We talk to Mandy Hickson, pilot speaker.

23rd Jun 2023

Mandy Hickson, pilot speaker chats with Jane Farnham, Director of Great British Speakers.

We hear from pilot speaker Mandy Hickson about her trailblazing flying career as well as how her experiences in the Air Force were the perfect speaking anecdotes.

Mandy Hickson, a remarkable pilot speaker, holds the distinction of being the sole female pilot in her Front Line Tornado Squadron in the Royal Air Force. Her operational experience spans across some of the world’s most hostile environments, including patrolling the ‘no-fly’ zone in Iraq.

At the young age of 17, Mandy was awarded an RAF flying scholarship, but initially faced challenges when she did not pass the computer-based tests required for all RAF pilots. Undeterred, her unwavering self-belief and determination convinced the RAF to take her on as a test case, allowing her to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Having retired from active flying in 2019, Mandy now shares her invaluable experiences of working within an elite team with audiences of all sizes. Her captivating storytelling reaches a wide range of individuals, including her online following of over 24,000.

Contact Great British Speakers today to book pilot speaker Mandy Hickson for your next event.

Here’s the full transcript of former RAF pilot leadership speaker Mandy Hickson‘s chat with Jane Farnham of Great British Speakers:

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00:00:08:33 – 00:00:22:55
Jane Farnham
Hi, I’m Jane Farnham, and I’m here today with former fighter pilot and motivational pilot speaker Mandy Hickson to find out a little more about her past career and just what makes her one of the most in-demand female speakers here in the UK. So, Mandy, thanks for joining us.

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00:00:23:16 – 00:00:26:22

Mandy Hickson

Thanks, Jane. And after that introduction, quite frankly, I’m just feeling very flattered.

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00:00:27:55 – 00:00:32:27
Jane Farnham
Well you deserve it. So when did you realize you wanted to become a fighter pilot?

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00:00:32:56 – 00:00:50:30

Mandy Hickson

I was very lucky, actually. I was very young, so I was about 14 and I joined the air and I flew. And it was almost like I had this realization that this was my purpose and I had this goal. I think how lucky was I that, you know, I see so many youngsters these days and it’s just I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.

00:00:50:31 – 00:00:55:40

Mandy Hickson

I think, you know, I was just lucky to have that something to hang my hat on, something to aim for, really.

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00:00:56:34 – 00:01:07:40
Jane Farnham
Oh that’s good. So from a young age. Then you obviously became successful. But how did you cope? Because obviously it’s a predominantly male environment. How did that affect you or did it affect you?

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00:01:08:07 – 00:01:27:03

Mandy Hickson

Yeah, I mean, I sort of went into it probably realistically with my eyes open. I was the second woman that flew the tornado GR4 on the front line. And so throughout the whole of flying training, I was often the only woman on any course I was on. There was a couple of others around on different courses, and we had a great camaraderie between the two of us.

00:01:28:06 – 00:01:57:37

Mandy Hickson

But one thing I had the whole way through was this amazing support network, and it just sort of, it really reiterates to myself that it’s not necessarily about gender, it’s about personalities, and it’s about really, you know, just gelling with the people that we work with and the people that got me through whenever I struggled, and I did struggle at numerous times in my career, the one point I was facing a chop ride, you know, literally last flight in the Air Force and it was my coursemates that went the extra mile, all men, to get me through.

00:01:57:57 – 00:02:14:40

Mandy Hickson

And it made me realize that they were showing me how to do things in a different way. And it wasn’t about gender or in fact cultural diversity. It was cognitive diversity. It’s about having people that think a bit differently. And it really set me up, actually, for thinking about things differently as I went through my career.

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00:02:15:46 – 00:02:27:57
Jane Farnham
So that obviously gave you lots of life skills to move forward. What other skills do you think it gave you, working in that male dominated environment or basically just flying planes? I mean.

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00:02:29:34 – 00:02:55:37

Mandy Hickson

I think it makes you more resilient. And, you know, it’s a really tough environment. You can imagine like flying training, two advanced driving tests a day for ten months, you know, so the intensity is really enormous. So dealing with pressure and dealing with stress, not just when you’re flying, but actually everything around it as well. So I often refer to this stress bucket and these layers upon layers get built up.

00:02:55:37 – 00:03:13:44

Mandy Hickson

And actually if there’s no capacity within that bucket to deal with things, then that bucket starts to overflow. So there were times, you know, especially on that flying training, when my stressed bucket was well and truly overflowing, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, you know, actually having that resilience to then get up in the morning and go, right.

00:03:13:51 – 00:03:32:48

Mandy Hickson

I’m going to be focused, having the ability to compartmentalize your feelings as well. And I think, you know, as a woman in that all male environment, actually, I had to show the best face at work every single day. I couldn’t be feeling emotional if I was feeling upset by something. I had to be very, very focused on what I was doing.

