RAF squadron leader Ruth Shackleton is a high-flyer in every way

Brought up in South Shields and Northumberland, Ruth Shackleton is now team manager of the Red Arrows

www.glen-photography.co.uk RAF squadron leader Ruth Shackleton
RAF squadron leader Ruth Shackleton

Growing up on the English side of the border with Scotland, Ruth Shackleton had something of an idyllic childhood.

At the age of 10 her family had moved to Flodden Field as her parents own part of the famous (or infamous, depending on your nationality) battle site where the English routed the Scots 501 years ago.

It’s a beautiful spot, with sweeping views over the rolling north Northumberland countryside to the Cheviot Hills - and the perfect location for a child to run free and for the Royal Air Force to zoom across the huge expanse of sky on their regular training runs to Otterburn and Spadeadam.

Ruth remembers gazing up and watching Chinook helicopters, Hercules tactical transport aircraft and Tornado jets thundering overhead.

“They always seemed to be in the background,” she says.

While many complain about the RAF’s low-flying sorties across the area, Ruth loved watching the aircraft zipping across the landscape and the rumble of the powerful engines resounding in her young ears.

Those free aerial shows had a more profound effect on her than Ruth could ever have imagined at the time.

Thirty years later she is a high-flyer in the RAF in every sense of the word.

Now 39, she is a squadron leader and coming to the end of a prestigious two-year posting as team manager of one of the world’s premier and possibly best-known aerobatic display groups, the Red Arrows.

Casting her mind back, she admits it was those early encounters with Britain’s aerial warfare service that most likely subconsciously steered her into a career that has seen her make her mark in spectacular fashion as a woman in what is still a male-orientated world - and taken her from demanding postings on home soil to the Falkland Islands, the Mediterranean, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

That’s not to say her path into the RAF was a straightforward one. There were twists and turns as complicated as anything the Red Arrows perform in their lauded aerial displays, before she finally decided to sign her life away for the next 16 years at the age of 24.

She had had a brief flirtation with the armed forces in her teenage years as a pupil at the co-educational Glenalmond College in Perthshire, Scotland, where she had had the honour of being the first female member of the school’s combined cadet force, which covers all three military branches.

It gave her a taste of what service life would be like and allowed her to begin developing the leadership, team-building and initiative skills that would hold her in good stead in later years.

But having secured three A-levels, in maths, physics and history, Ruth’s life took an unexpected course. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, she eschewed going to university.

“All my friends were heading down that route, but I decided it really wasn’t for me. I think it came as a surprise to everyone at the time that I didn’t go into higher education, but looking back it did me good doing the opposite to what everyone else was doing.”

Instead Ruth landed a job as a picture framer before moving on to run an art gallery. She then decided to go travelling – a pastime she still enjoys – and headed off for the Middle East, where she ended up working on a kibbutz in Israel.

A stint as a quality controller at the Jus-Rol pastry company in Berwick followed.

But the love of aeroplanes and flying first stimulated during her youth in Northumberland refused to be quashed.

So at the age of 21 she joined Saudi Arabian Airlines as a flight attendant based in Jeddah in the Middle Eastern country. “My father had worked in Saudi Arabia and I used to spend my school holidays there,” Ruth explains. “I thought it was time I spread my wings, did something meaningful and experienced different parts of the world.

“I did that for three years and absolutely loved the job. I had a good time, made lots of friends and met lots of interesting people, but it is hard work and there are only so many cups of tea and coffee you can serve.”

It was at the age of 24 that her past caught up with her and she finally awoke to the realisation that her future lay with the RAF. It was a now-or-never moment.

“It was a case of if I didn’t go for the RAF at that point then I never would, so six years after leaving school I decided that was it. I applied and was thankfully selected.”

It might seem a relatively late age to enter the armed forces with any expectations of steaming ahead. Most of her colleagues had stolen a considerable march on her – and there was the added handicap of her gender.

While the RAF is an equal opportunities employer, to this day only 10 per cent of personnel are women and Ruth confesses: “You have to work very hard to be recognised. Some postings have been challenging and you can feel lonely on deployment.

“But you can’t have it all ways. I have decided my life at the moment is in the Air Force. Some people are really talented and for them it’s possible to bring up a family and have a career, but I couldn’t do that, certainly not in the roles I have experienced.

“I have had to dedicate myself to the Air Force to succeed. I don’t regret it, however. I have always been ambitious; I always wanted to do something extraordinary with my life.”

