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RNZAF 85: Sergeant Joyce McGee

Served 1977-1986
Communications specialist Sergeant Joyce McGee was one of the first Air Force women to serve in an international peacekeeping operation.

06 April, 2022

She was joined by Sergeant Gail Chambers who worked in Administration. They were deployed to join the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt in 1984. The mission was to oversee the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

In 1977 the Women’s Royal New Zealand Air Force was integrated into the Royal New Zealand Air Force but, while women were entitled to equal pay, roles were still limited. It was this environment that saw 18-year-old Joyce McGee enter the service as a typist. After a short stint she re-mustered and joined the communications trade.

“Like most communicators, we were lucky, regardless of our gender we not only did base work in the comms centres, but we were also sent away on exercises and deployments, including going to Fiji to support the cyclone efforts with No. 3 Squadron,” she said.

“I was lucky to go to RIMPAC in 1982, in Hawaii. During the exercise, I worked in a centre on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. We mainly worked with the Americans, I think there were some females there, but mostly males.”

In January 1985 Ms McGee was chosen to deploy to Sinai, working in the Operations Centre, where she maintained radio contact with allied aircraft.

“We followed all flights of allied aircraft, conducted communications with them and did regular operations checks. We worked with the French, Americans and Australians.

“We also worked with the Colombians, who guarded the runway gate. We had a script to speak in Spanish, for them to open the gates or make sure the goats or other animals were off the runway for takeoffs and landings.”

Language barriers continued for the then Corporal, and creative solutions were needed.

“At first I thought it was a joke – but I was told that when we were talking with the crew of the French aircraft and their Operations Centre, we would sometimes need to speak in a French accent so they could understand what we were saying.

“I thought, no, that can’t be right. But one day I had to call the operations room and say their aircraft was due in at 1730 and they just didn’t understand me until I said it in an accent. They said, ‘Oh, oui oui!’.”

Due to the environment and type of deployment, there was a serious side to the work of course, potential consequences of not keeping a close watch on the flight could put personnel and aircraft at risk, she said.

Admitting to some naivety, Ms McGee believed that when she and SGT Chambers arrived in the Sinai, they would be able to integrate immediately and get on with the job.

“But there were some logistical issues around where we were going to be placed in the barracks, because we were the first women to stay in them, and also how the showering would work.

“There was a little resistance for a couple of days, but soon the guys got used to us and realised that Gail and I weren’t precious, we just wanted to get on with it.”

On her return to New Zealand, she was posted to the Navigation, Air Electronics and Telecommunications Training Squadron at Wigram as an instructor. Staying there for a year, she left the Air Force in 1986 after reaching the rank of Sergeant. Eleven years later she returned to the Air Force to work as a civilian for a year in communications. In that time period, Ms McGee noticed the difference in the way women personnel were treated.

“Being in the comms squadron, most of the time we were treated the same as everyone else. But in the wider trades there was a difference in how women were treated – not only in attitude, but also practical things like dress where fit-for-purpose uniforms matched roles, such as overalls and flight suits.

“By the time I returned as a civilian it was great to see an increase of women at senior officer level.”