Meet Susie Freeman – WA’s very own Top Gun.
by Vanessa McCall.
At age 19 I was still figuring out what to do with my life. When Sue Freeman was 19, she was flying jets. Fast jets to be precise, as part of her fighter pilot training with the UK-based Royal Air Force (RAF).
Sue was born to military parents and originally hails from the United Kingdom. As a child, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to be when she grew up. However, that all changed in the 1990’s when, in her late teens, she read a UK newspaper article announcing that women would be allowed to fly fast jets in combat. Sue thought she had nothing to lose and applied. Thirty years later, Flight Lieutenant Susan Freeman is a highly respected fighter pilot, flight instructor, and motivational speaker, and is now with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in Perth WA. I had the privilege of interviewing her and hearing a small part of her life story. As you will see, the sky is most definitely NOT the limit for this inspirational woman.
Was flying something you were always interested in, even as a child? If not, when did you start to consider it as a career and what helped you decide to become a fighter pilot?
I had never flown anything prior to joining the RAF, had zero flying hours and hadn’t given flying a second thought, let alone fast jet flying. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I “grew up”. Both my parents were soldiers in the British Army (Mum quit to have me!) and I had grown up surrounded by military people and in military locations in Germany, Hong Kong as well as the UK.
I was sporty, mechanically & scientifically minded, not particularly academic but very independent with an air of confidence (which was a front!); so in the early 1990s when the Ministry of Defence announced in a national newspaper that women would be permitted to fly frontline fast jets into combat, my interest was piqued.
I’d seen Top Gun and fast jet flying looked pretty cool and glamorous so why not give it a go? Being 18 years-old, I had nothing to lose. After multiple selection tests, interviews etc., I was accepted and flew my first aircraft at 19. It was when I first fired a real weapon from a Hawk aircraft that I realised that being a fighter pilot was exactly what I wanted to do and I’ve been fortunate enough to be given the opportunity.
You've been a fighter pilot for over 30 years - was being a female pilot a rarity when you first started out in the 1990’s?
When I was training, there were three to four female pilots ahead of me which helped provide some shade from the spotlight! That said, when I arrived on my frontline aircraft, Tornado F3, there was only one other woman. Luckily, she was a superstar (and still is!) and we became good friends.
Whilst I may have been a rarity, I just considered myself to be one of the boys, probably because I’ve always been in a male-dominated environment - I have two brothers (no sisters) and at age 8 attended a boarding school which had a very small contingent of female pupils, thus I played mixed sport and competed against boys all the time otherwise I’d have no one to play with or against.
Have you noticed an increase in female fighter pilots during your career?
I've witnessed an increase of female fighter pilots in both the RAF and RAAF however, the increase has been marginal, particularly in the RAAF. Maybe Top Gun 2 might help with recruitment given the portrayal of a female fighter pilot in the movie!
You have done a few public speaking engagements, during which you encourage women/girls to consider a career as a fighter pilot. What's been the response to this?
Generally the response is very positive, although most young girls usually say that they don’t think that they are capable of doing it. They cite things such as a lack of intelligence, lack of physicality, lack of courage and confidence. When I respond that I also felt similar things when I was young, the often overriding response is that they are worried about failing the selection process or the training. Their approach and perception of failure is very different to how I viewed the selection process and training - I figured I had nothing to lose and only feared the regret if I didn’t try.
You were a squadron leader in the RAF in the UK for close to 25 years before moving to Australia and joining the RAAF. Why the move?
Approaching 44 years old, I realised that I needed a change and had decided to study part-time for an MBA with the mind of getting a “grown-up job”. Flying jets in the RAF had been an immense amount of fun and I still struggle to believe that people had paid me to do so, but I needed a different challenge, although I wasn’t quite sure what. Whilst studying, a friend who had transferred to the RAAF from the RAF had asked for help mentoring a young woman who had recently graduated from 79 Squadron (my current squadron). When I asked why he hadn’t approached a female RAAF fast jet pilot to help mentor, I was informed that the RAAF didn’t currently have any. I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and my instant response was to offer my services as a fast jet Qualified Flying Instructor, the RAAF accepted and the story goes from there...theoretically this means I still haven’t grown-up but at least I have an MBA!
You've flown over some pretty volatile parts of the world, Iran and the Falklands for example. What goes through your mind when you're in that moment?
When things start to get a little serious in various flying situations, I find that it is easier to maintain my focus entirely on the job in hand - I am often easily distracted and easily bored. That said, there have been a number of times when nerves have got the better of me and I’ve had to check myself, but generally I am super keen to do my job for real. That may sound silly, but I have spent a long time training for various scenarios and to be able to put that training into actual practice to validate what I have learnt is priceless. So I guess when I’m in a hairy moment, I am entirely focussed on what needs to be done - I don’t have enough brain cells for anything else!
Where has your job, both as a fighter pilot and an instructor, taken you around the world?
I’ve been to Falklands Islands, Alaska, Canada, Vegas, all over Europe, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And now Australia!
What do you like to do in your downtime (if you have any downtime?!!)
Downtime is spent playing hockey, beach fishing, camping and socialising (a lot!). I have an 18 year- old son who dictates downtime activities when he’s with me and I’ll give most things a fair go.
How did you discover Iridescent Sea?
The store’s owner, Robin, is a friend of a friend and through her I became aware of the store. I am hugely excited about the upcoming photo shoot with Iridescent Sea as this is most definitely well outside of my comfort zone and infinitely different to my usual day-to-day routine.