‘Sky’s the limit for young Asians who join the RAF’

By Sarwar Alam

A long-serving member of the Royal Air Force has urged the BAME community to explore the incredible career opportunities the organisation has to offer.

Warrant Officer (WO) Balbir Singh Flora, who has been a part of the RAF for 42-years, says it feels like British Asians in particular have been ‘stuck in a time warp’ when it comes joining the RAF.

“When the first generations came over (to the UK), their mindset was ‘we have to do better than working in the factories and mills. We need to educate our children to get better jobs’. And you have to respect that,” says WO Flora.

“But now we don’t realise that you can get educated and have excellent careers with the military as well. We’ve have over 50 careers in the RAF. You can be a doctor, dentist, an engineer, lawyer, to name a few, because we need all these roles.”

Standing on the back row eighth from the left) a young WO Flora attended summer camps at Valley and Stanton Morley.

The RAF has incredible scope when it comes to prospective careers. There are opportunities for apprentices, graduates, reservists and full-time officers. People are able to train in a wide-range of careers from Pilot, Intelligence Analyst, Aircraft Technician to RAF Media, Police, Chef and Firefighter.

WO Flora, who worked as a Logistics Officer for over 40 years, has been a Community Engagement Officer for last two years and says he is shocked by the lack of knowledge about the military when he visits places such as mosques, mandirs, gurdwaras and educational institutions.

“I recently spoke to a parent whose son had undertaken a dentistry degree and then joined the Army. She said to me that everyone in her community is asking her why she let him join. He’s spent all this time going to university to become a dentist and he’s joined the Army. They can’t comprehend that he is actually a dentist in the army. I explained that a dentist in the Army, like the RAF, is just a dentist. He is being paid to be a dentist, just as he would in civilian life.

“Another came up to me and said she didn’t want her son to join the military because she wanted him to be an engineer. I told her that as an engineering officer in the RAF her son would be in charge of a team of engineers and their job is to make sure we have aircraft ready to fly.

“There is one pilot on the frontline but there are another 80-odd people far away who are all doing their little bit for them to fly. You’ve got logistics experts like myself who will provide all the support, all the spare parts, the tools needed for the aircraft. Then you have traffic control who give the permission to take off. You need the fire service in case there is an accident. We have RAF police who do the security. Then if one of us is ill, we’ve got doctors, dentists, nurses, to make sure we’re all well.”

WO Flora at an RAF engagement event.

The day-to-day support team doesn’t end there with the RAF having HR departments, chefs, physical training instructors, etc.

Flora adds: “I have had the opportunity to provide logistical support and have travelled, for example, to the Balkans, Italy and Turkey.

“As an engagement officer (I help to) to break barriers which lead to a lack of understanding.

“We have a lot of youth out there and they need to be inspired. They should be made aware that there are opportunities, and unless they see role models and have somebody to talk to and get advice from, they may go down the wrong path.”

Flora can include himself as a role model for the young generation. His service with the RAF has seen him awarded an MBE in 2005 and Meritorious Service Medal in the New Year honours list in 2009.

WO Flora was awarded an MBE in 2005 and Meritorious Service Medal in the New Year’s Honours List in 2009.

During his time with the RAF also able to fulfil a lifelong ambition of getting a degree.

“I always wanted to be the first graduate in my family but opportunities weren’t there back in 1977. But I never forgot my ambition. So while I was in the Air Force, i worked towards getting that degree which the Royal Air Force paid for. I graduated from Lincoln University in 2010”.

He actually went back to his old school to show his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree to students and show that the possibilities in the RAF are limitless.

“I said, ‘look, I’m from this tough inner city school and I’ve been recognized by the Queen and just completed an MBA. If I can do it you can do it.

WO Flora hopes to inspire the next generation.

“I told them that they don’t need a degree to join the RAF. There are pathways available within the RAF to do degrees and Masters courses. There are sponsorships available and often you will be able to earn a salary whilst you complete the degree. They just need to have the passion and embrace the RAF.”

WO Flora hopes his words will inspire the next generation of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims to join the RAF and know the organisation is inclusive to all.

WO Flora at an RAF engagement event.

“I have always been loved by the RAF. I have always worn my turban, had my beard and have been able to practise my faith. It is same for Hindus and Muslims. For example, we have vegetarian ration packs for Hindus and halal ration packs for Muslims. People are given time-off to celebrate festivals such as Vaisakhi, Diwali and Eid. The RAF, and all three military branches for that matter, are some of the most inclusive organisations you will come across.”