "they can play a part in today's armed forces."

The four-person Merlin crews will pick up casualties, fly supply missions and use machine guns to fend off Taliban fire. It is possible all four women will be deployed on one helicopter. Merlins can haul up to 20 people and they will complement the work of the Chinook, Sea King and Lynx copters.

Earlier this year, the four trained in southern California, where the hot and dusty environment resembled Afghanistan's.

Goodman and Watkinson practiced "evasive flying maneuvers" and Cole and Donald trained on the helicopter's three 7.62 mm machine guns, the British Defence Ministry said.

What's it like being females in a male-dominated military? The RAF's Woods supplied their comments from transcripts of interviews.

Their male counterparts, Goodman says, are great sports.

"You don't really notice any difference, it's just every day," Goodman said. "You always get banter but that's what you expect. If I didn't get banter I would think there was something wrong."

Watkinson agreed, saying she doesn't really notice being one of a handful of females on the Merlin force.

"You start your officer training and there's two or three girls on your flight and you just go through training and get used to the fact that you're one of very few girls around the place. The boys are the boys, they always will be, and I get on with them really well, but it is quite nice when you're flying with some other girls around the place that you can be close friends with."

Some women who join the military are following their male relatives.

"It was sort of following in the line of the family and it was something I wanted to do as well," said Donald. And, Cole said, her father is in the RAF and she has "kind of always grown up around it."

Goodman says, "It's a good career" and emphasizes that it's not "widely known that women can come into the military, that they potentially go out to places like Iraq and Afghanistan."

Watkinson said there will always be doubters who think women can't take on certain tasks because of their gender.

"I've had a few people tell me that in the past and I'd like to see them one day and go, 'Hah, told you!' "

She too has had relatives in the British armed forces, including her grandmother, a nurse who was "one of first females ever to be awarded a commission in the army.

"There's a lot of forces history in the family but I don't think as an only child girl I was ever going to follow down the same thing. My mum, dad and step-mum are all immensely proud. All my family are very proud."

Cole's female friends think her career is "pretty cool."

"They're all struggling in jobs and debts from university. I know some of my friends think, 'There's absolutely no way you'd catch me doing something like that, you're bonkers,' but it's good."

Watkinson said she "attended an all girls' school and all of us girls had the school's full support for whichever career we chose."

"I have friends who have become lawyers, dentists, doctors and business women - all areas which used to be very male-dominated. We were taught that we could do whatever we put our minds to, shown each year when a number of 'old girls', including myself, return to the school each year for the careers convention. It's amazing to see the support we have from the girls there today and their families."

As for the work, it will be in tough terrain. Comparing Iraq to Afghanistan, Goodman said, "Obviously the threat is slightly different out there as well and there's a lot more happening and going on. And ... the Merlin force has expanded so much over the 18 months we've got a lot of new guys who are going to be coming out with us who will not have been on operations before."

Also deployed in the past to Iraq, Watkinson said the skills learned in that war will come in handy in Afghanistan. But there will be differences. "The Merlin has operated in Iraq at the height of the threat and will perform equally well in Afghanistan; with tasking that will be similar, covering trooping, underslung loads, replenishment tasks and casualty evacuation. The Taliban have had many years of fighting and so are very experienced; and with the inhospitable, high altitude terrain in Afghanistan, our task will require top notch training and engineering," she said.

Watkinson noted the unique challenges in Afghanistan for pilots.

"The area of operation is large and predominantly at high altitude. All engines suffer from reduced efficiency in hot climates and rotor blades, by their nature, have decreased lift at high altitudes," she said. "In addition to this, mountain flying on night-vision goggles is a difficult skill to master; with various wind effects through the mountains and dust clouds at most landing sites. The combination of these factors means that the operation of the aircraft is a challenge."

Is the work particularly arduous for a woman?

"It is a hard job. I don't like to say it's too tough, it's different," Donald said. "I like to put the girls on the same level. It's hard but you just get on with it. The best bit is flying in different places. We've been in Iraq for a few years; Afghanistan coming up, for myself in January, I'm going out with my flight in January, and that's going to be something new. Coming to places like this, doing different training, something new. You don't get to do that in an everyday job. Flying is what I've always wanted to do so that is definitely the best part for me."

The aviators expect to shoot, be shot at, and possibly, be shot down or "forced to ditch their aircraft in hostile territory," Britain's Defence Ministry said. But Goodman said their minds will be on their tasks.

"If we thought about the threat continually, we would never be able to do our jobs," Goodman said. "Obviously, we always bear it in mind in terms of our actions but when you're in the middle of a dangerous sortie you just get on with your job."

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