A Life in the Forces

  • Published
  • By Technical Sergeant Aaron Thomasson
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

His office is the nicest one he’s had in his 34 years of service in the Royal Air Force. “Even as a two-star, this is the biggest and best,” says Squadron Leader Paul Atherton, Royal Air Force Commander at RAF Croughton, with a pleasant laugh.  There’s much more to a lifetime in the Forces than a nice desk though, and for Sqn Ldr Atherton, it started as a young man in Sunderland.

“I was walking through my hometown, which is up in the Northeast of England. I must have been about 16 at the time, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time,” he says. “In the window of an office was this huge picture, of an aircraft with all its lights on landing on a dark runway and it said ‘You Can Fly This’ and that’s what inspired me to join the Air Force as a pilot.”

From those humble beginnings, walking the streets of home and seeing inspiration in the windows of a recruiter’s office, was born a career that would reach to the level of Air Vice-Marshal, and see Sqn Ldr Atherton traveling the world and working with other NATO nations to resolve conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and other world hotspots.

“I went off to the Royal Air Force College at RAF Cranwell, was commissioned, and went and then completed my flying training. I went up through the ranks, flew a number of different aircraft, commanded in the UK and Iraq, finishing my career as Chief of Staff Operations, effectively running ops for the RAF,” he says, by way of summarizing a long and successful career as an active-duty member of the Royal Air Force.

All of his experience has given Sqn Ldr Atherton a unique insight into the joys and challenges of command and leadership. For him, the best part of his time at the top was the opportunity to support and encourage Airmen to exceed their own expectations. “Encouraging young service members who stand out from the crowd,” he says. “Supporting people who have the capability to exceed, and when you would go to a station and see them again in their new position, that was the most rewarding thing for me in my career, because you have changed someone’s life.”

He was happy to share some of his learned experiences with newcomers and career members of the Armed Forces at all levels. “Don’t try to be something you’re not. You need to be yourself, the good and the bad. That’s what’s got you promoted and selected. You’ve got to display your integrity and honesty all the time. Understand the people around you and their strengths and their weaknesses. Even someone you might have written off will have some skills that are valuable to the service. And if you reach a point where you don’t enjoy or you don’t believe in what you’re doing, then pull the handle and get out. If you let cynicism take over, the whole thing will start to collapse.”

After his retirement from the Royal Air Force, Sqn Ldr Atherton found himself still wanting to serve his country. He volunteered to take a Reserve position as the RAF Commander at RAF Croughton and shepherd the base during a time of change. He finds it a little exciting that he has returned to military life at a rank he last held in 1990, he says “It’s a really good appointment, and I’m proud to be here.”

Following this interview, it has been announced that Paul Atherton would take over as CEO of the RAF Charitable Trust Enterprise, which delivers the annual Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, from September 2019.