What's it like working as a nurse in the RAF?

Providing outstanding medical care to RAF personnel is all just part of the job...

A nurse's role in the RAF will take you far beyond a normal nursing career. You could work in an overseas field hospital, get involved in aeromedical evacuations or provide support on military exercises, amongst many other duties.

To give you an understanding of what life as an RAF nurse can involve we’ve spoken to three current nursing personnel working in different disciplines and locations.

Read on to discover what’s it’s really like to work as an RAF nurse.

Flight Sergeant Andrews - RAF critical care nurse

Flight Sergeant Andrews - Critical Care Nurse

FS Andrews works at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Oxford.

‘I have had several roles before this one. I was a Flight Nurse in the Critical Care Air Support Team (CCAST) and a CCAST instructor at Tactical Medical Wing, which involved training critical care doctors and nurses to safely repatriate critically injured personnel from abroad.

I was the Specialist Nurse Advisor (SNA) for critical care to Director of Nursing Services RAF and have also worked in several critical care units, the Joint Hospital Group (South East), Portsmouth and RCDM Birmingham.’

Andrews cites that the additional training and work opportunities, as well as the added responsibility of caring for patients on the back of an aircraft, sets being in the RAF apart from the NHS.

Successfully bringing home a critically injured person from abroad to receive improved care and be with their family is extremely satisfying.

Going on three deployments, working as a CCAST instructor and repatriating civilians from Tunisia are just some of FS Andrew's memorable highlights from his 16 years in the RAF.

In my SNA role I liaised with manning, assisted the Nurse Education Advisor in interviewing for specialist courses, advised on module and training requirements for capabilities. It provided real insight into different areas of nursing and defence output.

Having the ability to effect change and make improvements towards better patient care and training for personnel was also rewarding.

Outside his role FS Andrews has used his time to benefit from the educational opportunities that the RAF offers:

I’ve achieved my nursing diploma, PREP for mentorship, post-grad ITU certificate, a degree in acute care, advanced health assessment and prescribing qualifications.

He’s also participated in many sporting and adventure training (AT) activities:

I have represented PMRAFNS (Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service - the nursing branch of the RAF) in the inter-nursing tennis against the Army and Navy and been away on AT multiple times, abseiling and coasteering.

FS Andrews offers this top tip for anybody thinking of applying for an RAF nursing role:

Be fit, be prepared to work hard and enjoy it!

Corporal Hindley - RAF Nurse

Corporal Hindley - RAF Registered Nurse

Cpl Hindley is undertaking her first posting since graduating as a nurse. She is currently based at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. She’s completed her 12-month preceptorship program as a newly-qualified nurse.

I decided to join the RAF to have a career where I’d be challenged to step out of my comfort zone.

A typical day for me would be working clinically on the ward, with opportunities to take part in PT sessions and team days, organising functions and attending Defence Operational Nursing Competencies study days and more.

Cpl Hindley joined the RAF in May 2014 and, after completing her 10-week basic training she became a student nurse at Birmingham City University, graduating in September 2017 with a BSC (Hons) in Adult Nursing and as an RAF registered nurse.

For RAF student nurses you attend university with civilian colleagues and complete your clinical placements in the Birmingham area. We all graduated together, the RAF nurses were just in a different uniform.

Since qualifying Cpl Hindley has had a surgical and a medical rotation:

I started on a very busy and fast-paced liver surgical ward, looking after patients before and after transplants. I completed my preceptorship on a respiratory medical ward, caring for patients with tracheostomies and non-invasive (NIV) treatment.

Flight Lieutenant Cooling - military lead for the Medical Assessment Unit at Derriford Hospital

Flight Lieutenant Cooling - military lead for the Medical Assessment Unit at Derriford Hospital

Flt Lt Cooling joined the Royal Air Force in 2009 after having been in the Air Cadets as a teenager. 

After graduating from Birmingham City University with a BSc (Hons) in Adult Nursing, he started as a Corporal at Queen Alexandra's Hospital in Portsmouth. Two years later he successfully applied for his commission and was posted to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.

He says:

I am currently the military lead for the Medical Assessment Unit at Derriford Hospital, with a team of 16 nurses and medical assistants. I’m roughly equivalent to an NHS charge nurse and I do similar day-to-day management tasks, i.e. deal with sickness, rotas and governance.