00:03:33:23 – 00:04:01:30

Mandy Hickson

And one thing we always talk about when we go flying is we’re in a bubble. So before you get airborne, you literally put yourself in this bubble and you’re not allowed to be disturbed by extraneous issues that are going on. And I think it does allow you to prioritize what’s happening. So these sorts of things have been great skill sets for me to, you know, not just in the Air Force, but once I left, actually all of those techniques that we were using, I suppose in some ways it’s almost like the level of mindfulness that we were practicing.

00:04:02:38 – 00:04:05:51

Mandy Hickson

Are great tools that you can share with people as well.

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00:04:06:55 – 00:04:08:33
Jane Farnham
So how long were you in the RAF?

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00:04:09:03 – 00:04:16:33

Mandy Hickson

So I served for about 16 and a half, just under 17 years actually, in the Air Force. So I left on my 38th birthday almost just over ten years ago.

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00:04:17:16 – 00:04:24:39
Jane Farnham
So you leave, what, what were your plans? What were you intending to do and how did you get into speaking.

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00:04:25:01 – 00:04:49:35

Mandy Hickson

So well, as I would, I love this bit because it’s a rather fortuitous conversation at a dinner party. Basically, when pilots tend to leave the RAF, they nearly always go into becoming airline pilots because that’s our skill set and that’s what we do. We follow the process. And I was telling a story about being shot at in Iraq by a surface to air missile, as you do when you’ve had a few glasses of vino.

00:04:49:35 – 00:05:10:24

Mandy Hickson

And there happened to be someone at the dinner party that, oh, my goodness, have you ever thought about becoming a speaker? And I was like, a what? But we had a motivational speaker while we’re in the air Force. And he said, Mandy, I’ve got an event coming up. I just think you’ll be brilliant. It was for all these CEOs from insurance companies, and it was all around risk decision making and the pressure and he went, Can you just tell that story?

00:05:10:26 – 00:05:32:04

Mandy Hickson

Literally, I want you for 20 minutes. I was like, Sure. So I practiced and practiced and I had it on cards. Oh, my goodness. When I look back, I can’t believe I did it. And I went off to this event in Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, and I was so nervous and I did the speech and it went down really well. And I thought, my goodness, people are paying me to talk about my story, and I thought to myself.

00:05:32:30 – 00:05:50:16

Mandy Hickson

I found a fantastic new career. And so actually I went off skiing and I’ll never forget we were in this ski chalet, and this guy who’s a barrister runs a law firm in London, and he said, And what do you do, Mandy? I said, I’m a former Royal Air Force pilot and I’m now a keynote speaker. And he said, Oh, my goodness, we’re looking for one.

00:05:50:33 – 00:06:11:04

Mandy Hickson

So you know, fake it til you make it. But it’s that whole belief system, isn’t it? You know, I was telling people that’s what I did. Why would they have any debate to, you know, think I wasn’t telling the truth. I’d done one speech, so therefore I was a keynote speaker and. Yeah, and then literally I went, this law firm Myriam Gonzalez, Nick Clegg’s wife was there.

00:06:11:20 – 00:06:24:09

Mandy Hickson

She was just setting up a big charity called Inspiring the Future. I got on board with that, which is all about going into schools and talking and it’s just literally, excuse the pun, taken off from there.

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00:06:24:30 – 00:06:44:45
Jane Farnham
Yeah, it’s about saying yes, isn’t it? Instead of no, and taking opportunities. So you certainly stepped outside your comfort zone. And so over the last 18 months, it’s been quite hard for everybody. What do you think the most popular sort of hot topics have been, I suppose, for, for talking? What have you been asked to do and to, to really focus on?

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00:06:45:50 – 00:07:04:21

Mandy Hickson

Well, Jane, it’s a really good point because I think like anyone out there, we were all shocked to begin with, weren’t we? And I think in the events industry particularly, we went from being full on, all these bookings, all these events coming up, to nothing. And actually we all rode this corona coaster of emotions, and I certainly did.

00:07:04:49 – 00:07:22:37

Mandy Hickson

And I was, I remember I was sitting here, my husband said, It’s all about routine. We must get out. I don’t want routing, I was actually feeling a bit sorry for myself, which is really not my default. I’m normally definitely cup half full and I wrote down all the words that were really important to me, and the two words that kept on coming back were resilience and purpose.

00:07:23:00 – 00:07:42:55

Mandy Hickson

And I thought, I’ve always been a resilient person. I’m lacking purpose, so I need purpose. So I basically went, you know what, I started to get onto Zoom, I started to learn how it all worked, got out there and actually within a matter of a couple of months, I was, I’d made virtual showreels and got a guy, he made a virtual showreel for me.

00:07:42:55 – 00:08:04:22

Mandy Hickson

I was putting that out to businesses and they were going, Actually, this is fantastic as a pep talk in fact we all need a bit of motivation now. And so I started to get lots and lots of bookings suddenly coming in. I was like, What do people want? And it was all around that resilience, about mindset about, well, also people just wanted uplifting and actually they want energy.

