A woman who has become the first to command an RAF fast jet squadron is expected to lead bombing missions over Iraq this summer. Wing Commander Nikki Thomas, who took charge of the newly reformed No 12 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk on Friday, flew a daring low mission to help foil a deadly rocket attack on a UK base in Afghanistan.
The 36-year-old is a weapons system operator with extensive experience of combat operations, clocking up more than 35 missions in Afghanistan within three months alone.
In December 2009, as squadron leader of No 31 Squadron Tornado team, she and her pilot, Flight Lieutenant Juliette Fleming were the RAF’s first all-female Tornado jet crew.
They flew an aircraft armed with 500lb laser guided Paveway IV bombs, Brimstone air-to-ground missiles and a 27mm gun and their missions helped both American and British troops under fire in Helmand Province.
She was the first woman to take that role in Afghanistan and one of the youngest members of the RAF to rank so highly. She was also the only female on the Tornado GR4 to become a qualified weapons instructor. The pair have said that one of their proudest moments to date involved helping to foil a rocket attack on their base at Kandahar airfield in 2010.
There was a high threat and the base was expecting an imminent attack after some men were spotted in a nearby ditch, setting up to fire a rocket at their accommodation block.
Wg Cdr Thomas, as navigator, and Flt Lt Fleming were already airborne over the base and cleared the airspace around Kandahar for a “show of force.”
They took the aircraft out to 15 miles from their position in the ditch and came down to low level, approaching at more than 500mph and as close to the Operational Low Flying minimum of 100 feet as possible, passing directly over them before heading into a steep climb
The rocket crew immediately scarpered in a truck and the pair felt they had made a tangible difference to protect their colleagues. Wg Cdr Thomas said at the time: “We can perform a range of effects from a show of force to the provision of precise lethal force utilising a variety of advanced weaponry. “The intention is to always use the minimum force required to provide the effect needed by the guys on the ground. “We do whatever they need to help them out in a sticky situation, be that just a radio relay between the ground elements to dropping precision weaponry on insurgents.”
She said flying with a female was no different to working with a male. “The only difference is from other people,” she said. “When you are Air to Air refuelling they are a lot more chatty with us compared to the guys, and the guys on the ground recognise your voice very quickly.”
An MoD source said: “We’ve had female squadron leaders of search and rescue squadrons and transport squadrons, now we have a female commander of a fast jet squadron.” The unit of 16 Tornado GR4 bombers is likely to deploy to Iraq this summer to fight against Islamic State militants.