Britain’s first female three-star commander ‘awestruck’ but ready to get started

The first female three-star commander in Britain’s armed forces has said she is “delighted” with her appointment and is “looking forward to the challenge”.

Promoted to the rank of Air Marshal, Sue Gray, a Royal Air Force engineer, will take up the role of director-general of the Defence Safety Authority in March.

Armistice Day 2018
Armistice Day 2018

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson welcomed the appointment of the 56-year-old, who joined the RAF in August 1985, as a “historic moment”.

Air Marshal Sue Gray said she felt “a little bit awestruck” on discovering she was in line for the promotion but is “looking forward to the new challenge of the new job”.

Speaking to the Press Association, Air Marshal Gray said she never imagined she would become a three-star commander when she joined the RAF three decades ago.

“I was grateful to be doing a job that was exciting, fascinating and rewarding from quite an early age, and I have just kept on enjoying it 33 years later,” she said.

Asked where the promotion ranks in her lengthy career, Air Marshal Gray said “it is going to be a highlight” for her and Champagne would feature in her celebrations.

“I think it is going to be a challenge – not only being the first female at that rank but this is the first time a non-pilot has taken on the role,” she said.

“So not only do they now have an engineer, but a woman to boot.”

Surrounded by a supportive family and community, Air Marshal Gray said she remembers her late father telling her as a child she could do anything she wanted.

“I think I proved him right,” she said.

“I know he would be delighted.”

With no female role models to look up to within the RAF when she joined the service, Air Marshal Gray said policies have changed in the years since and she does not think she has been treated differently at any point because she is a woman.

Quizzed on whether there has been any negative reaction to her promotion, she said there had not been so far and added with a laugh: “But I don’t think they would tell me.”

During her career, Air Marshal Gray has worked in a variety of roles, including engineering on VC10 transport aircraft, and was also deployed on both Gulf wars with the Joint Helicopter Force.

In June 2016, she was appointed Air Officer Commanding Number 38 Group with responsibility for more than 3,000 personnel across disciplines including engineering, logistics, aviation medicine and catering.

Before her promotion, the highest rank held by a serving female officer in the modern day RAF was Air Vice-Marshal, which is a two-star post.

On what she would want her legacy to be as the first female three-star commander, Air Marshal Gray said one who “encourages all women in all services to go for it”.

She added: “I want more women to join, I want more female engineers because they bring such a variety to the mix.”

Welcoming the appointment, Mr Williamson said: “This is a historic moment as we see the most senior female appointment in the British military.

“Air Marshal Gray’s career shows that with hard work, skill and determination, gender is no obstacle to achieving the top ranks in the armed forces.

“Having served in Iraq as the chief engineer for the Joint Helicopter Force, I hope that young girls will look up to Air Marshal Gray and see that a career in the armed forces will offer them every opportunity to succeed, irrespective of their gender and background.”

Farnborough International Airshow
Farnborough International Airshow

The head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, offered his congratulations and said he wishes her “success in her important new role leading the Defence Safety Authority”.

“Her promotion is proper recognition of her outstanding contribution to the RAF and defence as an engineer, as a leader and as a superb role model,” he added.

Asked if she would ever like to be the head of the RAF, Air Marshal Gray said: “I suspect that might be a bridge too far for me, only because the chief of the air staff is traditionally aircrew – a pilot or a navigator.

“So that would be an engineer and a woman … but I suspect there will be, in the not too distant future, a non-pilot – but I suspect it won’t be me.”