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Interview with Lieutenant Commander Becky Frater RN

Becky FraterSelf-confessed hockey obsessive – and an ex-England hockey player herself –  Lieutenant Commander Becky Frater RN was the First Woman female member and lead pilot of the Royal Navy ‘Black Cats’ display team (the Navy’s equivalent of the Red Arrows).

No stranger to pioneership, Becky was also the first female Qualified Helicopter Instructor in the Royal Navy, the first to pilot the Lynx Helicopter Maritime Attack and also the first women ever to command a Naval Air Squadron.

Now a Major in the British Army, Becky shares with First Women about what she has learned in a role where ‘mistakes are usually terminal!’

Your inspiration doesn’t necessarily have to come from your chosen field of work

As a teenager I volunteered for the Air Cadets, where I received my first introduction to military life and flying. It is hard to imagine now but at that time, women were very limited in what roles they could do in the military, including flying helicopters. It’s possible my subconscious did not focus on this as being a realistic opportunity to strive towards when I was 18 years old.

Although I very much enjoyed Air Cadets, most of my inspirational personalities at the time were more connected with my primary passion which was sport and more specifically hockey. Any female international player at the time was my heroine. Hockey taught me the values of team work and female companionship for a healthy life balance. I still play regular hockey and would genuinely be quite lost without the regular social interactions only sport can fulfil. There is no better feeling in the world than winning as a team – which is wholly the mantra of the British Military.

A ‘just go for it’ attitude can carry you a long way

I do have the ability to focus almost obsessively on one particular task. Consequently, I can achieve many things in one role; however my multi-tasking skills are probably not as good! I can close out the nerves when it matters. I have also learnt more recently the importance of perspective and not to fear failure. A ‘just go for it’ attitude can carry you a long way.

Your definition of ‘success’ changes as you do

It is important to acknowledge your past successes, but they are only a point along the journey. We have a saying in the rotary community that you are ‘only as good as your next landing’, so although past achievements are nice to dwell on occasionally I am often so occupied by the next challenge that I probably do not reflect as much as I should. Besides, one’s definition of success also changes. Now I am a mother, a simple cuddle and a ‘well done mummy’ I consider to be a tremendous achievement!

A significant challenge to anyone is the realisation that you have no margin for error

Once women were allowed to be pilots, the Army, Navy and RAF have never stopped them advancing. Training to be a pilot, especially a Naval pilot operating off of small ships like Frigates and Destroyers is challenging enough without gender hurdles. However, like most of the First Women, a significant challenge is the realisation that you have no margin for error. The moment you make a mistake as a woman, however small, it provides others the opportunity to question your position.

My most surprising source of support within military flying was probably from all the ‘grumpy old men’, the ones that you would expect not to want women flying at all. Once they realised that we were serious and passionate about our roles within the military, they soon accepted us as part of the team.

The world of helicopter pilots is too small to label behaviours ‘gender specific’

I am not sure that men or women have any right to any particular gender-specific traits. Standard stereotypes might hold in a large population, but in the small world of helicopter pilots – and especially female pilots – the numbers are just too small to label behaviours. I suppose as a ‘first woman’ I wish that I was able to let go of the feeling that I have to constantly prove myself at every new stage!

Trailblazers don’t think about the fact that they are trailblazers 

You just do what you love and believe you have a right to be doing it. You then just work hard enough without trying to force the situation.

Working hard will be the only thing that you will be judged on

I am not sure I have made many major errors that have taught me a big lesson in my career – mistakes can be quite terminal as a pilot! But believing that working hard will be the only thing that one will be judged on was rather naïve! You have to take ownership of your career and drive it forward. Do not expect others to do it for you.

Staying positive is easier when the pressure is on

…because you can focus on delivering rather than ruminating on the process. I have a wonderful family and in particular a remarkably supportive husband who has kept the other pressures of life at bay – ensuring that I can focus on what I need to do.

 I am very humbled in the company that I find myself in as a ‘First Woman’

…and a little overawed. There are women in this exhibition who have achieved really amazing things, whilst I believe that perhaps I just came along at the right time!

My key advice to potential pioneers?

Do not let the grumpy ones get you down and hold you back; it is not their life – it is yours!

Interview by Deborah Willimott


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