RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

It’s not what you do, it’s what you wear…

As is well known (on Twitter) anyway, on Wednesday night, I was lucky enough to get a ticket to go and see the England v Hungary football game, at Wembley, through Tickets for Troops.

This is an excellent scheme that does – for the moment – make me feel just a little bit guilty as I spoke about in the past – particularly in relation to having not been out to Afghan yet – and it offers loads of tickets for servicemen and particularly injured servicemen to lots of events all over the country – and not just to football matches, there’s even been opera listed in the past.

One of the stipulations for the tickets this time was that we should wear uniform. When I said this over on Twitter, it caused a bit of a stir actually, with some people thinking that it was wrong that we ‘had’ to wear uniform to get tickets.  I’m not going to rake up that argument again, but I’m going to recount a small tale of what happened just after the match as I was walking back to the car, parked somewhere north of Wembley. And I think you’ll be able to make you own conclusions as to why wearing us members of the Armed Forces should wear uniform when attending such events…

The game was over and I had just turned the corner and was walking down a very quiet residential street.  I was actually amazed how quiet it was considering there were 72,000 people at the game…but slightly in front of me was a family of three – a father, mother and I think a 5-6 year old boy walking along. Again they’d been to the match, and to chivvy the boy along the pavement, probably to get him back to their car, the dad was playing a game of tag with the lad…and had run slightly forward. Eventually, he’d let the boy tag him and they’d swapped over.

They weren’t going particularly fast so I gained ground on them really quickly. I was still in uniform having changed in the car before the game and was wearing my No-2b standard work dress.   This was a light blue long sleeve shirt and tie and my blue trousers. For a hat, instead of my beret which I often wear I was wearing a Field-Service or Forage Cap.  (I’d decided on this as a bit of a tribute to those who’d worn them in the Battle of Britain…there are lots of pictures of wartime airmen wearing them – when they were a bit more fashionable in the RAF than they are now…I thought it’d be nice for people to be able to make the connection, even if it was just sub-consiously.)

So I was fully in uniform with my rank badge of Sergeant on my shoulders.

And I walked past the little boy. He stopped dead in his tracks, pointed at me and turned to his dad and said – “Look Daddy,a Police man.”

I said nothing but gave the lad a smile.

“Noooooo” said his dad. “He’s not a policeman, he’s in the Air Force, or the Navy, or something.”

“I think it’s the air force” said his wife.

At this I turned gave the lad a cheery smile and said, “That’s right, the Royal Air Force. Had a good evening? Good that we won in the end wasn’t it? Have a good trip home.” And I turned and walked on.

I could hear the lad and the dad talking for a moment or two.

“Ohhh” said the Dad. “He’s air force. He’s a pilot. F-16. Stealth Bomber. Neeeeeeeeeooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwww.”

The lad made a similar noise and their play continued.

But this got to me.

Firstly I’m not a pilot. Not everyone in the RAF are pilots. Its a natural assumption to make that I guess, but it’s there are relatively few pilots in relation to members of the RAF.

Secondly, and this is probably more excusable F-16’s and Stealth Bombers are American bits of kit.  The UK does have them. We have Tornado’s and Eurofighter Typhoons and Chinooks…all of which were often in the news, but the first aircraft that this guy could think of were not our own.

Finally, and this hurt a bit more. He chap, nice as he was, was confused about which service I was. I am fully aware of the fact that people have a lack of contact with the forces, they have less and less members of their family who are involved and have joined up themselves. The forces – to some people – are a several steps away from their own spheres. If I’d have been in the Army, and wearing my combats it would have been clear who and what I was, but all of a sudden, here I am in my RAF uniform and I am confused between the RAF and the Navy.

And this brings me to the point I am ham-fistedly trying to make.

This shows that our message isn’t getting through. Because despite all the media and all the news stories and all the interest in members of the Armed Forces, people out there are still amazingly under informed.  They don’t know what we are, what we do, how we do it and more importantly why we do it.

