High flier helping women's careers take off

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Emily Moore meets Sarah Furness, a former RAF squadron leader who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a motivational speaker

THE first time that Sarah Furness was shot at, she did not realise what had happened.

‘I was flying over Iraq and I thought that the people on the ground were having a party with a fireworks display,’ she said. ‘In their culture, it is quite common for people to fire rifles into the air as part of a celebration, so my first thought was “Oh, that’s nice”. Then I realised what was really happening and my thought quickly changed to “Oh God, someone’s shooting at me. Someone wants me dead”.’

It was, says the former RAF combat pilot, who is in Jersey today at the invitation of Quilter Cheviot, a ‘humbling moment’.

‘I didn’t feel any indignation; I just found it very sad and humbling to realise that someone hated me so much that they wanted to kill me,’ she said.

Although acknowledging that she had known ‘what she was signing up for’ when she joined the force, she admits that, at the age of 18, she probably didn’t have the maturity to grasp the full implications of her career choice.


‘I think it helped that when you’re that age, you think you’re invincible, so a lot of what you’re training to do doesn’t seem quite real,’ she reflected. ‘War is always a divisive subject but when you join one of the armed forces, you like to think that you’re one of the good guys, trying to make the world safer. To do that, you have to have incredible faith in the people leading your country and believe that if they decide to take action, that action is being taken for the right reasons.

‘In reality, I’m not sure that I had the maturity to grasp that when I was 18. I just thought it was incredibly exciting and I had the unshakeable belief that it was the right thing to do. Having said that, I always believed that war should be a last resort and something which should never be glorified.’

Despite that conviction, it was the ‘slightly glorified’ film Top Gun which initially triggered Sarah’s desire to join the military.

‘I was 12 when I first saw the film and I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do,’ she said. ‘While any war movie will be a touch glorified, the film wasn’t glorifying killing people but serving your country and, in my mind, it was never about trying to oppress or hurt people but about the sacrifice that we were prepared to make. From that point, I became incredibly focused on achieving that goal, planning the subjects I needed to study and joining the CCF and Air Cadets so that I learnt to fly from an early age.’

And while many parents might have tried to dissuade their 12-year-old daughter from following such a path, Sarah said that her family was nothing but supportive.

‘Neither of my parents tried to talk me out of it and their support meant that I was able to focus even more on achieving that goal. My dad had been in the Air Force and my mother was incredibly brave and tenacious. They had faith in me and raised to me have that faith in myself,’ she said. ‘At that point, the ambition was to join the RAF but also to study astrophysics, so that after a career as a fighter pilot, I could become an astronaut.’


However, when she won a place at Cambridge, she discovered that the university did not offer an astrophysics course – a short-term setback which, in the long run, sowed the seeds for her post-military career as a motivational speaker and coach.

‘I studied natural sciences with a view to specialising in astrophysics later but, when the time came, I realised that I didn’t particularly enjoy maths or physics, while I had a real passion for the more philosophical questions, so I branched out into theology and the debate between science and religion,’ she said.

Having flown gliders and light aircraft during her school days, it was at university that Sarah began her official military flying training.

‘The dangers of the job that we were preparing to do never crossed my mind at that stage,’ she said. ‘My greatest fear was failing the course, as the failure rate was quite high.’

Having passed the course and gone on to become a squadron leader, Sarah’s RAF career saw her serve in countries including Iraq and Afghanistan. And that was when she started to appreciate the dangers of her line of work.

‘I was involved in some really intense missions and, at those times, the risks started to feel more real. There were definitely moments when I worried for my life and wondered whether I would be coming home,’ she reflected. ‘It was those moments that made me appreciate what was really important in life because, when you suddenly think that you might not come home, the little things cease to matter and all you think about is your family and friends and how much you love them.’

As a woman in a male-dominated environment, Sarah says that many people naturally assume that she faced particular challenges which were not shared by her male counterparts. In reality, though, she says that there was a lot more gender parity and commonality in the military than people might expect.


‘I was definitely in the minority as a woman,’ she said. ‘In fact, I was usually the only female on the training courses and when I joined the front line, I was one of only two or three women in that position. Having said that, the attitudes among my colleagues and superiors were incredibly progressive. Not only did they promote me to squadron leader, on the same pay as the male leaders, but I was in charge of several men, all of whom followed my orders.’

But that inclusive approach did not mean that there weren’t times when Sarah felt a little lonely.

‘I think that was inevitable because it was incredibly obvious that, as a woman, I was different from the men,’ she reflected, ‘and perhaps there was an expectation that, as a female, I would be more emotional and vulnerable. In some respects, though, that expectation made it easier to be authentic and I actually think in some ways it was an advantage because there was a huge amount of pressure on the men to be alpha males and not to show that emotion.’

Another advantage of working in that environment was the insight it gave Sarah into the characteristics common to all people.

‘When I joined the RAF, I thought that I was completely different from the guys around me,’ she said. ‘However, the more time we spent together, the more I realised that, actually, I was just like them and one of the greatest lessons I learnt – and which I now try to share with others – is that common sense of humanity. The way to drive progress is to all be in it together and to feel that connectedness.’

Perhaps one of the factors driving that sense of togetherness was the need for all personnel to be able to perform under pressure, something which has gone on to feature in Sarah’s self-help book, Fly Higher, and in her coaching programmes and motivational talks, and which she will highlight during a speech to Jersey College for Girls students.


‘I left the RAF in November 2021 after 21 years of service because my son was more important than my career,’ she explained. ‘But the exposure that the services gave me to the many people who are putting a brave face on things but not feeling as strong as they look really fuelled my interest in mindfulness and how the brain works.

‘When I was in combat, it wasn’t the bombs and bullets which scared me; it was the thought of not being loved or of being forgotten about. More recently, I’ve come to understand that was a very normal fear but, at the time, I thought I was the only person experiencing it, and it was mindfulness that helped me to realise that just because we think something doesn’t mean that it is real.

‘Half of the stuff in our heads is a load of rubbish but until you learn to let go of those thoughts, you spend a lot of time listening to that inner critic. One of the most powerful things we can learn is to let go of those self-harming thoughts, to believe that we are loveable and to accept that it’s OK to fail.’

It is this, together with her message of ‘connected humanity’, which Sarah says is particularly relevant as people mark International Women’s Day.

‘While it is easy to think that we don’t have gender parity and that there is no point bothering because nothing is changing, I don’t believe that is the case,’ she said. ‘While it will be a long time before we achieve complete parity, having been in the RAF for 21 years, I can see how much attitudes changed during that time and it’s important to have faith that they will change further because your actions will make a difference for future generations.

‘The RAF, for example, is trying very hard to encourage more women to join the service and to carry out engineering and technical roles but it will take time to achieve this. And we also need to realise that diversity and inclusion isn’t about making everyone do the same thing. If a woman doesn’t want to be an engineer, she shouldn’t have to be one just because a certain quota of females in certain roles is perceived to make an organisation look better.

‘Instead, we should all – male and female – have the freedom to choose where we want to work and not end up limiting our options because we feel that we have to put women in men’s roles or vice versa.’

  • Sarah Furness is in Jersey to celebrate International Women’s Day as a guest of Quilter Cheviot. During her visit, she will speak at a lunch organised by the firm, as well as to students at Jersey College for Girls.
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