Sikh RAF Warrant Officer opens up about helping mentor the next generation of recruits

vt-author-image

By stefan armitage

Article saved!Article saved!

This is a sponsored article in partnership with the Royal Air Force…

Wherever you go in life, it’s reassuring to know that the people around you are supportive of who you are and what you want to accomplish.

Whether it's the everyday things like dining out at a restaurant or the bigger life decisions like going to university, people want to know that they can be their true selves wherever they go - no matter what they look like or their religious beliefs.

This is especially important when it comes to choosing your career.

Your job should not just be about paying the bills - it should be about finding a role that is perfect for you. Additionally, it should also be about surrounding yourself with people who are accepting and passionate about helping you achieve your full potential.

Many people will know the UK’s Royal Air Force for its adverts encouraging people to “find their role”, but Warrant Officer Balbir Flora wants to make sure that people know this invitation is for people from all backgrounds and faiths.

size-large wp-image-1263153906
Credit: RAF Cranwell/Paul Saxby

Speaking to VT, WO Flora has revealed why he is now dedicating his time to helping people from diverse communities change their perception of the armed forces, and ultimately promote the RAF as an alternative career for those who may never have thought about joining.

But what first interested WO Flora in a career in the Royal Air Force? Well, it all stems from his childhood in Nairobi.

“I was born next to an airforce base in Africa, and from a very young age I used to see planes flying around,” WO Flora tells me. “So, as a typical young kid growing up, planes were my hobby and interest.

“We moved to the UK, and then from the age of about 14, I joined the Air Cadets.”

Joining the Air Cadets allowed Flora to visit air force bases and get up close and personal with the aircraft.

“I was one of those kids who was always doing little doodles of aircraft and little fighter jets and helicopters and making models of them and things like that,” he says.

After finishing his O Levels and CSEs, Flora applied for the RAF at the age of 17. However, not all of his family were initially supportive of the idea.

size-full wp-image-1263153903
Credit: RAF Swinderby

He tells me: “[My] mum was dead against me joining - typical South Asian mother, you know?”

Flora says that although joining the military is prestigious in the Indian subcontinent, in the UK “we’re almost stuck in a time warp”, where South Asian parents want their kids to become doctors or engineers. “But we’ve got all of those professions in the air force,” he tells me.

But despite his mum’s reservations, Flora signed up for his six weeks of basic military training.

size-full wp-image-1263153907
Credit: Balbir Flora (Supplied)

Flora then notes a “very key” moment from early in his career.

“When I first joined up, one of my instructors was also from East Africa and he was somebody from a mixed background,” he tells me. “And as soon as he saw me and he saw my style of turban, he knew exactly who I was and that I was from East Africa as well.

“He took me, sort of, under his wing and gave me a bit of guidance. And if you think about it in modern-day terms, I was being mentored.”

And although he did face some ignorance, Flora says that many of those around him had worked closely with people from the Indian subcontinent. As a result, they respected Sikhs and all their contributions to the force.

Following his graduation, Flora joined the Logistics arm of the Royal Air Force, becoming a specialist in supplying, distribution, and warehousing.

size-full wp-image-1263153904
Credit: RAF Cranwell/Paul Saxby

Throughout his career, he completed countless tours abroad - visiting places like Germany, the Falklands, and Kosovo.

During our talk, Flora stressed the importance of breaking the illusion that the RAF is just about pilots and flying.

He tells me: “As soon as you say to somebody, ‘I’m in the Royal Air Force’, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘What do you fly?’

“Not everybody in the Air Force is a pilot. So for every pilot, there are about 80 other professionals who have to do their job so that the pilot - he or she - can take off.

“So if you then look at that, who are the other 80-odd people? We’ve got all sorts of engineers, doctors, dentists, nurses, air traffic controllers, firemen, police officers, chefs who feed us… So if you think about the array of jobs that we have, all of it is support that allows that pilot to go on their mission.”

Throughout his own career in Logistics, Flora was also able to receive training and qualifications in leadership and management, as well as becoming a fully chartered member of the Institute of Logistics and Transport. Since our conversation, he has also gone on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA).

“With the Air Force, there are a lot of advantages where they do encourage you to self-develop,” he tells me. “So I applied to do a degree through the military - they then said yes. So I did a Logistics Manager degree at Lincoln University and most of the costs were subsidised by the Air Force.

