Interview: Fast-jet RAF pilot Jules Thurston, 28

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The Independent Online

Can you tell us about your current role?

I'm a pilot based at RAF Lossiemouth at the Operational Conversion Unit. Prior to joining this unit I was an instructor for the Hawk, which prepares pilots for the basics of fast-jet operations. I'm now being trained to fly the Tornado GR4. The course is about seven months long and I am halfway through. After that I will move into frontline operations, based at RAF Marham in Norfolk for two to three years.

How did your career start out?

It's thanks to my dad that I became a fast-jet pilot; he has been a pilot for many years. For my 17th birthday he gave me my first flying lesson and recommended that I pursue flying further. I had been keen on joining the military from the age of 15, but never thought I could achieve a flying job. However, with my dad's support and some good advice at school about RAF careers, I got a RAF Flying Scholarship at 18 and eventually received a Private Pilot's Licence (PPL).

Did you then go to university?

I never really wanted to go to university; I was always more of a hands-on person and not really the best academic. So, I applied to the army, the RAF and some other airline programmes. The RAF was the one I was most interested in and I took up a place with them shortly after applying.

What selection criteria did you have to meet?

Many people think you have to get three grade As at A-level in maths and science subjects only. However, I only got two A-levels (a B and a D), one of which was in art. This was a concern for me but I had done lots of extra-curricular activities, such as horse-riding and sports, and had references saying I was a good teamworker - reliable and pro-active. These activities were just as important in the interview. I got lots of useful advice from the RAF careers office about the interview and having applied previously for the RAF scholarships I knew what to expect.

What about fitness?

I realised I wasn't the fittest person in the world so prepared for the selection by going to the gym four times a week!

What's a typical day like for you?

No two days are the same. Today I had to get up at 5.30am for a 6.00am start, finishing around 3.00pm. On other days I start later, at around lunchtime, but finish around 11.00pm because of night-flying activities. The training involves lots of reading, taught instruction hours, groundwork, flying in the simulator and briefings, as well as other stuff.

What are the best bits about your job?

The people I've met! Fast-jet flying is fantastic but it wouldn't be so good if the people weren't fantastic. Having said that, the feeling you get flying low-level at 500 knots (about 600mph) is pretty unbeatable!

Are there any negative aspects?

At the moment I don't get to see my family very often - north Scotland is a long way from East Anglia, where they are from. Maintaining relationships can be difficult but my friends outside the military are very supportive, coming up for our summer ball and helping when things get stressful and I need an escape. I also have a horse that I miss very much at the moment.

Are you the only female pilot?

There are about 10 female fast-jet pilots and a further 10 navigators. However, there are a lot of serving female rotary-wing and multi-engine pilots.

Are you treated differently?

I try not to make an issue of it and no air crew has made an issue of it either. I'm treated normally. I always try to be myself - I don't try to be "one of the boys" and I like to keep my femininity. I think people respect you a lot more for that. At my RAF interview I was honest about wanting to start a family one day, but that hasn't stopped me getting promoted.

What are your future plans?

I am keen to spend a few years flying at RAF Marham where there are lots of exciting opportunities. There is the opportunity to instruct on the new Hawk 128 in the future, either as a full-time military instructor or as a reservist. I would also love to try something completely different and possibly cross over into Search and Rescue.

What advice would you give to a young person wanting to pursue a similar career?

Remember to be yourself. Getting good exam marks stands up well but having a proactive nature and the right skills will benefit you too. I try and take up interesting opportunities that come my way, even winning a place in an all-expenses-paid Formula Woman race series a couple of years ago, which was a great experience. You only live once!

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