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Breaking Barriers at Mach Speed

A 360 Exclusive Interview with
Former Flight Lieutenant Helen Seymour

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Helen, Transitioning from a potential career in medicine to piloting a Eurofighter Typhoon is an extraordinary leap. Could you delve into what initially sparked your interest in training as a pilot and what propelled you towards the cockpit of such an advanced aircraft?

 

Of course. Initially I was set on studying medicine, but a chance encounter at kickboxing led me to the Air Cadets and unexpectedly ignited my passion for flying. Despite an early setback failing the pilot aptitude tests, the RAF's initiative to address gender imbalance gave me a second chance. Embracing this, I shifted from medicine to aviation, which led me to the cockpit of a Eurofighter Typhoon. It was as much a journey of self-discovery, fuelled by determination and a bit of serendipity. My mum and my aunt who provide huge support & influence in my life had their reservations, fearing the loss of a medical career for the uncertainties of aviation, but I was compelled by flying and the challenge it presented. It wasn't just about becoming a pilot; it was about pursuing a path less trodden, driven by the chance to carve out my own niche in the RAF.

 

You marked a significant, well reported, milestone in becoming the first woman to pilot a Typhoon and, if I'm not mistaken, also the first in combat roles in a Typhoon. What were the unique challenges you encountered in this predominantly male field, and how did you navigate through them? 

 

I’m often asked the question, "What's it like to be a female pilot?" But, truthfully, I've never seen myself defined by gender in the cockpit. I'm Helen, a pilot, period. My approach has always been straightforward: do my job, and do it well, without losing my essence. It's not about femininity or masculinity; it's about skill, determination, and integrity.

 

The truth is that the RAF is a predominately male environment and yes, I’ve encountered my share of challenges. Most notably, imposter syndrome. It's a universal struggle, but perhaps more pronounced in environments where you're a minority. In my role working in standards and evaluation, where I assessed the proficiency of fellow pilots, I experienced significant anxiety. Yet, this role also provided a unique perspective. It revealed that struggles and mistakes are common, no matter a person’s gender, which cut through the bravado often displayed.

 

What I've learned, and what I strive to embody, is quiet confidence. It's not about the loudest voice in the room but the most composed and competent one. This approach has not only helped me navigate my career but also manage the internal pressures we often place on ourselves. 

 

Regarding your mission experiences both then & now, can you share your insights into what goes through a pilot's mind while navigating such high-stakes situations? Specifically, how do you manage the emotions and pressures when flying over conflict zones? Is it a matter of compartmentalising and focusing solely on the mission, or is there more to it?

 

To explain that, let me first give you some context. The evening when we were briefed about the situation unfolding in Libya was surreal. One minute, we're unwinding in the bar, and the next, we're being told we're off to liberate Libya in the next couple of days. Suddenly, everything became very real. There's this mix of cool excitement and genuine nerves as the gravity of what’s ahead dawns on you.

 

The next morning, we're airborne, armed, heading to Italy. There's this camaraderie, even with a Delta Airlines pilot chiming in over the radio, which somehow reassured us. But it was when the Libyan coast appeared, that the reality hit me. It’s never just a mission; there are always lives at stake, including ours.

 

Flying over Libya, you're torn between the adrenaline of the mission and the stark reminder of its dangers, especially after hearing about an F-15 going down. Your training kicks in, but there's this underlying tension, a mix of focus and fear. It's a complex blend of emotions but in those moments, you're just a pilot doing your job, trying to make the right decisions under unimaginable pressure.

 

 

And when you did get back from that first mission, you had significant media attention that focused on your role as the first woman to fly the Typhoon in combat. Can you share your thoughts on how this coverage impacted you both personally and professionally, especially in the context of the mission's gravity and the broader implications for women in combat roles?

 

When we landed after that mission, the media focus caught us completely off guard. The Italian press had gained access to a vantage point, to capture our return. The next day, my face was plastered across newspapers, heralded as "the top girl," the first woman in such a role. It was surreal, and not entirely welcome. My mother, back home, was suddenly thrust into this unexpected limelight too, with reporters at her doorstep. It was a lot to process, especially considering the circumstances under which we were operating.