“So there are opportunities there to carry on self-development and improving yourself. Because, at the end of the day, it makes you - in the Air Force - a better leader and manager.”

size-full wp-image-1263153901
Credit: WO Balbir Flora (Supplied)

“It’s all qualifications that are transferable skills,” he adds.

As well as the career opportunities, Flora also highlighted how the RAF opens doors to experiences very few professions can offer.

A lover of sports and adventure in his early career, Flora also tells me that - as well as achieving his Royal Yachting Association qualifications in windsurfing, something he admits he’s “never seen another Sikh doing”.

“In the winter I used to go skiing, you know, another opportunity that the Air Force gives you. These are heavily subsidised,” he adds. “There are all these opportunities - it’s not just about the job, we offer the opportunity to travel and experience other cultures and countries.”

But as well as the amazing opportunities afforded to him throughout his over 40-year career, Flora says it was the recognition for his services that truly made him feel accepted as an Indian Sikh.

“In 2005, in the Queen’s birthday honors, I got awarded an MBE for all the years of my service and my commitments,” he tells me. “And in 2009 I got awarded again in the Queen’s New Year’s Honors, I got a ​​Meritorious Service Medal.”

size-full wp-image-1263153902
Credit: Balbir Flora (Supplied)

“For me, it was a great thing, because it's one of the things we all strive for - to get recognition,” Flora says. “Not just in the military, but anywhere.”

“And for somebody who is BAME, with a different skin color - I wear a turban, I’ve got a beard, I’m Sikh - for somebody like me to be recognised, you know that you’ve been accepted for what you do in the Air Force.”

And in a heartwarming moment, it wasn’t just Queen Elizabeth II who recognised Flora’s success in the RAF, but also his mum - who had originally been critical of her son’s decision to enroll in the Air Force.

He tells me:

“I used to have her for years saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have joined’ and ‘Why don’t you leave and look for something locally?’ But in 2005, when I got my MBE, she actually patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Well done, son.’

“She recognised that I hadn’t just joined the military to be a rogue in the family, but I’d actually achieved something and made her proud.”

WO Flora now works as part of the RAF Specialist Engagement Team and is a member of the Defence Sikh Network

He explains how the British Military now has numerous faith and gender networks to help support new and existing recruits.

As a member of the Specialist Engagement Team, WO Flora works with communities to help break any misconceptions surrounding the military.

For example, he tells me: “A lot of Asian parents say to me, ‘I don’t want my child to go to war’ or that kinda thing. And I say to them that we’re actually supporting the aircraft to go on its mission. So, unless you’re a pilot, the chances are you’re never going to have to go near the front line.”

Additionally, much like his own mentor was essential to helping Flora manage life in the RAF as a Sikh, he now finds himself helping the next generation of recruits.

“It doesn’t matter what faith you are, but if you’re of a Sikh background and you wear a turban, I just talk to them about some of the issues they’re going to face when you wear a turban,” he says. “Because when you’re in training, you need to be aware that one minute you’ll be in the gymnasium doing sports, and the next minute you’ve got to be out on parade - and you’ve got to be pretty quick.

“So you’ve got to think, ‘How am I quickly going to shower, get changed, and get my turban on as well?’ Because the average person can quickly just comb their hair - it takes two seconds. But when you’ve got long hair, there’s that little bit of a longer process. Then you’ve got to tie your turban and then put the cap badge on and all of that takes extra time.”

size-large wp-image-1263153912
Credit: RAF Cranwell/Paul Saxby

Flora also shared a recent story about one recruit who found himself in the same shoes he did 45 years ago.

“About a month ago we had a young man who graduated at Cranwell, he’s become an officer,” Flora says. “His parents were dead against him joining, but he wanted to join.

“Being of a Sikh background he contacted me and said, ‘My parents want to know a bit more about it.’ So I had a chat with the parents. [...] I answered some of those questions, some of the reservations they had, and I told the parents: ‘It’s nothing new. My mother, 45 years ago, she was you.’

“It’s getting rid of those fears and making them feel comfortable.”

“And when that young man graduated, I went to his graduation and his parents came up to me and said to me: ‘Amazing. We can’t believe how this young man has changed into who he is today. The Air Force, the training they’ve given him - he’s a totally different person.’”

WO Flora is just one of many within the RAF who are helping to make the service as inclusive to people of diverse backgrounds as possible.

“We’ve come a long, long way since when I joined up,” he tells me.

For more information about life in the Royal Air Force and to find your role in the RAF, visit https://www.raf.mod.uk/recruitment/

Featured image credit: RAF Cranwell, Paul Saxby

Sikh RAF Warrant Officer opens up about helping mentor the next generation of recruits

vt-author-image

By stefan armitage

Article saved!Article saved!

