RAF's first female Force Commander ready for Afghanistan

SHE was sent to steer RAF Wittering through one of the most radical changes in its history.

Now with the air base firmly established as the logistical hub for the whole of the RAF it's mission accomplished for Group Captain Ro Atherton, 47, as she prepares to depart for a six-month tour of Afghanistan.

The station's first ever female Force Commander has said her final farewells because her two-year spell at the helm was due to end while she was away.

Known as the Home of the Harrier since 1968, RAF Wittering embarked on huge changes when Group Capt Atherton arrived in November, 2006, to take charge of the station and RAF A4 Force Element.

She became responsible for fuel and weaponry supplies as well as support services at home and abroad including catering, bomb disposal and helping with emergencies like last year's Gloucestershire floods.

She said: "I was honoured and possibly surprised, but I saw it as a great challenge."

Her aim was to make the station more relevant to today's airforce. And in a little over 18 months she has achieved just that.

She said: "We have managed to create a focus for expeditionary logistics in the RAF.

"We have maintained full support to Joint Harrier Force and the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while developing our ability to support any new operations that may come our way.

"We have also created a deployable logistics headquarters capability and it is part of that capability that I will be leading out in Afghanistan."

She will be working with the Army's 104 Logistics Support Brigade, leading a team of 11 at Joint Force Support Headquarters supporting Operation Herrick in Kandahar as deputy commander. The job will involve working up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

Intensive preparations began last month.

Group Capt Atherton said: "Together we have been learning more about how each other does business and developing our understanding of the requirements in Afghanistan."

Individual training involved weapons, fitness and force protection.

She said: "We will be handling both SA80 A2 and SLP pistols. I have to prove my ability to handle and fire those weapons, even though I am not out there sitting in the trenches."

Group Capt Atherton will leave behind her husband, Sqdn Ldr Ian Atherton.

He is a Tornado navigator at Strike Command, RAF High Wycombe, where she spent 18 months as deputy assistant chief of staff before moving to RAF Wittering.

She said: "Inevitably as an individual you have reservations about being away from family for six months and of course it is not a benign environment.

"Professionally it is a great challenge and I am really looking forward to it."

RAF Wittering's 3 Squadron 1 Force, which is not under Group Capt Atherton's command, will return from Afghanistan in September, tragically without two of its members.

SAC Gary Thompson, a 51-year-old reservist, and SAC Graham Living-stone, 23, died in a roadside bomb attack at Kandahar Airfield on April 13.

Group Capt Atherton said: "It does affect everybody – in Afghanistan and across the whole station. But they are incredibly resolved and focused in ensuring they are not distracted from the mission, which is defending Kandahar airbase. Everybody is pulling together."

Support teams help personnel and their families come to terms with any deaths and stress management programmes have been developed to help before, during after operations.

Group Capt Atherton joined the RAF in 1979, aged 17, before a change in the rules allowed women to learn to fly. But she insists gender is irrelevant to her career and questions about being a woman in the armed forces are off-limits.

She said: "I feel the RAF has fully embraced the modern expectations of all of its personnel in terms of career aspirations and development.

"From my perspective it has been an extremely fulfilling and enjoyable career."

That said, she is pleased there are more options for women joining the air force today.

She said: "If there had been a flight training option for women I would have gone for it. But I joined knowing it wasn't an option and it has never bothered me.

"I am very pleased now that the opportunity is open to everybody. I think that is fabulous."

Group Capt Atherton completed officer cadet training at RAF Henlow and went on to serve in Germany, Bosnia, the Falklands and Saudi Arabia.

Her time at Wittering began with a visit from Princess Anne to mark its 90th anniversary. She said: "It was a challenge from day one and it carried on from there. It has been high profile and high tempo."

The official handover to the new station commander, Group Capt Paul Higgins, took place last week and was attended by a few hundred station personnel. He joins from the Ministry of Defence where he has held the post of secretary to the chiefs of staff since January, last year.

Group Capt Atherton said: "Group Capt Higgins comes from a similar background to me in logistics and I know he is looking forward to the challenge."

Group Capt Atherton leaves for Afghanistan at the end of July.

She said: "Obviously I am very sad to be leaving.

"It has been a great privilege and honour to command a station with such a great heritage and which has a very bright future.

"Despite the pressure of operational commitments and manpower constraints there is a resilience and enthusiasm of all service and civilian personnel here at RAF Wittering.

"When I go into the community the positive feedback and appreciation for the personnel is a great inspiration."