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Alumni profile: Sam Devlin, weapons systems officer in the Royal Air Force

04 November 2021  |  Jill Lundberg  |  Posted in:

Sam Devlin joined the RAF in September 2020 and following his officer training at RAF Cranwell he is currently undertaking specialist training to become a Weapons Systems Officer. We are most grateful to Sam for taking the time to do a Q and A with us, in which he offers some fabulous advice for any students who are considering a career in the RAF.

What A-levels did you study at Richmond Sixth Form College and did you choose these with your career in the RAF in mind?

I studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A-level, and History at AS level. I hoped to keep my options as open as possible since I wanted to go to university before joining the RAF. Maths and Physics were chosen with the RAF in mind, but part of me wishes I had stuck with History as I enjoyed it so much!

What prompted you to consider a career in the RAF?

My neighbour invited me to join the Air Training Corps (ATC) at Richmond when I was age 13. I spent two evenings a week learning about the RAF, as well as getting opportunities to fly, play sports, gain qualifications, and go on adventurous training. I was also lucky enough to achieve my gliding scholarship on a Vigilant motor-glider at RAF Topcliffe, and that is when I seriously started to consider joining up. This later led me to join the Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron whilst studying at university.

Did you join straight after your A-levels or did you go to university before joining?

I went to university before joining. It took longer than expected to join up because I was keen to continue my master’s degree research as a PhD. After graduating, I worked in medical information whilst I applied for a PhD. The pivotal moment came when I was unable to secure funding for the PhD project, so I applied to the RAF and was later accepted to join as a Weapons Systems Officer.

If university, where did you go and what did you read?

I studied BSc Human Physiology at the University of Leeds, and MRes Biomedical Research at the University of Birmingham. Human Physiology is a fascinating subject as it looks at how whole organs work and how they interact to control body functions, down to the molecular mechanisms operating within cells. Biomedical Research was also really enjoyable because you designed your own research project, so I chose to investigate the neural mechanisms of memory reconsolidation in maladaptive reward-seeking behaviours. This involved learning about how food and cocaine addictions work and how we can treat them.

When did you join the RAF, how long was the training at Cranwell and what did that entail?

I joined the RAF in September 2020 and I spent the first 6 months undergoing Modularised Initial Officer Training, before going on to train in my specialist branch. The course aims to develop your leadership and management skills, as well as your physical and mental resilience. The course is modularised which means it is split into four 6-week terms. This allows the course to have multiple start points for officer cadets, based on their previous experience and qualifications.

The first term teaches you about basic military skills and standards as an introduction to military life. You learn about first aid, drill, military discipline, weapons handling, fieldcraft, as well as how to use CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) equipment. There are also lots of evenings spent ironing, dusting, polishing, and preparing for early morning inspections. Overall, it was a great experience as you learn lots of new skills and create many new friendships and memories along the way.

Terms 2 and 3 are designed to develop your robustness, fitness, leadership, and academic skills through indoor and outdoor exercises across the UK. A personal highlight was visiting Wales for a week of adventurous training, which included activities such as: hill walking, rock climbing, mountain biking, high ropes, and kayaking. Both these terms also included a lot of academic work to increase your knowledge of Air and Space Power, as well as military ethos and core values.

The final term consists of a 4-week consolidation period where you get to demonstrate your understanding of what you have learnt on the course so far. There is a mixture of written and practical assessments that include a 3-day expedition in Scotland, a week-long office management simulator, and an air command and control exercise. One of the privileges of making it through to the final two terms is moving into College Hall Officers’ Mess, which feels like a rite of passage for those going on to serve as commissioned officers. After the consolidation phase, there is the nerve-racking ‘Tell’ on Champagne Tuesday to inform you whether or not you are going to graduate this term. The day of graduation is a very special moment to celebrate all the months of hard work with your friends and family.

Where are you based now and what is your role?

I am currently based at RAF Cranwell and I am undertaking my specialist training to become a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO). As part of my role, there are a number of pre-requisite courses that I must complete as part of my pre-employment training. This involves visiting the Centre of Aviation Medicine at RAF Henlow, to learn how the human body reacts to the airborne environment. You also get to experience disorientation and hypoxia while you are there, which is super interesting! I have also completed the Permissive Land Survival and Aircrew Maritime Survival courses which teach you how to survive if your aircraft ditches over land or sea respectively.