00:08:04:22 – 00:08:24:14

Mandy Hickson

They don’t want just a talk that’s coming across in a 2D manner. They want energy from people. And you know what I’ve actually found, I’ve really enjoyed the virtual world. I’ve been doing loads of workshops as well. And because I got really au fait with Zoom and the different all the different, obviously other platforms are available, because I got all up to speed on them.

00:08:24:34 – 00:08:41:58

Mandy Hickson

I felt really confident using them, so I was popping people to breakout rooms before other people were perhaps doing that. And one thing they’ve all said is, you know what? You come on and go, I love this platform, as opposed to, okay, guys I know we can’t meet for real. This would be a very different session if we were meeting.

00:08:42:09 – 00:08:57:27

Mandy Hickson

I’m going, This is brilliant. It’s much more intimate. I’m getting questions. I mean, I’ve been doing it for ten years now, Jane, and I’m getting questions that I’ve never really had before because people are getting that level of intimacy. Because you’re on the screen. They’re on the screen, you’re in the same space.

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00:08:57:32 – 00:08:57:59
Jane Farnham
Yeah.

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00:08:58:08 – 00:09:07:17

Mandy Hickson

They feel empowered to ask you whatever questions they want, much more than you on the stage doing a presentation. And it’s been really different and I’ve loved it.

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00:09:08:01 – 00:09:55:33
Jane Farnham
It’s about reaction as well isn’t it I mean, I know Steve and I at Great British UK, we were from the very beginning, you know, this is virtual. We need, you know, we need to start thinking about this because we don’t know how long this is going to go on. You know, it was three weeks to flatten the curve, but that quickly. You know, extended. So, you know, you have to jump on the bandwagon and go with it. And just I, we’ve really thoroughly enjoyed it and it’s been really great. And I love the fact that so many speakers, we work with so many tenacious speakers who are, who are really motivated and want to get out there. And it was, it was very much it was great working with people who were like minded and positive and wanted to make a difference. So tell me then, aside from the fact that you love doing the virtual engagements, what’s what do you, what buzz do you get out of public speaking?
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00:09:56:09 – 00:10:01:40

Mandy Hickson

Yeah, I’ve always loved it, so at least no, I haven’t. Actually. I don’t want to lie to you guys.

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00:10:01:42 – 00:10:02:47
Jane Farnham
That’s no lie.

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00:10:02:47 – 00:10:18:14

Mandy Hickson

Used to be petrified of speaking, and I’ll never forget when I did that. You have to go to a speech when you go through officer training. And you’re there, this speech and he said, You clipped your tongue 17 times and you said, um 40. I was like, right, I’m a rubbish speaker. And it’s a mindset, isn’t it?

00:10:18:25 – 00:10:38:34

Mandy Hickson

Then when I did this speech for this friend at Brocket Hall, I just thought, Oh my goodness, this is fantastic and I love the buzz. Now that is one thing that you don’t quite get the same of when we’re in the virtual world. You’re not getting that interaction, especially when there’s no faces that you can see. So I Do you always say just one of the organisers, please, can you please leave your camera on so I can talk to one person?

00:10:38:34 – 00:10:56:31

Mandy Hickson

At least I can get a reaction, but one thing I love when it is live, you know, it is that feeling of feeding energy from the audience, but also putting all that energy back in. And I’ve always been quite an energetic person. I’m E on the spectrum as it comes on the extrovert scale. And so I love it.

00:10:56:31 – 00:11:13:40

Mandy Hickson

I’ve always loved meeting new people and so it just sits really well with myself getting out there. When people say, Oh, are you happy to do drinks afterwards, of course I am. I love it, you know, not just for the drinks, but for the meeting. These people from different worlds that, a world that I’ve had no experience of in my 17 year career.

00:11:13:40 – 00:11:33:43

Mandy Hickson

So it’s been lovely, that whole, expanding my knowledge to everything that’s around. So no, I APS, I love, I love live speaking and I’m really hoping that we’re going to continue in a hybrid world with some virtual, some live. And in fact, for September I’ve got numerous days where I’m doing both. I’m doing a live event, but I’m also said,

00:11:33:43 – 00:11:38:16

Mandy Hickson

Can you get me a room? Because I need to do what I need to do a virtual one. Yeah. That works.

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00:11:38:40 – 00:12:03:52
Jane Farnham
Yes. Oh, it’s so great. It’s lovely to chat. You wanted to find out more about you for ages. I know that my clients absolutely love you. So thank you so much for taking time out with us today. It’s been lovely to talk to you. And if you’d like to book Mandy do get in touch with myself or Steve atGreat British Speakers on 01753439289 or you can email bookings at  bookings@greatbritishtalent.com
And once again, Mandy, thank you very much.

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00:12:04:15 – 00:12:04:48

Mandy Hickson

Thanks, Jane.

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Mandy Hickson pilot speaker at Great British Speakers

Mandy Hickson pilot speaker at Great British Speakers

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