Tornados and Taliban are all in a day's work
AS A child, Nikki Thomas loved building dens on Dartmoor and playing Swallows and Amazons with her older sister Janine on the estuary near their home in Exmouth, Devon.
Her love of the outdoor life and getting stuck in served her well in her chosen profession.
Now known as "The Warlady", 31-year-old Nikki is a fast-jet navigator, part of the RAF's first all-women Tornado fighter crew serving in Afghanistan. Sister Janine is a journalist with the Sunday Times.
With pilot Flight Lieutenant Juliette Fleming, Nikki flies in a Tornado GR4 armed with a 500lb bomb, Brimstone air-to-ground missiles and a 27mm machine-gun.
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The pair are based in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city and home to 20,000 troops.
They have logged 100 hours flying, and last week successfully defended an airbase against a Taliban rocket attack.
In an interview with her sister, Nikki said: "We were tasked to search for potential rocket teams and identified a group of men digging in a ditch quite close to base. Their actions looked suspicious and the idea that they might be setting up to fire on our base meant that we needed to do something fast.
"Jules took the aircraft out to about 15 miles from the ditch and we descended rapidly to fly over the men, at about 100ft and 500mph.
"An aircraft flying that fast and low is a pretty terrifying sight. The guys ran for their trucks and careered off. There were no rocket attacks that evening."
This year, 9,500 soldiers spent the festive season away from home. Nikki, who has been serving on the front line for nine years, said: "It was a difficult day – it made everyone think about home more. But I was in my Santa hat on Christmas Day in the plane! We did secret Santa and we got Christmas dinner, but it was just a normal day in the office really."
What is it like being the first woman to run the daily timetable for 31 Squadron and the only woman on the Tornado GR4 to become a qualified weapons instructor? "When I served in Iraq, it took the local air traffic controllers a while to accept a woman's voice as authority," said Nikki.
She mused: "Gender is irrelevant today, even in a job like mine. If you get a reputation as a good operator, then it does not matter if you are male or female. You do get some banter, but you can expect that in the forces and I certainly do not feel like I am treated any differently than the guys.
"I think there is a change in the generation of people flying now. Aggression is certainly not a character trait I would look for in a pilot or navigator.
"I think being competitive (mostly with yourself) and always aiming high is important, but so is being level-headed and ready to deal with, and adapt to, any situation as it arises."
Although this may be the case of the perception of women in the RAF, the logistics were not always so forgiving: "I used to have to wear two pairs of thick socks and hope they didn't come off if I ejected," said Nikki.
She continued: "My mate was doing her washing the other day and she just hit the floor as a rocket landed worryingly close to the laundry. She was most indignant and told me, 'If I'm going to get blown up, I'd be really p***** off if it was when I was washing my knickers'. As for me, I was in the canteen. Imagine if your last meal was mystery meat and rice."
After meeting Nikki's male comrades, sister Janine said: "Whenever I join Nikki for an RAF do, after a few drinks, the boys tell me how amazing she is, how she is brilliant at her job. They talk with pride and respect for her, both personally and professionally."
Part of Nikki and Juliette's job is to identify improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Insurgent-improvised IEDs are thought to be responsible for about three-quarters of the more than 100 UK deaths in Afghanistan this year.
Such an irregular job has caused a few sleepless nights in the Thomas household.
Janine wrote in her newspaper: "It's tricky for my parents, dealing with their little girl in a war zone.
"We are not a military family and there has been more than one sleepless night since she first went to the front line nine years ago.
"My father said, 'It's impossible not to be concerned'. The true reward is when you hear about operations where without a doubt she has helped the lads on the ground.
"To be able to make a difference for them is reason enough to be proud.
"I remember mum describing how Nikki once flew over our family home. The noise down the Exe estuary was deafening as she zoomed by and disappeared in a flash.
"I just couldn't believe that was Nikki,' mum said to me." When Janine asked Nikki about any hair-raising moments, she retorted: "I can't tell you, mum's going to read this."
On the glamour of life in the RAF, Nikki mentioned a running joke: "Come on, Goose, empty the bins. It's not Top Gun, you know!"
With an outdoor childhood romping on Dartmoor and splashing around in the Exe, such a down-to-earth outlook is hardly surprising. It is difficult not to feel awestruck at the bravery of Nikki and Juliette. As Nikki said to Janine: "It really is an adrenalin kick when the scramble bell goes off – very Second World War – and we run to the jets.
"The idea of going to work and reading and writing all day scares me just as much. I do the maths, you do the words, remember?"