Ayla Holdom: RAF Search and Rescue Pilot

1 November 2018 in RAF Centenary Programme

As part of the RAF’s centenary celebrations, the RAF Museum has launched RAF Stories. This is an online collection of personal memories, capturing and sharing the inspirational stories connected to the Royal Air Force. To help celebrate the RAF Stories project, a series of talks will take place to highlight some of the most inspiring individuals that have been brought to light by the project so far. One of those amazing people is Ayla Holdom.

Ayla Holdom with a Sea King Helicopter

Ayla was based at RAF Chivenor, piloting the RAF Search and Rescue helicopter, the Westland Sea King. This helicopter was first developed in the late 1960s, before entering service for the RAF in 1978. In order to keep up with the pace of civilian aviation organisations, new technology was often bolted onto the Sea King, or simply carried along for the ride. But this didn’t mean the Sea King was dwindling. It was still going strong as Ayla explains:

“The Sea King was a fantastic Search and Rescue platform. We could fly in any weather over the sea. We could fly day or night over land as well. And we could put a paramedic down using our 240-foot winch to people in need. It was a robust helicopter. It was a good, American designed, metal helicopter that enjoyed being used properly. You didn’t need to be gentle enough, but she didn’t min being put into some tough spots as well.”

Sea King helicopter with Ayla's silhouette at the RAF Museum London

But Ayla and the rest of her team needed something robust like the Sea King to help them through the difficult conditions they would face when out on operation. The British weather can be ferocious, so for them, safety was the number one priority:

“The most difficult part of Search and Rescue was operating safely. Which is the absolute paramount to everything, it is safety first. Safety of your crew, safety of your aircraft, safety of the causality. Causality comes last to all of that. In order to be safe, you have to be very wary of everything not just riding in thinking you’re the hero and regardless of what’s in front of you. It’s assessing the situation, realising what rules you can work to, what your actual capabilities are to safely get to where you think you need to be. And really deciding when you don’t have capability and when you aren’t the best asset to a rescue. And that was the hardest part to learn.”

Search and Rescue Crew

Ayla went on approximately 300 rescue missions with the Search and Rescue team, helping to save those who were in distress. During her time on the team, Ayla got the chance to work alongside HRH The Duke of Cambridge, or ‘William’, as they came to know him by:

“Working with Prince William was fantastic. It was an honour obviously. It was an honour to provide a place that he enjoyed working and to give him a job that he loved doing. You know, he was genuinely a good pilot. He was a good guy to have around and he was part of the team. Very quickly we got used to the fact that we had royalty working with us, which was nice. He wasn’t just Prince William, he was William.”

HRH the Duke of Cambridge serving in the RAF

Ayla had an extensive career flying for Search and Rescue for 13 years, retiring from the RAF in 2015. This was the same year that Search and Rescue was handed over to the Department of Transport and the Coastguard, meaning it was no longer under military control. Although Ayla and her team found it upsetting to say goodbye, they understood that it was necessary. She now flies police helicopters, helping to search for criminals on the run.

In 2010, Ayla became the first openly transgender pilot in the British Armed Forces:

“I came out as transgender in 2010. And that came with all the trepidation and nerves you might expect. It was possibly the best environment I could imagine being in because your work environment is a family. The RAF is a family, you are very close knit. So, I absolutely wanted to be there, around people that I respected and loved to go through that.”

Search and Rescue Crew

While the Royal Air Force was very supportive of Ayla’s transition because of the implementation of new policies and of others who had gone before her, Ayla still noticed some slight changes:

“Because I transitioned gender, I experienced the Air Force from a male perspective as well, and a female one. And I always assumed there was no such thing as misogyny, because we have a policy and there are rules in place to prevent any misogyny going on. But actually, it turned out that it was under the surface and went unseen. I definitely felt that after I transitioned, I certainly felt that there was a different standard expected of me. I had to work that much harder to equal some of my peers.”

Ayla had a really exciting career in the Royal Air Force, as well as the support from her friends in the RAF, allowing her to be herself, and to continue doing terrific work with the Search and Rescue team. Ayla proves that being yourself and having diversity in the RAF allows it to function at the highest standard possible. For me, it is great to see someone have so much passion for their job, and feel comfortable enough in that environment to be unapologetically themselves.

Ayla will be the third guest speaker for the RAF Stories series of talks on Thursday 8th November, at RAF Museum Cosford. To find out more information and to book your free ticket to Ayla’s talk, please visit the museum website.

You can also find Ayla’s and many other inspirational stories on the RAF Stories website.

RAF Stories is proudly supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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