Suffolk woman Top Gun in Afghanistan

A SUFFOLK woman has spoken of her role as part of the only all female crew providing vital air support for ground troops in Afghanistan.

Jonathan Schofield

A SUFFOLK woman has spoken of her role as part of the only all female crew providing vital air support for ground troops in Afghanistan.

Juliette Fleming - known as Jules to friends and family - has flown more than 100 hours over 20 missions in her RAF Tornado and is currently the only female pilot serving in Afghanistan.

The 30 year old from Bury St Edmunds, who serves with 31 Squadron, Royal Air Force Marham in Norfolk, insists she is just “one of the boys” amongst her colleagues.

Speaking from Afghanistan as she prepares for her part in Tornado Force Operation Herrick this Christmas she said it was all about doing the best for the guys under attack on the ground.

She said: “Our role out here is Close Air Support. It's all about supporting the troops on the ground, whether that is searching for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), providing armed watch of patrols taking place, or being on ground alert for when troops are in contact with the enemy.”

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After joining the RAF ten years ago Flight Lieutenant Fleming was posted to Iraq before heading to Afghanistan.

Her Tornado is made all the more unique by her navigator, Squadron Leader Nikki Thomas, making them the only all female crew on their Detachment.

The pair have been supporting British and US troops on the ground in areas where some of the fiercest fighting is taking place.

Flight Lieutenant Fleming said: “On my first sortie in theatre we were airborne for just five minutes before we were called to assist troops in contact.”

The troops hade been fired on and the Tornado needed to check where the rockets had been fired from before escorting the patrol of eight back to base safely.

“When they are under attack you can hear it on the radio, hear the guys running and panting - you want to do your best to help them. As they came under fire again, we were then able to help direct an Apache helicopter to come to their aid on the ground,” she said.

She said one particular mission last month stood out for her.

“After receiving some intelligence that there may be a rocket attack on the base, we were called overhead to Kandahar airfield itself to survey the area. Noticing some guys hanging around in a ditch, we flew fast and low as we have been trained to do, and they dispersed. It's a great feeling to be able to help protect personnel, to play your part in that.”

She said she hadn't been treated all that differently despite being an all female crew.

“When you are Air to Air refuelling they are a lot chattier with us compared to the guys, and the guys on the ground recognise your voice very quickly. The banter is always there though. To be honest you will always get banter for something in the RAF, so being a girl is great because you know what it is going to be,” she added.