Mandy Hickson: Reaching for the skies

Introducing Yachting Pages’ Pioneering People, a new series of interviews with inspirational individuals who have pushed the boundaries and left a lasting legacy for future generations.

Enthused by the popularity of our Women in Yachting series, which focuses on game-changing women making waves in the superyacht sector, Yachting Pages wants to encourage and inspire even more people to follow their professional dreams – whether that’s within yachting or not.

In the first interview of our Pioneering People series, we speak to Mandy Hickson, who became only the second woman to fly the Tornado GR4 as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

Mandy Hickson stood beside Tornado

Finding a love of flying early in life, Hickson fought hard to achieve her ambition to be a pilot in the RAF. As her career continued, she learned the lessons of juggling her profession with life as a working mother of two young children.

Now a civilian, Hickson draws on her experience and her charisma to train and inspire others.

Firstly, please can you run us though your career as an RAF pilot, starting from your scholarship as a teenager and encompassing your progression over the following years?

When the Air Training Corps first opened its doors to girls in 1986, I joined immediately, which stimulated an interest in the RAF. At aged 17, I was awarded an RAF flying scholarship; from this I went on to attain my private pilot’s licence. I gained a BSc Joint Honours Degree in Geography and Sports Science, from the University of Birmingham.

At university I continued to foster my love of flying with the University Air Squadron, becoming its president. In my final year, I won several inter squadron national aerobatics competitions.

At university I applied to join the RAF as a pilot, but failed the computer-based aptitude tests. The tests can only be taken twice, and after failing them a second time it appeared to be the end of that avenue. Undeterred I went on to join the RAF in 1994 as an Air Traffic Controller. Throughout officer training I continued to make my case for becoming a pilot.

Finally, the RAF decided to offer me pilot training as a test case, having demonstrated my skills as a pilot in the real world, versus the simulation environment for the aptitude tests. I served on II(AC) Sqn as their first female pilot.

What were your key achievements and milestones in the role? Being only the second woman to fly the Tornado GR4 operationally must rank been special?

There are too many individual events, but I believe the single moment which shaped my future was one evening flying over Iraq when we were engaged by an enemy missile. It was a very close encounter, but we evaded it due to automatically performing a manoeuvre which we had practised so many times before, but never for real.

The consequence of getting this wrong would have been fatal for us both. The subsequent events which followed gave me an insight into true teamwork, leadership, empowerment, and decision-making under the most immense pressure.

A young Mandy Hickson stood beside Tornado

I was leading my first ever combat mission that night, therefore all the decisions were made by myself and my Navigator, not the Squadron Wing Commander (the boss), who was my number two in the formation. I felt empowered to lead and trusted to make decisions. I was allowed to get on with it, without input from the top.

Can you outline some of the challenges you faced as a woman seeking to progress as an RAF pilot? How did you overcome them?

Sadly, when I was interested in fulfilling this as my career there were no other female pilots in the military or in fact within the media at all. It was my parents that encouraged me. My mum always told me that if it was going to be someone, why shouldn’t it be me?

It was sometimes difficult being the only woman on a squadron, but I had very supportive friends and colleagues that made it much easier.

When I became a mum of two boys it was very challenging, as it is for all parents who are balancing children and their careers. It’s easy to believe that you are not succeeding, feeling guilty about either not being at work enough, or not seeing the children enough, but it’s important to be kind to yourself. We are all doing the best job that we can!

Shortly after finishing with the RAF, you founded and co-directed ‘Inspiring Women For Work’. How important was this project to you and are you proud of its impact?

On leaving the RAF I set up a new business- Inspiring Women for Work (IWFW). This was a new initiative created to engage women to enable them to return to work after maternity, long-term sick leave, or for those who seemed to have stalled in their career progression. A surprising number of talented and capable women experience a loss of confidence around returning to work after a significant break and the longer they stay away from the work place the more compounded this becomes.

I myself had experienced this to some degree, so I created IWFW to inspire these women to reconnect with their skill sets and expertise and to encourage them to step back up to the levels they are capable of achieving. It received some incredible feedback from every person that attended our courses.

Mandy Hickson delivering speech at an industry event

What encouraged you to pursue a new career as a speaker/performance coach following your RAF service?

Since leaving the RAF I retrained as a Human Factors facilitator, I then became accredited with the Civil Aviation Authority to deliver training to the aviation industry. In delivering this training it became very apparent to me that nearly all the lessons that we were learning within the world of aviation could easily be distilled into any other business. Human Factors cover many areas; leadership, teamwork, authority gradient, communication, threat and error management, organisational culture, stress, fatigue, health... I could go on!

When I am now running my ‘Business Navigation’ sessions, one of the areas I focus a great deal of time on is threat management for businesses. I read across many of our planning processes, for example, the bowtie concept and I get businesses to run through it for their own environments.

I also share our debriefing model, the fact that after every flight we take the time to analyse what went well, what went badly and, more importantly, how we can be better the next time. We leave our ranks outside of the room, so we encourage everyone, regardless of position and status, to speak up. It gives individuals a voice, allowing us to ask questions up and down the hierarchical structure.

Now, as a keynote speaker in the business and education sectors, I talk with humour and great passion to inspire those around me. In the past 10 years I have spoken at thousands of events, and to hundreds of schools in more than 20 countries across Europe, Australia and America.

There are many industries that are still heavily dominated by men – the superyacht industry being one of them. What more can be done to inspire change?

All we can do is to continue to change the conversation by providing strong female role models for the next generation.

Speech from Mandy Hickson at another event

What advice would you give to the next generation of young people as they start their careers?

You must follow YOUR dreams, not those of your friends or family. Be true to yourself and courageous in your outlook on life. If your plans don’t work out, look at another way to get to the goal that you set yourself in the first place. Follow my motto: Dream it, believe it, DO it!

Mandy Hickson

As well as being a highly demanded international keynote speaker across a wealth of business sectors following her inspirational career as a Royal Air Force pilot, Mandy Hickson is also an author. She launched her first book, ‘An officer, not a gentleman’, in June 2020, which details her journey to become a female fighter pilot. It’s available to buy via her website or social media platforms.

If you're inspired by Mandy's story, discover our other Pioneering People interviews. Alternatively, explore our Women in Yachting series for insight into female game-changers within the superyacht world.

If this has piqued your interest in pursuing a career in the superyacht industry, read our guide on the crew training you need to work on board.

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