It’s a failing that particularly the RAF and the Royal Navy has been guilty of in the past.  Clearly.  This gentleman couldn’t tell the difference between the two services based upon our uniform – so that shows something, doesn’t it. The Army has been fantastically successful n getting it’s message across, but then they have the benefit of being instantly recognisable – their clothes clearly tell people what they are!

It shows me that despite everything about the RAF and the RN in the media – all the news stories, and all the press about kit and equipment and so forth, our message is being lost.  It shows me that the very basic thing. Not being able to recognise a member of the RAF or Royal Navy is not good for either service. For all sorts of reasons…

And it shows me all the more that wearing uniform to that match was all the more important. And despite the argument I had on Twitter over having to wear it to the game, the reason I said at the time was that it was that I am proud to wear it and proud to be a member of the RAF, and so on.

But, I was wrong. The reason to wear the uniform, and the reason I should be encouraged to wear it more then out at things like that is to just get people used to seeing people in uniforms. Because sadly people still just don’t know who we are, what we do, and why we are here.


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16 thoughts on “It’s not what you do, it’s what you wear…

  1. Alistair Rae on said:

    One of the current issues is that in the media everyone wears combats, so the contribution from the RAF and RN is hidden by the perception that everyone on Ops at the moment is Army. We have a similar frustration with all Helos being described as RAF, despite the SAR cabs having white ensigns on the side.

    This might also draw the distinction between working dress and service dress. Service dress is far more distinctive than the fairly anonymous grey/ blue and black/ white combination we both have. The only visible difference between us and a generic security guard is our fairly discreet rank markings, and the badges on the frame cap. The beret is a bit different in that respect, although I’m a bit more surprised that your forage cap wasn’t noticeable.

    The snag for the RN is that the whole nation is quite sea blind, there is no appreciation of just how dependent on the sea the nation is, for both energy and food security. Most of what we do is well out of sight, and so often quite distant. Most people don’t appreciate the value of our Mine Counter-Measures squadron in the gulf given our dependence on Liquid Natural Gas coming from Quatar.

    So I would agree, we should be wearing uniform openly and regularly.

    To be honest we should also expect more of it in the London madhouse. That may go some way towards demonstrating that MoD is pretty heavily populated by military and it’s not some distant, disconnected organisation that doesn’t understand what the pointy end does.

    • Totally agree. But then with OUR service dress there is the issue of being confused with an RAC man. Honestly. That’s has happened to me in the past.

      And I agree with that comment about the MoD too. A few more uniforms popping in and out of MB wouldn’t hurt and would remind people that it’s not just full of civilian mandarins.

  2. All too true.. Too many years of being discouraged to wear uniform in public did us no favours.. But then, up here in lincolnshire I’m sure you wouldn’t have had the same misunderstanding

  3. Carol_51 on said:

    I didn’t realise you had a debate on Twitter re your uniform my advice to anyone in uniform would be wear your uniform with pride.

    Concerning lack of publicity for the airforce and navy, do you feel the media are to blame?

    In ‘Civvy Street’ may be we take our armed forces for granted because we are always protected in the UK but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate how lucky we are.

    I buy a Poppy every year and always will.

    • The media are totally to blame. Well, not totally, but they add to it. For instance, when there are flood, snow, or anything else happening and the Military help out – the media often say “The Army” are assisting…And of course we in the RAF/RN don’t do ourselves many favours.

      The RN is slightly better at it than we are…particularly in shouting about WHO is doing WHAT and not what kit is doing what. Unfortunately the RAF seems to think that shiny things are of interest to people. Which they are to a certain respect, but people are more interested in people. Especially when the service people explaining what they are doing – do it by relating stuff to normal everyday life and to things that normal non-serive people do.

