25. Major Becky Frater: Flying high as a military helicopter pilot

Sue Stockdale talks to Major Becky Frater about her career as a military helicopter pilot and instructor, and discovers more about the focus and concentration that these roles demand.

Becky originally joined the Army in 1998 after three years as a secondary school teacher in Bristol. After initial training at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst she was commissioned directly into the Army Air Corps and was subsequently awarded her Army Wings Flying Badge in 2001.

She was posted to 659 Sqn of 4 Regt AAC as a Flight Commander after qualifying on both the Lynx Mk7 and Lynx Mk9. Deployments included Belize, France, Canada and ultimately OP TELIC (Iraq) after which she was awarded a GOC’s (2*) Commendation. She was then selected to undertake Qualified Helicopter Instructor training and was subsequently employed as a Flight Commander within 705 NAS of DHFS at RAF Shawbury.

In 2007 Becky was appointed to 702 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), the Maritime Lynx Training Squadron, where she was awarded her Royal Navy Wings. After which she was appointed to 815 NAS as Flight Commander.  She was subsequently appointed to 702 NAS and responsible for instructing future maritime attack helicopter pilots  including maritime aviation and ship deck landings. During this time, she was also selected to lead the Royal Navy Black Cats Helicopter Display Team during the 2010 display season. She was promoted Lt Cdr during this appointment.

Currently she is the Requirements Manager for the Army Wildcat until January 2021 after which she will be attending the Qualified Weapons Instructor Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance course at RAF Waddington.  Becky enjoys all sports but more specifically hockey having represented England, England Over 40s, England Universities and British Universities in the past and also received her Combined Services (Captain in 2006), Army and Royal Navy colours.


Sue Stockdale : hello. I’m Sue Stockdale from Access to Inspiration, the podcast series, where we aim to give you inspiration as you hear about the lives and work with people who perhaps are quite different to you. I hope that their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day to day challenges and reflect on what you could be capable of achieving. I am delighted to say that our next guest in the series is Major Becky Frater. She is the first of the pioneers that I’ve mentioned that we’re focusing on in this series. Becky has got a number of firsts to her name, including first female to pilot the helicopter maritime attack Lynx. She’s the first female qualified helicopter instructor for the Royal Navy and the first and only female in the world to [00:01:00] lead a Royal Navy helicopter display team, Black Cats and the first female commanding officer of a Naval air squadron. And one of the things I loved about speaking to Becky was when she told me that her daughter asked her recently, Mummy can men be pilots too? Because the only pilots that she has ever met are women. And that’s what I call inspiration. So welcome to the podcast. Becky,

Becky Frater: [00:01:27] Hi, Sue lovely to hear from you, you looking very well.

Sue Stockdale : [00:01:30] With such a impressive list of firsts to your name, Becky I’m wondering which one are you most proud of?

Becky Frater: [00:01:37] Oh, it’s a really good question. And actually when you list them like that,  Sue I had not really captured the magnitude of a number of firsts and I have to stress that is in the Royal Navy and I have flown in Army Air Corps as well. But I suppose the thing that stands out for me as being my greatest achievement, both in terms of flying and as an officer was the first female Commanding Officer of 705 Naval Air Squadron, which is a few years ago. Now that was [00:02:00] super, I felt quite chuffed with that.

Sue Stockdale : [00:02:01] What made it special for you?

Becky Frater: [00:02:03] I think well, because it was a career goal. So when you join the military as an officer its all about command and leadership also being a good aviator. So hopefully that also was warranted in my selection. That was my dream role and I managed to get it so I was delighted and it was also the same year that I had Lucy as well. So within about three months. I was not only a mum, but I also was told that I was going to be a Commanding Officer so that was really great. So for me, that was a bit of a big achievement and the job delivered as I expected it to, I absolutely loved it.

Sue Stockdale : [00:02:36] Fantastic, What an accolade and especially in the same year. If I could take you back to when you were young and thinking about a school, what you might want to be when you grew up, what was in your mind then?

