Flying in the jet stream of the RAAF’s first female pilots

At age 16 Deborah Hicks was the youngest female pilot in Australia to fly solo. By the time she finished high school she had decided on a career in medicine when in 1987 Ros Kelly, then Minister for Defence, Science and Personnel opened up the Royal Australian Air Force to aspiring women pilots. Robyn Williams was one of the RAAF’s first female engineers, and had for years optimistically positioned herself for the moment when women could take their place on the RAAF flight deck.

Hicks (now Jeppesen) and Williams (now Clay-Williams) became the first women to get their wings in the RAAF, graduating the gruelling 14-month pilots’ course on 30 June 1988. In the lead-up to this week’s Creating Careers and Connections for Women in Aviation forum, sponsored by GE Women’s Network and the International Aviation Women’s Association, the women reflect on the thrills and challenges of their aviation breakthrough—and where it led them.

Robyn Clay-Williams and Deborah Jeppesen (nee Hicks) in g-suits, in front of a Macchi jet. Clay-Williams says that nothing compares to flying military aircraft, “They fly so much better, they handle really nicely, and they do aerobatics.”

“I grew up with a passion for flying,” says Jeppesen. She and her brothers, David and Peter, learned to fly their parents’ ultralight aircraft from a young age. Although her brothers pursued careers as military pilots, flying Harrier jets and FA-18 Hornets, Deborah didn’t consider it—the doors were closed to women. Some years later, when the rules first changed to allow women to apply for pilot training, though still not to fly in combat, Peter rang Deborah: “If they’re going to take female pilots, it might as well be you.” She didn’t waste any time and applied.

Four women and 30 men would be in the intake of  No.144 Pilots Course. By then Williams had achieved her electronic engineering degree. She had run a section of 70 personnel performing avionics maintenance on the C-130 Hercules and B-707 aircraft, before becoming a Divisional Officer in the Defence Force Academy.

The right stuff: “It’s important to do stuff because you love doing it, not because you want to be the first.” Robyn Clay-Williams.

Williams had fixed on becoming a pilot when she first flew as a 10-year-old passenger on a school excursion to Canberra. She wrote to Reginald Ansett and told him of her dreams. And when, on leaving school, she was refused an RAAF pilot traineeship because she was female, had vigorously pursued electronic engineering with the Air Force in anticipation of ultimately sitting at an RAAF aircraft control panel.

Robyn Clay-Williams was 26 years old when they opened the RAAF pilots course to women. “There are probably no words to describe how keen I was,” she says, but she was almost deemed too old to fly. She got in based on a stellar performance in the aptitude test, and went on to achieve dux of the whole No. 144 Pilots Course.

On entry to the RAAF pilots’ course, the women immediately experienced the thrill of flying the RAAF trainers. Williams had previously managed to pay the exorbitant cost of a dozen private flying lessons in light aircraft, but she says nothing compared to flying military planes. “They fly so much better, they handle really nicely. And on your very first flight in the course you do aerobatics—it may be the instructor who’s flying, but it’s really awesome!”

Unexpected early difficulties for the female trainees included that uniforms, flying gloves and change-room facilities hadn’t yet been conceived of or sized for women pilots; and that the publicity and attention they received for being first sometimes antagonised their male colleagues.

Overriding every other consideration was the competitiveness of the course; the class was repeatedly told that 50% of their cohort would fail. Pressure was intense, with a heavy learning load and constant testing of pilot knowledge and skills. Making a mistake in safety-related procedures meant mandatory failure.

The right stuff: “You need passion and you need drive, and a strong desire to succeed.” Deborah Jeppesen

“You do not want to fail!” recalls Clay-Williams. “It’s your dream. This isn’t a gender thing—it’s everybody. You put so much pressure on yourself.” She says that if you failed a ride you were allowed one retest, but people often made mistakes on the retest because they were so anxious. “That was one of the hardest parts—you were only ever two rides away from being scrubbed.”

Says Jeppesen, “The training continuum on the pilot’s course is a lot more positive now,” for many reasons, including evolving attitudes to effective training, and because pilot training is expensive.

Jeppesen and Williams were the only two women of No. 144 Pilots Course to graduate. Robyn Williams achieved dux of the entire course, and had she been male, she would have been given the opportunity to train for flying fighter jets. “I thought they couldn’t stop me—if I duxed it, I’d get my choice.” Jeppesen was set on flying helicopters, which were also combat aircraft.

Instead, the women were offered one of two non-combat postings: No. 34 Squadron in Canberra, to fly VIPs around the country and overseas in the Falcon 20 (Mystere) aircraft and later the Falcon 900; or flying HS-748 aircraft in the School of Air Navigation in East Sale, Victoria.