      But that’s just the opinion of a lowly SNCO. It’s a shame the RAF brass think differently. I think the evidence of what goes on here and one Twitter is evidence to the opposite. I hardly ever talk about kit or equipment or aircraft…and it seems to work ok…

      • Alistair Rae on said:

        Our immediately previous Director Media was very good at engaging with the media and as a result we got quite a few documentaries booked. The snag we found was that it turned into a season about the three or four runs ashore during a six month deployment, and some footage of what appears to be pretty comfortable accommodation. Six hour watches in the Force Ops Room, sitting in front of a display, don’t make for thrilling viewing.

      • But that’s my point. It’s not just about kit and stuff. It’s also about telling the everyday stories of forces folk. Cos a LOT of the time our lives and jobs are not exciting, but it’s about informing the greater population about everything we do…but if that is done from a personal point of view then that is even better.

        People identify with people. And that is certainly what the RAF are missing out on as they do focus on shiny aircraft and kit.

        But hth…who am I to say what we should do…

      • Alistair Rae on said:

        The challenge is that you run from a documentary where they’ve used fottage from the same run ashore in four different episodes into the news where they’re showing pictures of a FOB in Sangin it does tend to make it look as if the RN is one long holiday.

        We’re also very bad at demonstrating that we’re heavily involved in current ops; medics, vehicle mechanics, loggies, police, EOD ops, force protection, linguists are all in Afgh, as well as a fair few who’ve volunteered for MSSG.

        Similarly the only time we get into the news about Op Atalanta is when the reporters are demonstrating their lack of understanding of maritime law and piracy in the Horn of Africa.

  4. Very good point – I remember as a young SAC (Senior Aircraftsman) doing recruiting duties at a Birmingham Shopping centre some years ago.

    A colleague and I, dressed in Blues, wearing SD (Peaked) Hats with an “RAF” badge on and our rank badges of a shiny three-bladed propellor, walked around handing out RAF stickers to kids to get people to visit our stand.

    By far the most times we were stopped and spoken to, was by people asking us where the toilets were, where the lifts were, where the lost kids section was etc – All thought we were Shopping Centre Security Guards!

    The standard RAF/RN uniforms are not very distinct – but then again, anyone dressed in camouflage is always automatically assumed to be Army!

  5. Tom Pringle on said:

    Spot on chap. We have a very similar problem whenit comes to our helicopters being featured in the news.

    ‘Army helicopter saves the day’

    On the TV is a picture of Chinook. So the powers that be decided that the RAF would paint on the side of all our Merlins a big Royal Air Focre sign and badge. Let’s see how it does in Afghanistan, as it certainly didn’t raise awareness in Iraq!

    • Alistair Rae on said:

      Tom, it doesn’t do any good that our Helos have White Ensign and Royal Navy on the side, as far as the media are concerned the RAF do SAR.

  6. Welshracer on said:

    You cannot rely on the media to inform or indeed convey reliable correct information – the RAF should do this job itself – a roadshow to UK countyshows and schools – only you guys can relay the information on what you do, the jobs you do and what it is really like on the front line and also point out to people how the media gets it wrong.

    You should have stopped and corrected the father about the planes and you could have done that in a kind way too without belittling him.

    “oh no those planes are American, we have Tornados and others……”

  7. Carol_51 on said:


    In fairness to the BBC one of the greatest ceremonies to honour our armed forces is the Cenotaph where ALL services are remembered, personally I never think of just the army when I buy my Poppy.

    The RAF also feature on the sea and mountain rescue programmes, may be it’s up to the powers that be to rectify the matter.

  8. Just think how the Royal Marines feel. I hear complaints on a regular basis from bootneck colleagues of mine who have been mistaken for being in the Army. They are Royal Marine Commandos and proud of it as well.

    The amount of times I have been mistaken for being in the RNLI, Coastguard and even River Police while in uniform is staggering especially in Devon where the Royal Navy are a large part of local life.

