Inspirational Woman: Chris Elliot | Controller, RAF Benevolent Fund

Today is International Women’s Day and to mark the occasion, Air Vice-Marshal Chris Elliot, Controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund, provides insights into her career journey in the RAF, outlining her highlights and challenges as a woman in the military.

AVM Elliot served in the Royal Air Force for 35 years. Her last role was Chief of Staff Personnel and Air Secretary, looking after the careers and welfare of RAF servicemen and women. In addition, she was a member of the RAF Board.

AVM Elliot joined the RAF in 1985 after gaining her degree in Glasgow. During her career she has worked in Defence Airspace, Air Traffic Management, Planning, Ground Training and latterly personnel management and welfare. She also served as Station Commander at RAF Halton in 2010.

How did you start your career in the RAF?

I am from a non-military background, the youngest of four children, and I grew up on a council estate about 15 miles from Glasgow. My love for the Royal Air Force came from a young age – I was really inspired by movies like the Battle of Britain and fascinated by what happened on airfields.  I was inspired, by the iconic spitfires and by the roles women  had– I desperately wanted to be a pilot or be in the operations room! I, fortunately, had huge support from my family to join the RAF, even back in the 80s, when there were limitations as to what women could do in military service.  I joined the Royal Air Force because it offered the broadest range of roles for women. So, I trained as an Air Traffic Controller straight from university as it was the closest position I could get to flying and operational service – and I never regretted a minute of it. Even today, I have no regrets that I didn’t become a pilot – I loved being an air traffic controller and it was a wonderful foundation for my RAF career. I joined with the intention of only being with the RAF for six years but stayed on for nearly 35 years!

How has the RAF changed from when you started your career to now?

When I first joined the RAF in 1985, roles for women were still limited, were non-combatant and the numbers of women were relatively low.  However, in my chosen specialization of  air traffic control, there were many women serving, and I was therefore surrounded by a disproportionate number of really strong women who were  professionally and personally inspirational with incredible leadership skills.,.  I never felt particularly constrained as a woman in the RAF. However, until the early 90’s you couldn’t remain in Service if you were pregnant. I saw many   fantastic women leaving the Service in my earlier career because they wanted to have a family.  Luckily for me, things changed and when I had my kids, I felt fully supported by my team –  I was pregnant twice in Command and I noticed that the culture had changed significantly. And of course, today, women are able to join any role in the RAF, including the most recent changes to ground close combat roles, and the RAF Regiment now being open to women. The great thing about the RAF is that they will develop people who have got potential, no matter your gender or sexual orientation.

What are some of your career highlights?

I had the honour and privilege to command RAF Halton, which was a huge responsibility, but being able to create the right conditions for people to succeed was just amazing and I worked with an incredible team. Working at RAF Northolt on the Operations Wing was also a highlight, although it was a tough time as our Station Commander sadly passed away, but seeing how the whole station pulled together in response was truly inspiring.

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One of the hardest professional tours I  experienced as an Air Traffic Controller was at RAF Valley in Anglesey between 1989-1992. It was an incredibly busy airfield, looking after trainee fast jet aircrew  and from the minute I was sat in the tower and put my headset in, to the minute I left, you just could never quite anticipate what would happen. When things were busy you were on the ‘edge of your seat’ and the way in which the team pulled together to get the job done was just fantastic – we all knew we had a huge responsibility to keep people safe. The complexity and intensity of the work was challenging, but equally so rewarding.

My transition to the Raf Benevolent Fund was a key moment for me, helping the RAF Family in a different way. Moving across to the Fund has been a wonderful opportunity and I couldn’t have hoped for a better role upon leaving the Service.

Why did you decide to join the Fund?

I had never really considered it – it was always ‘other people’ who did those jobs. But then, two years into my Chief of Staff personnel role, somebody said, ‘Have you ever thought about being the Controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund?’ And I thought ‘What? Me?’, but it didn’t take me too long to realise that it was absolutely something I wanted to do it. I was thrilled to get through the interview process and take on the role in April 2020.  I don’t take my role lightly, because I think there is a huge responsibility for all of us to do the best we possibly can to look after the members of our RAF Family who are in need, and I take it very seriously. It does make me emotional at times when I see the huge positive effect we deliver and I do get frustrated that there is more we can do and more people we can reach, but it can be a struggle getting people to actually reach out  to us for help. I also think my experience as a mum and seeing it from the family perspective gives me a different insight – my family had to live that service life as well, so I can definitely relate.

How does it feel to be the first female controller at the Fund?

People say, ‘you’ve broken a glass ceiling,’ but I have had the privilege to work with great people and great teams throughout my years in the Service and I have had some fantastic mentors and role models, male and female, who pushed me to do the best I could possibly do. I’ve never really seen myself as being the ‘first female Controller at the RAF Benevolent Fund’, it’s rather me just doing the best job I can possibly do. It’s not about being the best woman I can possibly be in my job, it’s just about me doing my job to the best of my ability.

What would you say to young women and teenagers who are interested in starting a career in the RAF?

Do it! Don’t doubt yourself. The teamwork, opportunities, development, and responsibility you are exposed to at a young age is so empowering. I wholeheartedly recommend a career in the RAF.

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