Royal Air Force (RAF) Airman and Woman

The Job and What's Involved

The Royal Air Force's (RAF) main responsibility at home is to defend UK airspace. It also operates a search and rescue service at sea and on land. Its role abroad is to operate both as a fighting and peacekeeping force. In addition, it brings aid to the victims of war and natural disaster.

Airmen/women provide specialist skills in around 40 different trades. They also have military duties. These may include guarding RAF stations and taking part in military operations, exercises and training.

The trade areas are:

Aircrew - non-commissioned aircrew who act as the RAF's eyes and ears in an operational environment, and also work in search and rescue. They include weapon systems operators who specialise as crewmen or in electronic warfare, acoustics or linguistics.

Engineering and Technical - specialists who work on equipment that ranges from aircraft engine components to hydraulics and flying helmets for aircrew. They include aircraft technicians (avionics), aircraft technicians (mechanical), survival equipment fitters, weapons technicians and general technicians. Up to one third of RAF personnel work in the engineering and technical area.

Catering and Hospitality - responsible for catering in the UK and overseas, in-flight and on attachment. They include air stewards and chefs.

Force Protection - responsible for protecting airbases, aircraft and RAF personnel. They include RAF Regiment gunners (the RAF's specialist infantry unit), police and firefighters.

Medical and Medical Support - provide services either in an NHS hospital or on RAF bases in the UK, and are trained and ready to go overseas. They include dental nurses, dental technicians, staff nurses, student staff nurses, pharmacy technicians, operating theatre technicians, laboratory technicians, radiographers, environmental health technicians and medical assistants.

Personnel Support - support RAF personnel in various ways. They include personnel administration assistants, physical training instructors and musicians.

Air Operations Support - support RAF aircraft. They include air traffic control assistants, aerospace systems operators, flight operations assistants and air cartographers.

Communications and intelligence - operate the RAF's communications and information systems. This includes monitoring electronic pictures and maintaining telecommunications equipment used on missions all over the world. It also includes intercepting and analysing messages from the enemy. They include communication and information systems specialists, intelligence analysts, intelligence analysts (voice), photographers and aerial erectors.

Logistics and equipment - control stock, manage budgets, transport equipment and make sure it arrives on time, where it is needed and ready for action. They include mechanical transport drivers, movements controllers and suppliers.

Airmen/women need to be available for duty at all times, but they usually work office hours over a five-day week. Most weekends are free, but work may occasionally be required. The work may include shifts, holiday work, and early starts and late finishes. On exercise or operations, working hours can be long and changeable. Airmen/women can be away from their family for several months when on detachment.

At an RAF station, airmen/women work alongside hundreds of people. Many RAF stations are like small towns, with shops, gyms, crèches and banks.

Airmen/women may be posted to RAF bases in the UK or overseas, for example in Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island and Gibraltar. They may also go on operations and exercises anywhere in the world.

The starting salary for a fully-trained airman/woman is £15,677 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are more than 30,000 non-commissioned personnel in the RAF. Competition for trades varies. The RAF's website indicates which trades are in urgent need of recruits.

Airmen/women join the RAF for a minimum length of service. Non-commissioned aircrew enlist for 12 years initially, while for other trades it is usually nine years. There are circumstances that allow people to leave before then. For example, it is possible to give notice to leave following the completion of three years' service after training. Many airmen/women extend their careers in the RAF well beyond the number of years they initially join for.

Education and Training

Entry to many trades is possible at 16 years of age. Some trades set a higher minimum age:

17 - Dental nurses, firefighters, intelligence analysts, mechanical transport drivers, musicians and operating theatre technicians.

17.5 - Student staff nurses and weapon systems operators.

18 - RAF police and unqualified radiographers.

21 - Registered general and mental nurses.

No formal qualifications are needed to become an RAF Regiment gunner. Qualifications required for other trades vary. Some need at least two GCSE's/S grades (A-E/1-5), including English language and maths, while most others require between two and five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English language and maths. Student nurses, unqualified radiographers and laboratory technicians need A levels/H grades or equivalent. See the RAF careers website for full details of entry requirements for each trade.

All candidates must pass aptitude tests designed to test reasoning and comprehension skills. They must also pass a pre-joining fitness test, a health assessment and interviews.

Entrants must have been a citizen of the UK, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland since birth, or have dual nationality with Britain and another country. There are stricter nationality requirements for some trades. For example, intelligence analysts must have been British citizens and UK residents since birth.

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A Few More Exams You Might Need

RAF Regiment gunners train for around five months at RAF Honington in Suffolk. All other trainees undertake a nine-week training course at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire. The course includes general RAF service knowledge, physical fitness and military weapons training.

Following recruit training at RAF Halton, non-commissioned aircrew take a ten-week aircrew training course at the RAF College Cranwell in Lincolnshire, followed by further training specific to their specialisation. Other airmen/women begin their trade training. Depending on their specialisation, this can take between three weeks and 18 months.

Increasingly, trade training involves working towards nationally recognised qualifications. These may include NVQ's/SVQ's, BTEC/SQA awards or City & Guilds qualifications. Trainees are encouraged to take advanced vocational qualifications as their careers progress.

Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An airman/woman should:

  • Be able to work well as part of a team.
  • Be self-disciplined.
  • Be able to follow orders and act on their own initiative.
  • Have the ability to stay calm under pressure.
  • Be able to organise work and pay attention to detail.
  • Have a high level of physical fitness (especially RAF Regiment gunners).
  • Be good at analysing information (especially intelligence analysts).
  • Be good with numbers and have strong computer skills (for some trades).
  • Be prepared to travel and be away from their family for long periods.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion to leading aircraftman/aircraftwoman is usual after six months or when specialist training has been completed, whichever is first. Promotion to senior aircraftman/aircraftwoman is usually after airmen/women have passed their trade ability test and completed one year's total service. Further promotion to corporal and above is by competitive selection based on merit.

Non-commissioned aircrew are promoted to sergeant on completion of their training. Further promotion is to flight sergeant and master aircrew.

Airmen/women can earn promotion in most RAF trades from junior ranks to non-commissioned management and instructing roles. Airmen/women who satisfy eligibility conditions may apply to become commissioned officers or non-commissioned aircrew.

Get Further Information

Further information is available at

Applicants can also visit their local Armed Forces careers offices for further advice, or call the RAF advice line (0845 605 5555).

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