Becky Frater: [00:02:46] This is a great question. I’ve been asked this question so many times and I do cast my mind back to my young self, which was actually quite a few years ago now. And I honestly don’t really remember having any set idea of a career. Now I was in [00:03:00] the air training corps because obviously I’ve spent most of my career flying helicopters and teaching. So I was in the air training corps, and because I  suppose the military was there right from the outset it was an instinctive part of my character as well I wanted to do it, but to be a pilot, it really didn’t cross my mind at the age of 14. When you started to make these informed choices, your personalities start to form and develop, where you sort of thought what I want to do because women couldnt fly then. So I was connected with the Royal Air Force through the air cadets but there was no options of flying. I can remember when I was awarded a book prize at school and  the headmistress awarded me the prize and asked what do you want, to do when you grow up mostly, I want to fly. And the image assumption in those days, this is like mid eighties was there like being an air hostess.  It was an uncommon role was women posted at the front. So I guess what I really want to do is be a teacher because that’s what I ended up doing initially. But just because the option to be a pilot then really didn’t seem to be a realistic one. So what would you strive for? So that’s how much has changed? You can’t imagine young women being told that now. [00:04:00] You can’t imagine that mindset but you know, my daughter, who’s growing up, she asked a great question the other day, mommy can men be pilots as well, because obviously any pilot she’s ever met have been women. I think in terms of the generation at time, I guess I wanted to be a teacher, which ultimately I have done through flying. So I actually instruct people to fly helicopters as well. It’s a difficult question to answer.

Sue Stockdale : [00:04:20] What is it that you love about aviation?

Becky Frater: [00:04:23] It’s a thrill, it’s an absolute thrill. I don’t want to get too emotional about it, but yeah, and it’s different and it’s got a wow factor, but it’s also incredibly challenging. It’s an occupation that will bite you with any lapse of concentration. So you have to remember that you have to be on your A game all the time. And I love that sense of adrenaline and there’s an element of danger to it. It’s a safety critical task. It can be dangerous. It’s not because you’ve got the dangerous, it is actually mitigated through excellent engineering. So, you know, element of excitement and buzz, it can take its toll. After an extended period. Definitely. That’s the attraction. You get [00:05:00] addicted to, it’s really hard to explain. So it’s an adrenaline rush that you just can’t much for anything else. Really. So, yeah, I’ve loved it. I loved it over a period of years as well.

Sue Stockdale : [00:05:09] You mentioned there that you had gone into teaching because the aviation idea didn’t necessarily exist. When you were thinking about your career, how do you manage to move from teaching into the military?

Becky Frater: [00:05:22] It sounds a really unrelated jump. Doesn’t it? To go from teaching in a city comprehensive in Bristol, which I absolutely loved. And really as a young 21 year old it was it great period of my life actually just a certain amount of skill sets in place. And I would go back to teaching at a certain age unquestionably. Maybe that will happen in the future. But I joined the military because my husband, at the time we met, we were engaged. Then some of his female friends were actually joining, going through Sandhurst as one of the first female intakes through Sandhurst in the early nineties. And they just loved, they loved it. They loved the challenge, the adventure, the excitement. And so I joined the army to be a teacher. So I was sponsored by the education board initially [00:06:00] I taught for three years. You know, you make a decision, Sue, you know,  immediately,its the right one. And I remember walking through the gates of Sandhurst on the 5th of September, 1998, which is a Sunday and thinking. I love this.

And I did, and it was a really challenging, really rewarding year. And it was whilst at Sandhurst that the army air Corps then started opening its gates up to females, direct entry, the education I had got from flying from the Air Corps when I was younger. All of a sudden it became a bit of reality. So I thought, well, you know what, I’m going to just apply for it.  As long as you give it a go, I’ve still got placed in the education corps if it doesn’t come off. And then I just kept passing the tests. I fell into it a bit by accident. So I was extraordinarily lucky. I never forget it. It was one of those  amazing turns of my life, you know, like sliding doors as you go through life I loved Sandhurst I  had a great year. there met some huge inspirational people, but then also got commissioned into the army air Corps and the second direct entry female. So Im still immensely proud of that. So much so I got married at Sandhurst.

Sue Stockdale : A [00:07:00] key part of your life then?