    In the Royal Navy we are encouraged to wear out uniforms outside of the dockyard gates so I often drive to and from base in uniform and this is something which is filtering through to the cadet forces, so perhaps if the young people start to recgonise who we are then there will be some hope in the future.

    Oh and while you may be mistaken for a pilot, I often get asked if I am in command of a ship, the public at large seem to think all sailors are warfare staff. I am an engineer and proud of it.

  9. @leighlee71 on said:

    Well said sir! I love seeing the uniforms! It makes me proud of the soldier and of my country. My eyes well up every time I see a uniform of any division at an airport!

  10. Whilst wearing No2 uniform I’ve regularly been labelled as an RAC mechanic (most common misconception); a Prison Warder; & a Policewoman. It makes you sad to think that people haven’t even grasped the simple concept that the Police – who patrol in their uniforms, all day & every day – wear black & white – NOT blue. But it’s a uniform. So we must be ‘heavies’. So; there we go… *sigh*

    We used to do loads of Town Shows throughout the Summer to promote/recruit for the Defence Movements School at RAF Brize Norton. I’ve lost count of the times it was assumed I was a security guard or someone there to give directions to the loos, nearest cafe or whatever…even when I was standing under a ruddy-great model of a Tornado (which has scarce enough room for the crews’ egos, let alone cargo so don’t ask me why we had that for promotion!) handing out “Rise Above the Rest” leaflets etc.

    To be honest I don’t know what would work to get the Blue Suit readily recognised, “out there”. Or to get people to appreciate there’s more to the RAF than just aircrew/pilots (OK so I married one; but even though he’s now a professional airline pilot when people ask him what his “day job” is, he replies “farmer/gelatiere artigianale” (Gelato Chef). I’m proud of the fact that I was the first female to be selected from Sheffield University to fly on a University Air Squadron – but I wouldn’t have wanted to carry it on as a career….nice views from the “office window” but bumpy at times & lonely/boring at others. Ironically being female it was rarely assumed I could be a pilot but far more likely I was “just” a secretary. Grrrrr….

    Actually I was in Supply – & proud of my varied & enjoyable career not to mention grateful for the many colourful characters with whom I worked: whilst my feet were on the ground, the richness of my working day had me on Cloud Nine.

    I think it’s time the whole image of the Armed Forces was radically reconsidered & the ‘everyday’ uniforms redesigned to reflect the modern world. For me a classic example came when I was being fitted for some ladies’ No.2 trousers, which have to be one of the most unflattering garments I have ever worn.

    When I complained about the supremely frumpish design, the tailor cannily quoted Coco Chanel about what good style does for womens’ clothing; then added he had taken up that very issue with the ancient old Wrinkly, DWRAF (thank goodness that’s one demobbed post – phew!). Her sourpuss response was that if women look horrible in uniform, the men they were working with wouldn’t be detracted from doing their job by leering at these ‘mere sex objects’ (what century was she living in? – Honestly). Whereas Coco Chanel’s attitude was that if the clothes look clumsy, people see an ugly person; if they look elegant, people see a professional (goes for both women AND men, of course).

    I cannot tell you the number of business meetings I hosted at MoD Harrogate where I was so relieved not to be wearing a uniform in which I felt uncomfortable, being “me”: able there at least, to deal with contractors in similarly smart business suits rather than suffering in an awkwardly-tailored out-of-date flared above-the-knee skirt & hideously poor-quality lumpy sweater which made me feel uncomfortable & inept (not to mention looking like a cross between an RAC mechanic & a prison guard rather than a professional contractual negotiator).

    I wanted to be proud of my uniform: but the uniforms were specifically designed NOT to be proud of me; even though back in the “good old days”) I had a pretty-good figure…or so I’m told! ;o) .

    So perhaps it’s time for a radical rethink; & either put everyone into combats as everyday working dress or radically redesign the RAF uniform to at least be more modern, distinctive, professional & recognisable.

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