07 April, 2022
Warrant Officer (W/O) Viti Flanagan, one of the Air Force’s first female engine runners, says she wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the service to young women to consider for a career.
“It’s a safe place to pursue a career, but to be brutally honest it sure as hell wasn’t when I joined. It was terrible. They didn’t have safety shoes in our size, we had no female trousers – I had to wear a male uniform.”
Alongside that was the open hostility from some of her male colleagues as W/O Flanagan was being recognised for her excellent work and gaining well-deserved promotions.
“There were some men who asked me to my face if I slept with the boss to get promoted. I appreciated that they said it to my face, because I know there were a lot saying it behind my back. I would just say: ‘No I didn’t, but is that what you had to do? God, that must have been so awkward’.”
W/O Flanagan’s humour and support from friends and leaders helped her through those first years and she has since enjoyed a long career with the Air Force and credits the military ethos for successes in her academic work outside of uniform.
“I find that the leadership skills taught – no matter what trade – sets you up really well for other aspects of your life, whether it’s volunteer work or sports clubs. And it’s exciting. I’ve gone to some great places that I probably wouldn’t have gone to if I hadn’t joined the Air Force.
“When I was a Sergeant I did an exchange posting to Canada to a search and rescue squadron. We spent quite a bit of time up in Alaska, which was hard going, but I loved it.”
W/O Flanagan grew up in Australia, Fiji and New Zealand, which inspired a desire to have a career involving travel and aircraft. A love of physics led her to the Air Force recruiter.
Success followed and she reached the rank of Corporal while working as an engine runner at No. 5 Squadron – the highest ranked woman in the aircraft technician trade. The role involved numerous safety checks of the equipment after major work had been completed on the aircraft.
During her time with No. 5 Squadron, W/O Flanagan completed a parachute jump course and gained her parachute wings.
“I loved it. They got me to be on drifter duties – which was the first one to jump to see where the landing zone was. What they realised was that if I jumped first, none of the men ever refused to jump after me.”
Safety became a passion for W/O Flanagan who was promoted to Warrant Officer and posted into DASH (Directorate for Air Force Safety and Health) as the Air Force’s ground safety officer.
“The job I was in responded to safety incidents and doing investigation work.”
At the same time W/O Flanagan was doing extramural study for her Masters in international communication. However, working and study became untenable, so after more than 24 years she left the Air Force to concentrate on her academic work full-time.
A welcome invitation back to the Air Force as a Reservist in 2011 brought her back to the service. Among her roles was to manage the Air Force mentoring programme.
“While I was there I researched and wrote the submission for international accreditation, which was successful and as a result of that, Middlesex University invited me to write a chapter on mentoring. I co-authored it with the New Zealand Coaching and Mentoring Centre director Wendy Baker.”
Now, she is back in the air safety space and also belongs to the New Zealand and the International Safety Investigators Association.
She looks back on her career and “in general, I remember the highlights”.
One in particular was being awarded the RNZAF Gold Sports Badge. “Sport kept me sane while contributing to the RNZAF in that area as a player, coach and administrator.”
She also credits her husband for the “resolute support over the years – even if he is Army!”
She was the first woman in any of the engineering trades to reach the rank of Warrant Officer. “Being the first wasn’t as important to me as hoping I wasn’t the last,” she said.
“The experiences I’ve had are pretty hard to replicate. It’s a unique career.”