Becky Frater: [00:07:02] Yeah, the military is like that so you can’t help it. It’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle. It defines your whole personality, your character, your outlook, your confidence, your skillsets. And that’s what I love it so much. I won’t be leaving for many years. Hopefully.

Sue Stockdale : [00:07:18] One of the things that I always imagined, particularly being a helicopter pilot is like, is rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time and many more things, besides the idea of focusing on many things at once the height, the direction, the stability I’m imagining at night, it gets even more difficult,  and would be even more challenging. How do you manage to contain all of those things in your head and keep focus at the same time?

Becky Frater: [00:07:46] Well, that is exactly why I love it. I’d say flying helicopter in its own right is quite straightforward, I think that’s something you can pick up quite quickly. The thing that makes military aviation so exciting and so clinical and so demanding intellectually is the [00:08:00] application of aviation, the operational effects of that operation. And that’s when it all starts getting busy and complicated as you described. And I suppose in many senses, coordination’s a bit like football. Some people just can’t do it. And actually you do see that in flying training. Sometimes you see the odd student come in and you can just see they’re always going to be working extremely hard. Then, similarly, you also get the individual where, you know, they’re going to find it a lot more easy. I suppose there’s an aptitude. And hence why we have our accuracy tests, but ultimately all comes down to training and that’s something that the military actually do very well. The training regime and a training culture across all three services is right up there. But obviously my exposure has been to aviation. I’m clearly biased towards that field, but I think its training the individuals. You almost train capacity. You almost train compartmentalization. You almost train prioritization because obviously you can’t do all those things at once. Some people can. So what you need to learn is what needs to be done then and sequence the events as well. So you still prioritize, but the key thing also is also teamwork as well. So you’ve got, you’re doing all these things clearly, but you’re also working as a [00:09:00] crew and that crew is efficient. Because of all the jobs that you described, especially when you flying some attack  helicopter off the back of a small ship, which  is one of the best jobs I have ever had in my life as you can imagine, and is really important because there are so many roles to think about that that is divided equally between the crew, but then also you compliment each other as well. So teamwork’s really important, but exceptional training and thorough training and uncompromising training too. So that’s why I love being an instructor so much because it’s such an important role.

Sue Stockdale : [00:09:26] When you say that the jobs need to be divided up amongst the team I’m thinking about who has the job of managing one’s emotions, because I’m imagining that plays quite an important role in being effective. How do you manage your emotions? And it’s all these other things you’re thinking about.

Becky Frater: [00:09:42] Well, I suppose when I’m flying, I don’t really sense emotion cause you’re so focused on doing the job and being busy. And actually it could be because you’re so confident in what you’re doing, because you’ve done it a thousand times. There’s an inherent confidence in what you do that you almost want the challenge just to prove that you can also replicate in real time. So I think in [00:10:00] terms of emotion, in terms of actually when a flying and operating, I’ve  never had a situation where I’ve been conscious of emotion in that sense, you’re training and briefed thoroughly, but emotion comes into it because as human beings clearly in terms of just the dynamic in the crew room, occasionally on the ground, sometimes you can get emotional because you care about what you do. And that’s good, but it needs to be vented in a very kind of controlled play. When that comes down to leadership again, the military do so well, you work for a great Commanding Officer and frustrations of emotion in whatever guise they may come from, or those that may be going on at home or something actually within your workplace. And if you’ve got an open command structure, which is very much culture of aviation in the military, then those frustrations should be articulated through. We’re really encouraged to do that. It’s called just culture. It’s something aviation really do well. You’re going to be open and honest, and hopefully if you can talk things through communicate and be honest with each other, emotions should be kept in check really not to compromise the [00:11:00] safety. Okay.

Sue Stockdale : [00:11:01] No, absolutely. You’re making it sound like if you do enough training enough times something becomes second nature to you so that when you go out into a real situation, you’re able to handle whatever comes out to you. I’m imagining. What about the unexpected?

Becky Frater: [00:11:19] So being under contact or being close to the enemy on a couple of occasions, I think the one that jumps to me is having a serious engine malfunction on a single engine helicopter, well, engine failure. That was quite juicy.

Sue Stockdale : [00:11:32] How did you get through that?