This is a sponsored article in partnership with the Royal Air Force…

Wherever you go in life, it’s reassuring to know that the people around you are supportive of who you are and what you want to accomplish.

Whether it's the everyday things like dining out at a restaurant or the bigger life decisions like going to university, people want to know that they can be their true selves wherever they go - no matter what they look like or their religious beliefs.

This is especially important when it comes to choosing your career.

Your job should not just be about paying the bills - it should be about finding a role that is perfect for you. Additionally, it should also be about surrounding yourself with people who are accepting and passionate about helping you achieve your full potential.

Many people will know the UK’s Royal Air Force for its adverts encouraging people to “find their role”, but Warrant Officer Balbir Flora wants to make sure that people know this invitation is for people from all backgrounds and faiths.

size-large wp-image-1263153906
Credit: RAF Cranwell/Paul Saxby

Speaking to VT, WO Flora has revealed why he is now dedicating his time to helping people from diverse communities change their perception of the armed forces, and ultimately promote the RAF as an alternative career for those who may never have thought about joining.

But what first interested WO Flora in a career in the Royal Air Force? Well, it all stems from his childhood in Nairobi.

“I was born next to an airforce base in Africa, and from a very young age I used to see planes flying around,” WO Flora tells me. “So, as a typical young kid growing up, planes were my hobby and interest.

“We moved to the UK, and then from the age of about 14, I joined the Air Cadets.”

Joining the Air Cadets allowed Flora to visit air force bases and get up close and personal with the aircraft.

“I was one of those kids who was always doing little doodles of aircraft and little fighter jets and helicopters and making models of them and things like that,” he says.

After finishing his O Levels and CSEs, Flora applied for the RAF at the age of 17. However, not all of his family were initially supportive of the idea.

size-full wp-image-1263153903
Credit: RAF Swinderby

He tells me: “[My] mum was dead against me joining - typical South Asian mother, you know?”

Flora says that although joining the military is prestigious in the Indian subcontinent, in the UK “we’re almost stuck in a time warp”, where South Asian parents want their kids to become doctors or engineers. “But we’ve got all of those professions in the air force,” he tells me.

But despite his mum’s reservations, Flora signed up for his six weeks of basic military training.

size-full wp-image-1263153907
Credit: Balbir Flora (Supplied)

Flora then notes a “very key” moment from early in his career.

“When I first joined up, one of my instructors was also from East Africa and he was somebody from a mixed background,” he tells me. “And as soon as he saw me and he saw my style of turban, he knew exactly who I was and that I was from East Africa as well.

“He took me, sort of, under his wing and gave me a bit of guidance. And if you think about it in modern-day terms, I was being mentored.”

And although he did face some ignorance, Flora says that many of those around him had worked closely with people from the Indian subcontinent. As a result, they respected Sikhs and all their contributions to the force.

Following his graduation, Flora joined the Logistics arm of the Royal Air Force, becoming a specialist in supplying, distribution, and warehousing.

size-full wp-image-1263153904
Credit: RAF Cranwell/Paul Saxby

Throughout his career, he completed countless tours abroad - visiting places like Germany, the Falklands, and Kosovo.

During our talk, Flora stressed the importance of breaking the illusion that the RAF is just about pilots and flying.

He tells me: “As soon as you say to somebody, ‘I’m in the Royal Air Force’, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘What do you fly?’

“Not everybody in the Air Force is a pilot. So for every pilot, there are about 80 other professionals who have to do their job so that the pilot - he or she - can take off.

“So if you then look at that, who are the other 80-odd people? We’ve got all sorts of engineers, doctors, dentists, nurses, air traffic controllers, firemen, police officers, chefs who feed us… So if you think about the array of jobs that we have, all of it is support that allows that pilot to go on their mission.”

Throughout his own career in Logistics, Flora was also able to receive training and qualifications in leadership and management, as well as becoming a fully chartered member of the Institute of Logistics and Transport. Since our conversation, he has also gone on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA).

“With the Air Force, there are a lot of advantages where they do encourage you to self-develop,” he tells me. “So I applied to do a degree through the military - they then said yes. So I did a Logistics Manager degree at Lincoln University and most of the costs were subsidised by the Air Force.