It wasn’t really a choice. Navigation training was a more senior posting, so Flight Lieutenant Williams went to country Victoria. Officer Cadet Hicks went to Canberra to fly for Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating; Governor General Bill Hayden, and foreign ministers and other VIPs. She later flew Hercules aircraft in No. 36 Squadron, transporting military personnel and equipment within Australia and to Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia.

“We were really looking forward to going to our squadrons,” says Jeppesen, “And we both had very positive experiences. We were well accepted by other pilots and aircrew.”

Deborah Jeppesen (nee Hicks), on graduation from RAAF No. 144 Pilots Course. She wanted to go on to fly helicopters, but was prevented by the fact that, in 1988, women were not allowed to take combat roles. “It was disappointing,” she says, “but it wasn’t unexpected. We learned to try to meet the challenges and try to break down the barriers, and eventually they opened those roles up.”

Jeppesen left the RAAF in 1994 when she and her husband, David, also an RAAF pilot, moved to Hong Kong to fly commercial aircraft for Cathay Pacific. Deborah ultimately decided not to fly commercial; instead she retrained as a psychologist, drawing on her aviation experience to study in the fields of neuropsychology, stress and emotional self-regulation.

The right stuff: “Enjoy the adventure while you can, then seek new challenges. A stint in the military can be very advantageous for career planning.” Deborah Jeppesen

She now works primarily in Defence, profiling military and political leaders for whole-of-government policy and engagement planning, trains elite special forces in performance optimisation and stress mitigation, and is undertaking PhD research with Australian National University into the interpersonal attributes of military advisors in Afghanistan.

“I’m intrigued by human behaviour, and my experiences in the RAAF have shaped where I’ve gone with psychology,” says Jeppesen. “Once you’re in the military, you’re never out of the military. You keep connections through common experiences. In terms of career development, it can be very positive,” she says.

Flight Lieutenant Robyn Williams (left) and Officer Cadet Deborah Hicks (right) receive awards for graduating RAAF pilot training, from pioneering Australian aviatrix, the late Nancy Bird Walton. Walton was founder and patron of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association.

Williams dedicated 24 years to developing her career within the RAAF. Following a stint in Europe where she trained as a test pilot, she returned to Australia to work for Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU). Her role came to encompass reviewing the contracts for Australia’s purchase of 12 new C-130J-30 Super Hercules aircraft.

“There weren’t many people jumping to do it,” she says, “because it was reviewing piles and piles of technical documents.” But when it was decided to send a pilot to the US to test fly the aircraft, Williams’ knowledge of the specifications tipped her for the opportunity.

“It was a fabulous job. Probably the best job I’ve ever had and ever will have,” she says of the posting that was supposed to take her to Atlanta for a year, but was extended to five years as she provided input for tweaks to the aircraft that would make the Hercules better suited to Australia’s needs.

With a team of engineers she then tested each aircraft on the ground and in flight before accepting them. “I signed for the very last one when I was seven months pregnant,” who met her husband, David Clay, while working in the US.

The RAAF she came back to had changed markedly over those five years. “When I left, it was a very male-dominated Air Force, struggling to modernise. The organisation I came back to was much more forward thinking, with a lot more opportunities for women,” says Clay-Williams.

The right stuff: “Do it for the flying, but also for the camaraderie. My engineering course—we’re still like family.” Robyn Clay-Williams

Clay-Williams now applies her experience as a test pilot to researching human factors that influence health care, at the Australian Institute for Healthcare Innovation, at Macquarie University.

“We were excited and relieved that we made it all the way through the course,” says Jeppesen (left).“Yeah, it felt pretty good,” laughs Clay-Williams (right). The just-graduated RAAF pilots are pictured here on graduation day in June 1988 with a Macchi jet.

“Test flying is essentially research,” she says. “Test pilots use similar research planning, analysis and reporting methods to academics. The ability to prioritise and make decisions under pressure that you learn in flying also stands you in good stead as a junior academic, where these qualities are very useful but perhaps less common”

The fact that there hasn’t yet been a woman fighter pilot in the RAAF ranks doesn’t surprise or particularly beset either Jeppesen or Clay-Williams. The reasons, they say, are likely to be both complex and simple: “It could be that the role just doesn’t appeal to that many women,” says Clay-Williams.

Jeppesen notes that instructors like Flight Lieutenant Sue Freeman, a UK pilot who flew Tornados for the RAF, are now helping to provide a career-path line of sight for women training at Air Force Base Pearce in Perth.

“I see no reason why women pilots can’t do exactly the same roles as men,” she adds. The ADF emphasises that there are no longer any barriers to women training for deployment—the Government removed gender restrictions from ADF combat roles in 1993.

“Robyn Williams certainly had the potential to become a fighter pilot when she went through training,” says Jeppesen. “If it had been open to her, I have no doubt Robyn would have succeeded at the time.”

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