Becky Frater: [00:11:34] Well, I suppose, I suppose again is a little bit was because I’ve done it before. I’ve seen it before and just the calmness just sends a calm sense of control. I think there is a personality type, which  probably suits that kind of occupation, but not everybody could fly off the back of a ship at night. It does suit some individuals and that is made actually clear through the training process. So whenever I’ll be faced with a real stressful situation, there have been a few, you reflect back after 21 years and you do say, wow. [00:12:00] Yeah, that was quite dicey. They are few and far between because the aircraft we fly are so reliable now. And that’s all. Yes. And the de-risking of actual use of the aircraft is also carefully considered. So you never face a situation really where you should be so exposed. But you do generally have a calm aura about you because as a crew, you’re working as a team and you focus only on the task ahead without really necessarily thinking the full consequences.

Sue Stockdale : [00:12:26] With stepping into that role that you were most proud of, of being the commanding officer of a Naval Air Squadron.

Becky Frater: [00:12:33] I remember the first day taking on the squadron. I think I was the only female, pretty much in the whole unit let alone that one squadron, I was really conscious of it. I’ll be honest. And I’m the sort of person who puts myself under a lot of self pressure. Maybe that’s what seen me through success, but it also has put me under stress unnecessarily at time. And that’s definitely one of my weaknesses. There’s not a doubt, but because we have a progressive career structure as bottom feeding up, I actually knew this squadron really well. It was pretty much done every role in the squadron before being Commanding [00:13:00] Officer. Just through the way my career had been managed as a junior instructor, then a flight commander, then their training officer, then commanding officer. So sequence is quite natural. So I actually knew most of the guys there anyway. But still nonetheless. I was aware of it. I was aware. Yeah, kind of the first time it happened, but to be honest, cause I knew most people, it really wasn’t an issue. I think it could be any person who had that concern about that was myself. But I think I would’ve been lacking intelligence. I have not done it. That makes sense. But no, it was nerve wracking. I think any CM, their first step is it’s nerve wracking because you are there, you’re making decisions in that sense. And actually it was only a subunit command. It wasn’t a command at higher level either. There are women who have commanded much higher level than I have who could answer that question better and more intelligently than I.  But because I knew the squadron I knew most of the guys in this position already. Those concerns soon melted away and then you just get on. And crack on with the job. Actually in the military  we’re trained to be part of a team and also followship and leadership is trained. [00:14:00] So when you come in, We’re already kind of in place the guys, the team just gel quickly because that’s how we’re trained to operate. Fine. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t conscious and nervous about it, but very proud to have done it.

Sue Stockdale : [00:14:14] And another one of those firsts that you achieved was leading the Royal Navy black cat helicopter display team. Can you give us any highlights from that experience?

Becky Frater: [00:14:24] So a huge privilege. Huge sense of pride, but huge sense of responsibility for not making a mistake. Be cause normally  when you fly a helicopter, you perform  in front of your ships captain and thats it. But here you’re consciously making decisions. Sunderland Air Show can have about 600,000 people watching. So the consequences of a mistake, I really sensed. Nerve wracking, not at the time because you’re so busy and you’re so focused on the job you’re doing. It was only on the end of the last display, which was at Duxford actually did you then have that kind of sense of relief.  We’ve got through that safely, but the actual flying is actually probably not as dynamic as it [00:15:00] looks up to these displays designed to look dramatic and dynamic. Clearly it’s not, cause it’s not dangerous. We train and we practice it through. And the chap who flew the other helicopter who’s Black 2 – I was Black Lead is a really good friend. So there’s inherent trust in each other for many years. And by the end of display season, we will almost think for each other. My lasting memory was I think it’s probably true actually, of aviation in a military  helicopter in my career it’s just the sheer intensity. The focus. Well, for me to do it to the level that I like and wish to. And I always put myself in a huge pressure here, but I like to be the best I could possibly be for safety reasons. It’s just the sheer mental focus that’s required for it. And that should never be underestimated. And I think, yeah, career, you have your ups and downs on that. You have periods where you can focus intensity for several years and so on, but then you do need that period of recovery almost without you having an incident. So [00:16:00] again, that’s something that the military manage really well.