Ruth acknowledges things may have been different if she had met the “right man,” but goes on to say she has always had “this innate thing in me to succeed and I have worked really hard to get to the point I am”.

Her rise up the RAF career ladder has been impressive and reflects well, Ruth says, on her decision not to join straight from school.

“I really don’t think I would have succeeded if I had gone straight from school. Doing shift work – something you don’t appreciate as an 18-year-old - travelling to some fairly remote places in the world and then working for a Middle Eastern airline, all helped shape me and give me life experiences I would never have had if I had gone to university straight from school.

“By the time I was 24 I was no longer green and I knew what work was.”

Initially Ruth had set her sights on being a pilot. “But my arms were too short, apparently!” she jokes. Instead she moved into the operations side. “I’m so glad I did. It’s much more diverse and in terms of a future beyond the RAF, in my view more marketable than being a pilot.”

She has certainly enjoyed a varied career. This has included duty operations officer at 32 (The Royal Squadron) at RAF Northolt, arranging VIP flights.

It was “a wonderful and really high-profile job,” Ruth reminisces. “It was perfect for me as we were dealing with a lot of civilian traffic too as private aircraft fly in and out of Northolt.

“We had Madonna through, Princess Diana, Robbie Williams and, of course, the Queen and Prince Philip.”

One of the high points was seeing Nelson Mandela as he arrived in the UK on a state visit. “The whole point of VIPs coming through Northolt is the privacy it offers, but the management staff had an autograph book going!

“We had all sorts of aircraft and flights coming in and out and I was one of the few people who knew that Ronnie Biggs was coming back into the UK as he arrived via Northolt.”

She’s been squadron operations officer with Chinook Helicopters and Task co-ordinator for the Air Transport Fleet at both RAF Brize Norton and the Defence Transport Movement Agency in Andover; NATO HQ operations officer in Naples, Italy, responsible for the maritime patrol aircraft; and aide-de-camp to Air Officer Commanding 22 Training Group. That’s not to mention being officer commanding operations at Squadron RAF Coningsby, home of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Operational experience has included four months in the Falkland Islands, when she was thrilled to fly over South Georgia, where her distant relative, the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, is buried.

As part of Operation Telic in Iraq in 2003, she came under rocket and Scud attack, and was twice involved in Afghanistan, first in 2008 for Operation Herrick, based in Kandahar, and again in 2010 on Operation Enduring Freedom, working with the Americans co-ordinating the NATO heavy airlift into the war-torn nation’s six major airfields.

It was during the latter posting that Ruth was promoted to squadron leader.

“We had 41 nations working together and not enough slots on the ground. That was a very exciting time trying to organise everything.”

In 2011 she was part of Operation Ellamy, the UK involvement in the recent Libyan conflict.

Ruth also helped co-ordinate the Typhoon jets that patrolled the skies over London during the 2012 Olympics.

Then, two years ago, she was appointed team manager of the Red Arrows. It is, she declares, “a role like no other.” It’s been made all the more special by the fact this is the Reds’ 50th anniversary year and one of the team’s many engagements has for the past few years included their now iconic displays at the Bupa Great North Run.

Ruth spent the first four years of her life in South Shields before her family moved first to Morpeth and then to the Borders.

For that reason the Bupa Great North Run – which is itself celebrating a milestone event this year as the first event of its kind in the world to reach its one millionth finisher – holds a special place in her heart.

This September the team will only be performing the Tyne Bridge fly-past and no end-of-race display in South Shields due to other commitments. But Ruth will be watching the half-marathon on TV.

In 2012 she came back to South Shields for the run and stood on the corner of her former street watching the Red Arrows flying overhead.

“It was a really proud moment for me,” she reveals.

Sadly, this December will see both her tenure as the Red Arrows’ team manager, and her time in the RAF, come to end. She is retiring from the force and heading off to pastures new.

Given her impressive CV, she shouldn’t be short of job offers.

She is modest about her achievements. “Anyone can do what I have done; you just have to want to do it, seek out opportunities and work hard.

“When I left school I never thought that one day I would be team manager for the Reds. But everything I did before I joined the RAF just made me more determined to succeed.

“Yes, women are still in the minority in the RAF, but progress is being made. I think female prospects are as good as those for males.

“The opportunities are there; the RAF is open for everyone, but as women we just need to get out there and ‘do the business’.”

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