A fright awaited a car-load of girls as their just-licensed driver took a wrong turn down a busy one-way city street. The driver began to panic and, egged on by a jittery passenger in back, and gesticulating motorists, she soon lost the plot.
Thankfully, her front-seat passenger viewed the tricky situation differently – and knew everything would be soon under her control. She took charge, making sure her friends calmed down, used a firm tone and exuded leadership, till she wrested back simple order from chaos.
“They laughed at me later,” says Camille Cross, in her fourth year with the Australian Air Force Cadets, where, at 17, she has already reached the rank Cadet Warrant Officer – one that confers the title of ma’am. Instances like this quite surprise Cross and reveal the depth of life skills she’s learned since joining the Cadets – such as leadership, discipline, confidence and how to get and keep a cool, clear head.
It’s a scene repeated in Bronte Lowe’s experience. The school friend of Cross and fellow Cadet tells of the time she got some odd looks stepping up to organise a group at school that “I had no business organizing!” Lowe is a Cadet Corporal, meaning she leads a section and is the Cadets’ first point of contact. “I help teach Cadets and am responsible for mentoring them on a first-person basis.” Cross’s role is “more disciplinary and has oversight of the standards of the squadron, like drill, uniform and Cadet behaviour.”
The girls are in their penultimate year at SCEGGS in Sydney and attend weekly, three-hour training meets with 160 fellow Cadets. Their school, along with the boys’ counterpart nearby, Sydney Grammar, is one of several involved in the Air Force’s high school mentoring programs.
Australia set up its Air Force Cadet program following World War II, to help attract and keep boys who were too young to join the Air Force.
“It is very different to that now in that it is more about youth development, though there are discipline, organisational and military elements to it,” says AAFC Flying Officer Brady Downes. “That is why the kids love it so much.”
The Cadets are taught field craft, survival, aircraft recognition, aviation, radio communications and service knowledge. Activities offered include air familiarisation flights, rock climbing, parachuting, rifle shooting, navigational orienteering, radio communications exercises, leadership exercises, and camping in the bush on defence bases.
About 20 to 30 per cent of Air Force Cadets are girls, though it’s a figure that fluctuates. “The girls are expected to do everything the boys are doing,” Downes says. “They carry the same weight in the packs on their backs, do the same tasks, and the girls are often very, very good.”
“Gender equity is very high on the list for the Air Force,” Downes says. “The Air Force does not tolerate discrimination.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Cross and Lowe, who say “respect is a big theme” and there are strict rules about harassment, with neither experiencing anything disagreeable in four years.
Lowe says she took part in one of the bigger challenges and found herself leading a boy who was older, but of lower rank – he’d completed the work, but had not sat the promotions exams. “Oh my gosh! I thought, ‘What am I going to do with him?’ But he was super. He said he acknowledged the courses I had done and respected my rank. He was terrific – he would help me when I needed help. The Cadets just teaches you confidence and to use all these great skills, including strong leadership.”
Like many worthy pursuits that see people step out of their comfort zones, it’s hard to prepare for the unknown. For instance, how many 17-year-old girls would jump at the chance to spend four days in the Australian bush – survivor style – with no toilets, no showers, not much of anything?
“We were chucked in the bush,” says Cross of her first ‘experience camp’. There are six in all – which Cadets must complete, along with exams, to gain promotions. “It’s uncomfortable at first. The girls were outnumbered five to one.”
The girls’ squadron leader has asked Cross to come back after high school, and on the strength of this, Cross has reorganised her tertiary education plans. She was all set to follow one of her two brothers into petroleum or mining engineering, four hours’ flight away in Western Australia. “But as soon as he suggested it, my plans changed.” Cross is not joining the Air Force proper, but will follow a parallel career as an Adult Cadet for the length of her degree, now to be completed locally.
Lowe will shoot for the sergeant’s rank, but “if I get on the course, it will be the end of my Cadet career”, says the girl planning a career in criminology.
Lowe was a little slower to get past the promotions exams, yet still achieved Cadet Corporal six months after Cross. “My mum was really reluctant for me to go into Cadets,” Lowe said. “I said, no, this is my decision and I want to do it. After I joined, she saw that my grades were much better and that I was studying more. I need the discipline and organisation and now she’s really proud.” Lowe, too, says she’s surprised by how seamlessly her new skills have infiltrated other areas of her life, not least of all a fresh relationship with her little brother, in his foundation year in the Army Cadets. “He checks everything with me,” Lowe laughs. “If his uniform is correct and if he’s got his marching right!”
The girls have high hopes for a “more female” future for the Cadets. “At the moment, there’s an unusual situation among the Cadets,” Lowe says. “Our top-three executive-rank officials are, for the first time, all women. So that’s going very well!”
Story supplied by: Kathryn Barton