Sue Stockdale : [00:16:02] I can imagine that anybody going through that experience, the intensity, the focus, the concentration that’s required to then go  home and put their feet up and have a glass of wine. How does it work for you?

Becky Frater: [00:16:14] That’s what happened when I was  CO of 705. So I just had the little one. Little Lucy came into our lives completely unexpected and then I was sent away up to Shawbury to be the CO, which was great. I loved it, but now obviously  I have an amazing husband, that enabled me to do that and yet completely. So it’s a team effort, a family effort. So my daughter is now 8 and she’s full of everything. So it’s just been an amazing addition to my family. She loves what I do. The older I’ve got more freedom again to maybe assume more intense roles, which I hope to do by joining the Navy next year. So you’re right. Work life balance is the real big one. And some people are really good at it. Some people are putting it at it. I’m very good at focusing on one thing intensely and it  in terms of multi tasking which women are meant to be good at. But no, no, [00:17:00] my husband’s the multi-tasker in our relationship. I’m very lucky that I can still pursue my passion, which is flying and instructing people to fly in the military and still have a wonderful family life. That’s all purely because of my husband. I think it’s same for everybody.

I think most partners do both work now. So because I have to  so I think that’s true. And actually you can see it much more flexible, compromising career structure around the military to coordinate both partners working, which is a very welcoming, which is great, which takes even more pressure off.

Sue Stockdale : [00:17:29] If you were to have your ideal day or even moment of relaxation where you weren’t having any intense concentration, no family distractions. What would relaxation look like for you?

Becky Frater: [00:17:43] For me? Well, the way I calm my mind, because my mind goes a thousand miles an hour all the time, every minute. and its a nightmare to control it sometimes, but that’s just the way I am. FFor me it’s reading and learning so I am doing a Masters Degree at the moment, in fact I’m doing two. And [00:18:00] for some people that sounds a nightmare, that would be their headache. For me that’s my relaxation. It’s in electrical engineering at Cranfield University. I’m doing it part time and I do it as a form of meditation. That’s why its all technical stuff I am a bit of a geek and it’s all directly related to being an  instructor as well. So for me, that’s a massive energy release when you’re in your forties, you know that you’re busiest, isn’t it? You’re crazy that busiest, busiest, I think the demands of your job, family, cause you’ve got young children  to bring up. Elderly parents. So I can’t imagine a decade in your life where you’re more stressed and that’s been the case in my life. And so  to have an opportunity to do a Master’s degree, which the military paid for is wonderful.  My CO signed that off with Gusto. It’s easier to do that as a form of relaxation. It’s quite busy as well. If I had a whole day to myself I would just read books on electrical  engineering and study.

Sue Stockdale : [00:18:59] If you were going to [00:19:00] give listeners some top tips about how they might step out of their comfort zone, what might be some of the top tips or recommendations you would have for our listeners?

Becky Frater: [00:19:08] My top tip is just do it, obviously. So I’ve been thinking this through really carefully. It’s so important to constantly step outside of comfort zone. I think it’s something you should try and consciously do to keep yourself mentally alert. There’s always a way. And if there’s a will, there’s a way. And if there’s something you want to achieve and it’s worth achieving, frankly, it’s not going to be easy by definition. So just stick at it. Never give up.

Sue Stockdale : [00:19:34] I’m so  pleased being able to speak to you today and learn a bit about your life and your experiences. So I hope you’ve enjoyed our conversation.

Becky Frater: [00:19:42] It’s been great. Thank you for having me.

Sue Stockdale : [00:19:45] Well, I hope you enjoyed hearing from major Becky Fletcher about her life as a helicopter, pilot and instructor in the military. One of the points that stood out for me was how Becky relaxes by studying and how it’s important to never make assumptions [00:20:00] about what works for you will be the same for other people. Please head on over to our website, access to inspiration.org, and you’ll find a transcription for this podcast there and let us know. What was the most impactful for you about this episode? We’d love to connect with you also on Twitter or on Instagram, where we are found at access to inspiration.

In the next episode, I am down in the farm and Wiltshire in England with farmer Jonathan Cook at Doras Dairy. He has noticed that during lockdown recently it created the opportunity for people to reconnect with nature and to learn more about where their food comes from. So I hope you can join me then.

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