Will you go on to specialise in a particular field?

Yes, as a WSO you could either get streamed towards a land or maritime platform. Both roles involve managing an array of sensors and weapons on a particular aircraft system during operational missions. If you opt for the land route, then you could end up providing overland support for ground forces using aircraft such as: Rivet Joint, Shadow, or Protector. If you chose the maritime route, then you could end up on the P-8 Poseidon helping to track ships and enemy submarines or conduct long-range search-and-rescue missions.

I am currently training to be a maritime WSO. As a result, I spent my summer studying at the military aviation ground school to learn about principles of flight, flight instruments, aircraft systems, navigation, flight planning, and meteorology. I am now due to start the next phase of my training at RNAS Culdrose, which involves live flying and utilising simulators to manage an array of aircraft systems. Once I come back to RAF Cranwell to complete the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance course, I will then progress onto an Operational Conversion Unit where I will spend up to six months training on my chosen aircraft platform.

What are your career aspirations in the RAF?

In terms of career aspirations, I aim to become a qualified WSO instructor and train RAF aircrew. With experience, there is also the opportunity to move up the ranks. The RAF is continuously involved in training exercises and operations around the world, so I am looking forward to working alongside our partners and allies in the near future. There is also the exciting introduction of Cyberspace and UK Space Command branches, which offer plenty of opportunities for career progression. So, we shall just have to wait and see!

What advice would you give to any students who are considering a career in the RAF?

I would encourage anyone who is considering a career in the RAF to contact their local Armed Forces Careers Office as well as to try and speak to currently serving RAF personnel. You can request station visits via the RAF recruitment team to help you with your research towards a particular job role. If you are in school or college then I would highly recommend looking at joining the local Air Cadets, or if you are heading to university, then the University Air Squadron is a fantastic society to join.

With regards to the application process, I would recommend joining a sports club, finding a hobby, or taking part in extra-curricular activities. The RAF take particular interest in well-rounded individuals who can work as part of a team, have good communication skills, and can demonstrate the potential to lead and manage people.

Finally, I found preparation, perseverance, and flexibility to be key when considering an RAF career. I applied twice unsuccessfully to join as a pilot during my university years before I was later accepted as a WSO. In hindsight, it probably made me even more determined to join up! The application process can seem daunting at first, but I would advise anyone going through it to take it one step at a time, put the time and effort in to prepare for each stage, and most importantly: be yourself!

What are the key attributes/qualities required to succeed in the RAF?

Life in the RAF can be fantastic, but it can have moments that test your limits and resolve. A good officer will rise to the challenge with enthusiasm and strive to get the job done right, in a timely manner, while supporting those around them in the process. The RAF often work in challenging and hazardous environments, and so the way we can achieve success under these circumstances is through motivated, capable, and self-disciplined individuals. At its core values, the RAF strives to put respect, integrity, service, and excellence above all else.
I think having the courage and determination to keep pushing yourself are great qualities to have, especially when it starts to get tough. We also aim to be flexible and adaptable to an ever-changing environment, so it is important to have good communication skills and a good awareness and understanding of both the situation and other people’s perspective.

What are you enjoying most about your job?

The camaraderie is one of the best parts of the job as the people you meet on a daily basis create an amazing environment to work in. As part of the mission aircrew, you find that everyone wants each other to succeed, and so there is a great community feel whenever you are in the crew room or Officers’ Mess. It is also a bit of a cliché, but no day is the same in the RAF. I have recently helped to organise a graduation, visited the Air Traffic Control Tower, and even managed to get a few flights on the Phenom jet that is used to train our multi-engine pilots.

Did your teachers and the careers department support you with your studies and plans to join the RAF

My teachers were very supportive of my studies and I did have a couple of discussions with the careers department on various career paths. The biggest challenge for me was deciding what career I wanted to pursue and sticking to it. In hindsight, I would have definitely asked more questions about my career options and tried to gain some experience relating to them too.

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