Four female combat helicopter aircrew are on their way to Afghanistan to fly the RAF's Merlin aircraft into action against the Taliban.
The four female aircrew will form part of a pool of Merlin pilots and loadmasters and will be assigned to aircraft as individuals. The four - two pilots and two loadmasters - include Flight Lieutenant Michelle Goodman, the first woman ever to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The women, aged from 24 to 32, have been training hard in California to cope with the 'high, hot and dusty' conditions of southern Afghanistan. The team will be expected to pick up casualties and fly resupply missions into the teeth of hostile fire in Helmand province.
The four women have been focusing on night-time dust landings and gunnery and expect to come under enemy fire frequently.
The two loadmasters, Sergeants Stephanie Cole, 24, and Wendy Donald, 32, have been honing their weapons skills on the helicopter's three 7.62mm general purpose machine guns in order to be able to defend their aircraft in Afghanistan. And Flight Lieutenants Goodman and Joanna Watkinson, 28, have been practising evasive flying manoeuvres to minimise their exposure to enemy fire.
All the women are aware that they might be shot down or forced to ditch their aircraft in hostile territory and have prepared for the possibility.
Flt Lt Goodman said:
"Although we obviously don't want the worst to happen, we are always prepared for it. We have personal safety and protection equipment on us at all times and grab bags are securely stored within easy reach in the aircraft for all the crew.
"If we thought about the threat continually we would never be able to do our jobs.
"Obviously we always bear it in mind in terms of our actions but when you're in the middle of a dangerous sortie you just get on with your job.
"It's not until you get back and you're relaxing that you realise what the situation was really like as you were so focused on the task in hand.
"There is always concern from family members when you're deploying to an operational theatre, especially one that gets a lot of media coverage, but they're incredibly supportive and very proud of us."
Flt Lt Goodman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2008 for her courage under fire in Iraq. She is a Merlin pilot with 78 Squadron at RAF Benson, has been in the RAF since 2000, and is a veteran of four tours in Iraq but none in Afghanistan so far. She said she was expecting 'banter' from the infantry about female aircrew picking them up, but nothing more.
Flt Lt Goodman explained:
"When I first got to the squadron there were only a couple of girls but now we've got six or seven over the Merlin Force which is really good and it certainly makes coming away on detachments much better.
"I've flown with one of the girls once before, having two girls in the front. Because you've gone through training the whole time, I haven't really noticed any difference.
"You always get banter but that's what you expect. If I didn't get banter I would think there was something wrong!
"I think it's not that widely known that women can come into the military, that they potentially can go out to places like Iraq and Afghanistan."
Flt Lt Joanna Watkinson is also based at RAF Benson and has been in the RAF for six years. She said:
"We often operate under fire but the Merlin is a highly protected aircraft and we are taught tactics to help us reduce the risk to the aircraft, the crews and the passengers as much as possible.
"We obviously can't say too much about the defensive aid suite as it could compromise operational security, but it is very comprehensive and will give us a high level of protection from various threat types.
"Obviously we're nervous about what we may face in Afghanistan as it is a different theatre of operations but we're happy that our training and tactics will help mitigate the threats against us as much as possible.
"We're all looking forward to doing our best in Afghanistan to support the ground troops."
Asked what she thought of increasing numbers of female aircrew in the RAF, she said:
"You start your officer training and there are two or three girls on your flight.
"You just go through training and get used to the fact that you're one of very few girls around the place.
"The boys are the boys, they always will be, and I get on with them really well, but it is quite nice when you're flying with some other girls that you can be close friends with.
"The Merlin is the first aircraft I've ever flown; I love the fact that it is a new aircraft, still developing. It's got all the computer wizardry inside so it's a very technological aircraft and I really like flying it. I find that it's a very natural aircraft to fly.
"I first did my dust landing training in Iraq. We had a training area we could use but when you're going out on operations it's a little bit more stressful. The training in California was a brilliant opportunity to do the dust landings in a completely safe environment."
Sgt Stephanie Cole has been in the RAF for three years and is the youngest of the four. She said:
"I've just literally come out of training in September. I spent about three weeks on the squadron, had a bit of leave, then I came straight out here so I'm a baby crewman."
The Sergeant's job is to keep the pilots informed of obstacles around the aircraft and to defend it if necessary. Sgt Cole explained:
"The Merlin can be fitted with three general purpose machine guns - on the ramp and in the two doors. The weapons are used in defence, as an additional level of protection for the aircraft if required.
"If we are required to man the weapons it is to provide covering fire in a high threat situation to allow the aircraft to safely evacuate.
"We are trained in this role and have been undertaking further training in El Centro, California, on the ranges.
"In certain situations we will also be accompanied by an Apache or Lynx who will undertake the air assault role if required."
Asked what she thought the infantry would make of the female crew, she said:
"I don't think an all-female crew would make a difference to anyone.
"We're all professionals capable of doing our jobs in the most demanding conditions and I don't think being female changes that in any way.
"There's always banter between the crews, and between the different Services, but it's all light-hearted and it is one of our coping mechanisms for the conditions that we face.
"I don't believe the guys on the ground would have any problem being picked up by females; the most important thing to them is that we are there to help them when they need it."
One of her toughest jobs is helping to guide the aircraft during dust landings. She said:
"It's a lot easier by day than by night. But it's been good. This is the great thing about the detachment [to California] before Afghanistan. Practice is the time to make mistakes.
"The Merlin is a great bit of kit, it's been great to fly. Because we've got the onboard comms you can actually get involved with the pilot more than the other aircraft; we can help offload some of their workload."
Sgt Wendy Donald is also a loadmaster and has been in the RAF for 11 years. She is now based at RAF Benson. Sgt Donald explained her role came into its own when picking up underslung loads of up to four tonnes:
"As a crewman it's my job to talk the pilot to overhead the load and we work together. I'm hanging through the hatch on the floor so either myself or the other crewman is looking through the hatch working together.
"It is a hard job. I don't like to say it's too tough, it's different. It's hard but you just get on with it. Flying is what I've always wanted to do so that is definitely the best part for me."
The four are due to deploy to Afghanistan in the New Year. It is possible they will fly together during the tour at some stage and there is certainly no bar to this happening, but they are unlikely to operate the same aircraft in the early stages of the deployment.