Sergeant Shevonne Bramley, 46, joined the RAF at 18. A Weapons Technician qualified in bomb disposal, she has been posted everywhere from Iraq to Oman, raising a family in the process. She talks to Alexa Baracaia about life in the RAF, from neutralising bomb sites in Kosovo to bobsleighing in Norway…

Tell us a little about your background…

I was born and grew up in Balham. Both my parents were Jamaican, coming over in 1955 as part of the Windrush generation.

How did you come to join the RAF?

My brother was in the RAF – he took part in the Falklands War, so writing to him brought it home to me. I’ve always been interested in engineering and how things work and,
difference. Plus the fact that I’m doing a job that is highly skilled. I didn’t have an affluent childhood but my parents always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do and to achieve all that I could. A lot of my friends left school with few qualifications and didn’t achieve their full potential, but I wanted more out of life. I didn’t have the qualification to be an Engineering Officer and I didn’t want to go to university at that when I was 14, I pestered him to take me to the RAF careers office. They were really good with me, even though I was way too young to join, and they took me through all the things I could do. Then I got a job in insurance in Croydon, but I was bored and wanted something more challenging. One day when I was 18, my sister and I took the day off work and I went ahead and booked my test for the RAF.

Describe your current role

I’m a Weapons Technician by trade, but at the moment I work with the Specialist Engagement team which interacts with young people to raise awareness and highlight the opportunities the RAF can offer. Having been in the RAF stage so I explored other engineering opportunities in the RAF. I could have been an Aircraft Engineer, working on the electrical systems or in vehicle mechanics but it was weapons that really interested me so I decided to be a Weapons Technician.

Tell us a little about your journey to becoming qualified…

So, what exactly does a weapons technician do?

I work in all kinds of areas and I am trained in a number of skills; I can service personal weapons, weapons on the aircraft, the ejector seats, which operate using explosives. I’m Bomb Disposal qualified, so where weapons fail to function I am able to go in and deal with those safely, making sure nobody gets hurt.

“You’d get a few men wondering if you were up to the job, because my job is quite physical. But as soon as they realised that I could do it, and do it well, they were fine”

What appealed to you about that role, and about the RAF?

Joining the RAF, for me, is about that ability to make a difference. Plus the fact that I’m doing a job that is highly skilled. I didn’t have an affluent childhood but my parents always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do and to achieve all that I could. A lot of my friends left school with few qualifications and didn’t achieve their full potential, but I wanted more out of life. I didn’t have the qualifications to be an Engineering Officer and I didn’t want to go to university at that stage so I explored other engineering opportunities in the RAF. I could have been an Aircraft Engineer, working on the electrical systems or in vehicle mechanics but it was weapons that really interested me so I decided to be a Weapons Technician.

Tell us a little about your journey to becoming qualified…

The process was pretty smooth – it’s quite extensive but people have to be sure about what they’re getting involved with. You have to have a medical, and take a fitness test, and various other things to pass what’s called the airman selection test. I then did my basic training in Lincolnshire where you’re taken from being an everyday person to being a member of the RAF, with field training, learning about the Air Force history, first aid, using a personal weapon, and then you have a big passing out parade that your family attend and it’s really lovely to share this event with them so they can see all that you have achieved. From there I did my training at RAF Cosford near Wolverhampton and after about eight months I got my first posting in North Yorkshire.

What was it like as a woman joining the RAF?

You’d get a few men wondering if you were up to the job, because my job is quite physical. But as soon as they realised that I could do it, and do it well, they were fine. If anything, talking to some of my friends that work in industry, it’s definitely less sexist in the RAF. I have had to be a bit more prepared with things like my hair, because I relax it and sometimes you’re in places where you just can’t get those products. But we don’t all have to have a crew cut!

And how have you found it as a person of Caribbean descent?

At first, there were times when I felt I stood out – I could be in a room of people where I was the only black person, but to be honest I think some of that was due to my own feelings about it. Now you do see more people from a similar background to mine and also there’s that realisation that actually nobody is looking at you. In fact, the RAF has always been quite a diverse place.

What opportunities has the RAF afforded you?

When I joined I had four O-Levels and now I’ve got a BTEC in Engineering and a BA in Business and Enterprise, book- keeping qualifications, I can drive plant equipment, and it’s mostly all funded by the RAF. The RAF believes in growing the whole person. I’ve been to the Middle East and the Balkans. I’ve been sailing, rowing, kneeboarding, cycling

in Scotland, horse riding in Italy, bobsleighing down the Olympic track in Lillehammer, swimming with dolphins in Oman…

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of achieving my degree as I never dreamed I’d be able to do that. I studied whilst still working full-time with two children and I lost my father while I was doing it, but I still managed to get a distinction thanks to the support of my family and work colleagues.

Your husband is also in the RAF. How hard is it to have a family and be part of the Air Force?

Our kids are 15 and 11 and I have a 24-year-old stepson, so it does need some juggling. I do a lot of planning. The RAF can send me to places where there’s a need but I can also request placements. I’ve commuted at times, we’ve moved as a family at times. Our children are in boarding school, which the RAF helps pay for. There is a lot of support.

Have you found yourself in many dangerous situations? The training we receive is so rounded, and the RAF doesn’t put people in danger unnecessarily. Even in bomb disposal you go to whatever is there, but because of the training you know how to deal with it, and you know you’ve always got back-up.

What does the centenary mean to you?

It’s such a great achievement that we’re still here 100 years on: when we first started there were people that were sceptical that the RAF would last. I’ve been part of it for more than a quarter of its existence. We are really proud of our history and the fact that we can go on to inspire the next generation.

What advice would you give to a budding recruit?

It’s a great way of life, to have new experiences that some have only dreamed of, to travel the world, try new sports, gain qualifications and make friends – all while being paid.