 

The coverage, while meant to celebrate, felt misplaced to me. The emphasis on my gender rather than the collective effort of the mission didn't sit right. It wasn't just me out there; we were a team, each of us contributing equally. The narrative of 'the first woman' felt reductive, almost missing the point of why we were there in the first place.

 

This unwanted attention followed me, even into subsequent missions, adding an extra layer of concern. It wasn't just about the mission anymore; it was about managing this newfound public persona that I hadn't signed up for. And comments like "do my bombs look big in this?" from the press didn't help. It trivialised the gravity of what we were doing, reducing it to spectacle.

 

I've never been one for labels or pigeonholing based on gender. The notion that this was somehow a groundbreaking anomaly because I am a woman felt counterproductive. If anything I believe in meritocracy, in doing your job to the best of your ability, regardless of gender. That's the legacy I'd rather leave behind, not one that's fixated on being the 'first woman' but rather one that focuses on the competence and dedication we all bring to the table, irrespective of gender.

 

 

How did your male colleagues respond to the media focus on your gender? Did they understand and share your frustrations regarding the emphasis on you being a woman in the role?

 

My colleagues were completely supportive, understanding the dilemma I faced with the media's focus. They shared my sentiment that being in the papers wasn't the goal. Our focus was on the mission, not public attention. They understood the risks, that unwanted attention that could compromise our safety, given the mobile nature of the missions. We all agreed that such distractions were unwelcome, emphasising the need to maintain focus on our duties rather than external narratives.

 

 

Let’s jump into what it takes to maintaining focus amidst external pressures and distractions. Especially in high-stakes environments. It’s evident that our societal shift towards rapid consumption of information can hinder our concentration on significant tasks. How do we cultivate and enhance our focus for tackling substantial challenges, whether in our professional lives, educational pursuits, or personal projects?

 

When every second and decision can be pivotal, focus isn't just important—it's essential. And yes, we are finding it harder to concentrate. For me, maintaining focus amidst the distractions of life, isn't just about mental strength; it's about passion and practice. You can't fake the kind of concentration needed to navigate a jet at Mach speeds, especially when the stakes are life or death.

 

It's about breaking down each task into manageable parts, creating work cycles for everything. This approach isn't unique to flying; it's applicable across all industries and personal challenges. By focusing on the steps rather than the daunting whole, you maintain clarity and direction.

 

We often refer to this as 'world class basics’. Mastering these foundational elements ensures you're always ready for the next level of complexity. It's like part task training—we focus on perfecting one segment before moving on to the next. If you can't nail the basics, you're not ready for the advanced tasks.

 

Break it down, focus on the fundamentals, and practice relentlessly. Passion will drive you, but it's the discipline of focusing on those 'world class basics' that will see you through.

 

 

Navigating the extreme G-forces and high-stress scenarios inherent in piloting a Typhoon must require significant physical and mental preparation. Could you share the practices that helped you prepare for these demands? How did you maintain your fitness and mental resilience to meet the challenges of flying such a high-performance aircraft?

 

My mantra was simple: stay fit, but not too fit. It’s all about finding that balance and listening to your body. I pushed my limits when I felt strong, but I also knew when to ease off. Mentally, it's about compartmentalisation and perspective. I saw my role as a job, not an identity, which helped me navigate the extreme highs and lows of each mission. Over time, however, the cumulative stress highlighted the need for more comprehensive support, akin to what Formula One drivers receive, emphasising the importance of both physical and mental wellness in maintaining peak performance.

 

 

Given the rising concern around burnout, particularly in high-pressure environments, how do you recognise and address early signs of burnout in colleagues, especially when taking extended breaks might not be feasible?

 

In the RAF, there's a strong emphasis on checking in with ourselves and our colleagues, ensuring we're all 'fit to fly.' This culture fosters an open dialogue about our readiness, both physically and mentally. I've personally experienced moments of being at max capacity. I had to step up and admit to my then-boss, now a colleague in civilian life, that I needed to step back. His understanding response, prioritising my well-being over operational demands, exemplifies the shift towards acknowledging and addressing burnout.

 

 

Could you share how you've balanced the intense demands of your career with your personal life, especially considering the high stakes and pressure involved?

 

Balancing the demanding career of a pilot with personal life, especially post becoming a mother to my daughter required a significant shift in my approach. Initially, the Air Force wasn't just my job; it was my lifestyle, intertwining social and professional lives seamlessly. However, after my daughter’s arrival, my perspective shifted. I had to adopt a more selfish stance, prioritising my time and commitments more ruthlessly than before.

