UK — Former Army Chef keeps troops safe from her Apache

Heli­copter pilot Cap­tain Joan­na Gor­don, who began her Army career as a cater­er, has just returned from her sec­ond tour of Afghanistan where she sup­port­ed oper­a­tions from the cock­pit of an Apache.

Army Air Corps Pilot Cap­tain Joan­na Gor­don in front of an Apache attack heli­copter
Source: Cor­po­ral Bar­ry Lloyd, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Cap­tain ‘Jo’ Gor­don, a 39-year-old offi­cer in the Army Air Corps, flies the most sophis­ti­cat­ed piece of kit in the Army’s arse­nal, but began her career in the mod­est kitchen of her father’s local pub in Devon where she learnt to cook.

She joined the Army Cater­ing Corps — now part of the Roy­al Logis­tic Corps — at the age of 17:

“The Army was a nat­ur­al choice for me as I got to learn more about cook­ing, which I love, and I got to trav­el at the same time,” she said.

It was while cater­ing for the Army Air Corps (AAC) in Bosnia that Capt Gor­don found a new pas­sion:

“I was watch­ing two Lynx [heli­copters] fly­ing low lev­el at night up the estu­ary on the coast of Croa­t­ia — their strobe lights flash­ing,” she said. “I had this gut-wrench­ing feel­ing that that was what I want­ed to do above any­thing else — I want­ed to fly.”

She applied for a trans­fer to the AAC and passed a rig­or­ous peri­od of train­ing and test­ing before com­menc­ing her 18 month pilot train­ing.

After five years of fly­ing Gazelle heli­copters, which includ­ed a tour in North­ern Ire­land, she set her sights on the Apache:

“I just real­ly want­ed to get my teeth into some­thing,” she explained. “Apach­es are high-tech and com­pli­cat­ed and my goal was to mas­ter fly­ing them in order to be able to instruct anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of pilots.”

“The Apache train­ing is in two phas­es,” she con­tin­ued. “Only when you have mas­tered the raw fly­ing of it can you think about its fight­ing capa­bil­i­ties.”

Cap­tain Joan­na Gor­don thinks the Army Air Corps could ben­e­fit from more women pilots
Source: Cor­po­ral Bar­ry Lloyd, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Capt Gor­don qual­i­fied as a fight­er pilot in 2008 and imme­di­ate­ly deployed to Afghanistan for the first time. She explained the Apache’s role in the­atre:

“We go out with the oth­er sup­port air­craft to var­i­ous patrol bases as an escort while they re-sup­ply the ground troops with ammu­ni­tion, water, rations and post.

“If we are on High Alert we have to be ready to sup­port any­one who needs us. We just sit by the phone and wait.

“If we get a call out, it is either for troops need­ing Apache help in a fire fight or a casu­al­ty in which case we would be sup­port­ing the med­ical teams in Chi­nooks car­ry­ing out a casu­al­ty evac­u­a­tion.

“It is our job to keep the ground troops and the locals safe from insur­gents.”

In many cas­es the mere sight of the for­mi­da­ble Apache at the scene of a con­tact is enough to see the ene­my make a quick and qui­et retreat.

Capt Gor­don con­sid­ers this abil­i­ty to quick­ly defuse dead­ly engage­ments with the ene­my to be con­sis­tent with ISAF’s pol­i­cy of ‘coura­geous restraint’ which aims to min­imise col­lat­er­al dam­age and regain the trust of the local pop­u­la­tion.

Dur­ing her last deploy­ment, Capt Gor­don was the only female Apache pilot in the­atre. She says, in her expe­ri­ence, there are no draw­backs to being a woman on the front line:

“I don’t want it to sound like a cliché but I am treat­ed like one of the boys,” she said.

“I hear a lot of army girls say that but it is true. Most of the time I don’t think they realise I am any dif­fer­ent and nei­ther do I.

“I am sim­ply some­one who fol­lowed a dream and am now just anoth­er mem­ber of the team, with my role to play out here just like any­one else.”

Capt Gor­don said that her par­ents some­times find it dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend their daugh­ter as an Apache pilot, but that they are “burst­ing with pride”:

“It’s fun­ny because my par­ents – they know what I do but when I at home they see me out of work and still as their lit­tle girl.

“I talk about my work and they nod and my dad is very inter­est­ed in what I do but when I bring them to see the Apache or when they come and vis­it the unit I can see it in their faces they are think­ing ‘My daugh­ter actu­al­ly flies these!’ ”

Capt Gordon’s boyfriend, Jason, has just left the Army after 22 years and was also an Apache pilot:

“I am very lucky to have some­one who under­stands what I do as opposed to the oth­er guys who have sup­port­ive wives but who don’t com­plete­ly under­stand what it’s real­ly like [on oper­a­tion] and how dusty it is!

“[Jason] puts things into per­spec­tive for me because he has lit­er­al­ly been there too.

“The day I deployed he left to work in Milan as a fly­ing instruc­tor. It was fun­ny as I left with two black grips and in desert com­bats while he was in the car with moun­tain bikes, golf clubs and suit­cas­es. It was a fun­ny role rever­sal!”

Capt Gor­don said that she some­times miss­es female com­pa­ny and thinks it is impor­tant to get more women to con­sid­er the Army Air Corps.

Cap­tain Joan­na Gor­don cross­es the tar­mac towards her Apache heli­copter
Source: Cor­po­ral Bar­ry Lloyd,Ministry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

With the right lev­el of con­vic­tion, she thinks more women are capa­ble of achiev­ing this:

“The Apache is very com­plex and can be quite daunt­ing at first. The girls just need self-belief, con­fi­dence, appli­ca­tion and skill as well as being a fast learn­er and quick thinker.”

For Capt Gor­don, the most reward­ing part of her job is hear­ing the thanks that pours into her head­set at the end of a call out:

“You can hear grat­i­tude in their voic­es and you feel so, so proud to have been able to help when need­ed,” she said.

In spite of this, she remains mod­est about her role:

“I would nev­er call myself brave,” she said. “The guys on the ground are the brave ones – we just do what­ev­er we can to sup­port and keep them alive. I am just anoth­er body in anoth­er vehi­cle; it just so hap­pens that I am a woman and I am in the air.”

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK