Coachlines - November 2020

05.11.20 Commando Helicopter Force

30 years of women at sea: Commando Helicopter Force

AET Alice Woodman

The 30th anniversary of women deploying to sea in the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary was marked on 8th October 2020. It’s difficult to imagine and comprehend it now but in living memory women were not routinely allowed to serve at sea in the Royal Navy.

Due to its operational and world wide deployable role, an assignment within Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) is a sea ‘draft’, and it routinely has servicewomen across the Force in engineering, survival equipment, logistics, catering, stewarding, medical, dental and administration.

At present 845 Naval Air Squadron is deployed with its Commando Merlin MK4 helicopters on UK ship RFA ARGUS in the Caribbean. Working to maintain the helicopters that are embarked the following female engineers are working shifts alongside their male counterparts:

Air Engineering Technician (AET) Danielle Peakman and AET Alice Woodman have both served in the Royal Navy for three years and in that time have deployed on a number of operations with CHF.

The Merlin aircraft requires constant maintenance and AETs undergo a robust technical training to deliver this. In doing so they enable the key capability of the Royal Navy Task Group deployed to the Caribbean; to facilitate Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the event of a crisis or hurricane. Furthermore they live on the same platform where they work for months at a time, and yet they have never struggled to feel at home on a ship at sea.

Speaking of their careers in the Navy, AET Woodman said: “I always liked helicopters, maybe because we lived near an airport growing up. My Dad liked the Navy, and so after my exams I looked at joining up and engineering seemed like the best way to work with helicopters.”

AET Danielle Peakman

She said: “Joining up is the best thing I have ever done. I have learnt lots, and the job has made me very confident. I would say women are treated the same, even if there are fewer of us, it is very open to women and the boys are inclusive. And then there are all the other opportunities in the Navy. So far I have been able to go skydiving in Cyprus and on a trip kitesurfing in Egypt as part of adventurous training as well as deploying overseas on operations.”

AET Peakman said: “I always wanted to travel but I think it is a good idea to get a trade first. I was interested in engineering so when I started looking into the Navy I discovered that I can travel alongside my work. I have been to Norway, Canada and the US while I was on HMS Queen Elizabeth. The work has challenges at times, but being on ship surrounded by people all the time also has helped me to become more confident. I have built up a good network of friends and I enjoy the work.”

Integration and inclusivity are not merely buzzwords: here they are evident in a workplace environment where male and female sailors live and work together at sea. Given the essential role of the female AETs and all the other serving women in a number of departments and units currently on board RFA Argus, it is hard to believe there was once a time that women were not deployed to sea, and that these surroundings were not the norm.

Within CHF headquarters and its unit personnel office there are appointments that see servicewomen deploy, many to Norway annually to support the training regime. Each has to go through the mandated cold weather survival course along with everybody that deploys to the Bardufoss air base.”