 

This wasn't about being inconsiderate but about recognising the need to set clear boundaries between my professional responsibilities and my personal life. It meant learning to say 'no' more often, choosing family dinners over bar nights with colleagues, and making tough decisions that went against the grain of the collective Air Force culture. It was about safeguarding my well-being and ensuring I was present for my daughter.

 

The challenge was not just internal but also logistical, as living on base can blur the lines between work and home life. My solution was to physically distance myself from the base, creating a clear demarcation between my professional and personal spheres. This decision wasn't easy, but it was necessary for maintaining my mental health and ensuring I could give my best both as a pilot and a mother.

 

This balancing act is an ongoing process, requiring constant adjustment and reassessment. But at its core, it's about recognising the value of personal time and the importance of being fully present in each moment, whether in the cockpit or at home with my daughter.

 

Now that you've transitioned out of the RAF following a distinguished twenty-year career, how have you been adapting to this significant change in your professional life?

 

Adjusting to life after the RAF, especially after two decades, hasn't been straightforward, but it's a journey I've embraced. The realization that I couldn't fly anymore was pivotal. I knew my path in the Air Force had come to an end if flying wasn't a part of it. That year of transition, while I was still involved in squadron activities minus the actual flying, was when I mentally began to shift gears. It was a period of reflection and acceptance, understanding that my identity wasn't solely tied to being in the cockpit.

 

Sure, there was a moment of introspection, a slight bruise to the ego, watching my colleagues gear up and take to the skies, reminiscing about the days when that was me. It's a humbling experience, coming to terms with a changing sense of self.

 

The real turning point came with the opportunity to share my experiences, to give back through speaking. It’s given me a platform to reflect on my career not as a bygone era but as a treasure trove of insights and lessons I can offer to others. It's a different kind of fulfilment realising that my years in the RAF have equipped me with unique perspectives that can inspire and guide others in their journeys. This new chapter is about leveraging my past to enrich others' futures, and in that, I find a profound sense of purpose and continuity.

 

 

What advice would you give to young men & women aspiring to a career in aviation?

 

My advice for anyone, is this: the only person who can truly hold you back is yourself, so go for it. Embrace the journey with all its uncertainties and possibilities. The fear of failure, the apprehension of making a mistake or looking foolish in front of others, is a natural part of venturing into something challenging & rewarding. But those fears should not deter you. More often than not, these fears are just shadows, far less formidable when faced head-on.

 

Life grants us limited opportunities to pursue our passions, to make our mark, and to live out our dreams. Settling for mediocrity, for the path of least resistance, is not the way to realise your full potential. Aviation demands resilience, dedication, and an unyielding spirit of adventure. If you bring these qualities to the table, there's no limit to how high you can soar. So, to every aspiring aviator out there, my advice is simple; Don't let the fear of the unknown keep you grounded. You've got one shot at this life so don’t accept average. 

 

 

And finally, your friendship & collaboration with fellow 360 Speaker & former flight navigator Rosie Steevenson, with whom you flew, has stood the test of time. As you both move forward together, what do you hope your joint legacy will be?

 

Rosie and I, through our shared experiences and journeys, hope our legacy embodies respect, credibility, and integrity. These aren't just words to us; they're the principles we've lived by, especially in a demanding environment like the military where the stakes are high and challenges constant. We've navigated this path together, learning, growing, and sometimes facing tough realities head-on.

 

Our greatest hope is to inspire, and that begins with inspiring our daughters. We want them to see in us, the embodiment of perseverance, the courage to stand up for what's right, and the audacity to pursue dreams, even when the odds seem insurmountable. If our stories can spark a light in just one person, encouraging them to leap towards their goals or to try something they thought was beyond their reach, then every trial we've faced would have been worth it.

 

Inspiration doesn't discriminate, and neither do we. Our aim isn't solely to inspire women, although bridging the gender gap, especially in traditionally, predominantly, male fields like ours, remains close to our hearts. We aspire to reach anyone and everyone who might need that extra nudge to believe in themselves, to take that first step, or to simply 'go for it.' If our journey and partnership can be the catalyst for someone to embrace their potential fully, that's the legacy Rosie and I wish to leave behind.

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