“So there are opportunities there to carry on self-development and improving yourself. Because, at the end of the day, it makes you - in the Air Force - a better leader and manager.”

size-full wp-image-1263153901
Credit: WO Balbir Flora (Supplied)

“It’s all qualifications that are transferable skills,” he adds.

As well as the career opportunities, Flora also highlighted how the RAF opens doors to experiences very few professions can offer.

A lover of sports and adventure in his early career, Flora also tells me that - as well as achieving his Royal Yachting Association qualifications in windsurfing, something he admits he’s “never seen another Sikh doing”.

“In the winter I used to go skiing, you know, another opportunity that the Air Force gives you. These are heavily subsidised,” he adds. “There are all these opportunities - it’s not just about the job, we offer the opportunity to travel and experience other cultures and countries.”

But as well as the amazing opportunities afforded to him throughout his over 40-year career, Flora says it was the recognition for his services that truly made him feel accepted as an Indian Sikh.

“In 2005, in the Queen’s birthday honors, I got awarded an MBE for all the years of my service and my commitments,” he tells me. “And in 2009 I got awarded again in the Queen’s New Year’s Honors, I got a ​​Meritorious Service Medal.”

size-full wp-image-1263153902
Credit: Balbir Flora (Supplied)

“For me, it was a great thing, because it's one of the things we all strive for - to get recognition,” Flora says. “Not just in the military, but anywhere.”

“And for somebody who is BAME, with a different skin color - I wear a turban, I’ve got a beard, I’m Sikh - for somebody like me to be recognised, you know that you’ve been accepted for what you do in the Air Force.”

And in a heartwarming moment, it wasn’t just Queen Elizabeth II who recognised Flora’s success in the RAF, but also his mum - who had originally been critical of her son’s decision to enroll in the Air Force.

He tells me:

“I used to have her for years saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have joined’ and ‘Why don’t you leave and look for something locally?’ But in 2005, when I got my MBE, she actually patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Well done, son.’

“She recognised that I hadn’t just joined the military to be a rogue in the family, but I’d actually achieved something and made her proud.”

WO Flora now works as part of the RAF Specialist Engagement Team and is a member of the Defence Sikh Network

He explains how the British Military now has numerous faith and gender networks to help support new and existing recruits.

As a member of the Specialist Engagement Team, WO Flora works with communities to help break any misconceptions surrounding the military.

For example, he tells me: “A lot of Asian parents say to me, ‘I don’t want my child to go to war’ or that kinda thing. And I say to them that we’re actually supporting the aircraft to go on its mission. So, unless you’re a pilot, the chances are you’re never going to have to go near the front line.”

Additionally, much like his own mentor was essential to helping Flora manage life in the RAF as a Sikh, he now finds himself helping the next generation of recruits.

“It doesn’t matter what faith you are, but if you’re of a Sikh background and you wear a turban, I just talk to them about some of the issues they’re going to face when you wear a turban,” he says. “Because when you’re in training, you need to be aware that one minute you’ll be in the gymnasium doing sports, and the next minute you’ve got to be out on parade - and you’ve got to be pretty quick.

“So you’ve got to think, ‘How am I quickly going to shower, get changed, and get my turban on as well?’ Because the average person can quickly just comb their hair - it takes two seconds. But when you’ve got long hair, there’s that little bit of a longer process. Then you’ve got to tie your turban and then put the cap badge on and all of that takes extra time.”

size-large wp-image-1263153912
Credit: RAF Cranwell/Paul Saxby

Flora also shared a recent story about one recruit who found himself in the same shoes he did 45 years ago.

“About a month ago we had a young man who graduated at Cranwell, he’s become an officer,” Flora says. “His parents were dead against him joining, but he wanted to join.

“Being of a Sikh background he contacted me and said, ‘My parents want to know a bit more about it.’ So I had a chat with the parents. [...] I answered some of those questions, some of the reservations they had, and I told the parents: ‘It’s nothing new. My mother, 45 years ago, she was you.’

“It’s getting rid of those fears and making them feel comfortable.”

“And when that young man graduated, I went to his graduation and his parents came up to me and said to me: ‘Amazing. We can’t believe how this young man has changed into who he is today. The Air Force, the training they’ve given him - he’s a totally different person.’”

WO Flora is just one of many within the RAF who are helping to make the service as inclusive to people of diverse backgrounds as possible.

“We’ve come a long, long way since when I joined up,” he tells me.

For more information about life in the Royal Air Force and to find your role in the RAF, visit https://www.raf.mod.uk/recruitment/

Featured image credit: RAF Cranwell, Paul Saxby