Book Review: “An Officer, Not a Gentleman”

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

By: Mandy Hickson

Mandy Hickson became only the second female fast jet pilot in Royal Air Force history when she qualified in 1999 as a pilot on the Panavia Tornado, an aircraft she would fly until 2002. Her RAF career spanned 17 years in full, the bulk of it in flying roles.

While women flying in combat roles in air arms in many nations is no longer the groundbreaking news it once was, military flying is still seen as primarily a man’s world. That goes double for the fast jet community.

“An Officer, Not a Gentleman” is an enjoyable book about one woman’s experience in the fast jet community at a time when the RAF was facing the reality of women wanting to fly combat jets and the policy and attitude changes that it needed to make to facilitate that.

What you will find in this book is memoirs rather than mantras. Hickson makes it very clear from an early point that she wanted to be a pilot since childhood; this book puts the fulfilment of her personal dream ahead of feminist rhetoric. This is a very personal story.

As expected, this book goes into good detail about the trials and tribulations the author contended with in the RAF from the time she took her entrance tests to becoming qualified in the Tornado aircraft and flying it in combat over Iraq.

While she recalls a number of more old school thinking male officers that felt women had no place flying combat jets and went to efforts to make things more diffucult for her than need be, she gives significantly more time to those men who went through training alongside her and her squadronmates that were very supportive of her from the start.

A great example of the support she received is a recollection from her training. She was experiencing troubles with some formation flying and was at risk of failing the course. One of her fellow trainees took her to the parade ground, where the rest of their training squadron was waiting, and they all practiced the formation with bicycles until she was confident with it.

Such positive stories are refreshing and contrast well against another incident where she attended a pub party night with her squadronmates. She drank some beer, danced and generally had a good time fitting in with the group and becoming a member of it. The next day, she was subjected to a double standard when her commanding officer reprimanded her for not acting enough like a lady at the event.

The book also explores adjustments and trade-offs she had to make in her RAF career to accomodate getting married and starting a family. This included the difficult decision of leaving the fast jet community for less strenuous assignments that presented her with fewer chances of promotion in rank.

The book gives as much time to experiences that are common for anyone, male or female, who goes down the route to military fast jet flying. As with many other memoirs of such pilots, this one follows an individual who was very physically active in childhood and was bitten by the aviation bug early in life. This individual also excelled in school, showed an aptitude for flying in their teens and had their flying license before they had a driving license.

Where this book really shines is in the humanity, humility and humour with which it was written. Hickson never comes across as bitter when she recalls individuals who tried to hold her back and freely concedes when a bad situation she found herself in was the result of an error on her part. She also keeps the tone of the book upbeat with a good amount of wit in the mix.

The only negative point about this book, and it’s a small one, is that it contains quite a bit of British English slang that can be confusing if you’re not familiar with it. The book has a good glossary to cover the technical jargon, it could benefit from having a glossary or footnotes to explain the British specific slang as well.

Since leaving the RAF, Mandy Hickson has been very active as a motivational speaker and business navigation consultant. This link will take you to her website, where you can find out more about her and purchase a limited edition copy of “An Officer,Not a Gentleman”

This is definitely a book you can buy with confidence.

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