An average day for me is to be in the “office” by 0730, whether that is on the ward or in our HQ. I normally have several emails to deal with, concerning people asking to take leave, the rota needing to be changed for deployments, or people asking about their career development, before getting on with the day’s tasks.

For Flt Lt Cooling, there are many benefits to his nursing role:

I enjoy the variety of my job. One day I am working in a bay with sick patients, another I’m teaching medical assistants how to interpret observations and other days I’m giving presentations on aeromedical evacuation.

For me the most satisfying part of the job is training. I constantly get new nurses coming to my department and it is great to watch their confidence and skills grow. We get a lot more training time in the military than the NHS and it shows in how we develop our people.

However, I can also be on standby to deploy. I still do annual weapons training and a variety of military activities such as parades, fitness and training courses. 

Flt Lt Cooling explains how the RAF lifestyle differs to that of a civilian:

There is always a higher expectation of you.

However, the rewards are also much better, with a lot of time, money and training being invested in you, in return for meeting those high expectations.

A medical professional taking a blood pressure reading from a patient

How can you become an RAF Nurse?

There are several ways you can join the RAF in a nursing role.

Student nurse (Adult)

As a student nurse you'll undertake both military and nursing training with the RAF. You'll start with a 10-week Basic Recruit Training Course before undertaking your nurse training at Birmingham City University.

The pay for your first year at university will be £19,025 with benefits.

Once you've graduated you will start working as an RAF Registered Nurse, providing care in a variety of clinical settings. Your initial pay after training will be £33,006, with benefits.

To apply you'll need:

  • GCSE Grade C/4-5 or SCE Standard Grades at Grade 2/Scottish National at Grade 5in MathsEnglish Language and Biology/Physics/Chemistry or Science Double Award
  • 120 UCAS points from Higher Education.

Registered Nurse (Adult)

If you already hold nursing qualifications, then you'll complete the RAF's 10-week Basic Recruit Training Course to become an RAF Registered Nurse.

You'll then be assigned to work either within one of the Joint Hospital Groups or the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine.

Following basic training, your initial pay will be £33,006, with benefits.

To apply you'll need:

  • To be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council on Part 1 of the register
  • You can also apply if you are in the final year of Registered Nurse training, up to 12 months before Registered Nurse qualification and whilst waiting for Nursing and Midwifery Council Registration.

Registered Nurse (Mental Health)

As an RAF Mental Health Nurse, you'll be part of a team that delivers safe and effective community mental health services to personnel.

You'll provide assessments, care planning, coordination, evaluation and monitoring of specific evidence-based therapies and treatments to patients.

Following basic training, your initial pay will be £33,006, with benefits.

To apply you'll need:

  • To be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council on Part 1 of the register
  • You can also apply if you are in the final year of Registered Nurse training, up to 12 months before Registered Nurse qualification and whilst waiting for Nursing and Midwifery Council Registration.

Nursing Officer

If you apply to become an RAF Nursing Officer you will be both a commissioned officer, trained in leadership and management, and a nurse, providing excellent nursing standards.

You'll lead a small team of RAF Registered Nurses and will also help the Senior Nursing Officer to manage a ward.

Your starting level of pay will be £33,276, with benefits. This will rise with experience.

At Squadron Leader level your pay will rise to £54,335, with benefits.

To apply you'll need:

  • BSc or Diploma in Nursing (Adult or Mental Health)
  • To be registered with the NMC with at least 2 years' post-registration experience
  • GCSE Grade C/4-5 or SCE Standard Grades at Grade 2/Scottish National at Grade 5in Maths and English Language (or acceptable alternatives)
  • Non-graduate applicants must have a total of 5 GCSEs (including English Language and Maths).

To be considered for any of the above RAF nursing roles you'll also need to:

  • Be a UK or Republic of Ireland Citizen, holder of dual UK/other nationality or have been a Commonwealth citizen since birth
  • Been resident in the UK for the past 5 years
  • Meet the health and  a General Fitness Test.
Scuba diver underwater

What benefits will you be entitled to?

The RAF offers subsidised food, accommodation and travel, and there's also free gym membership.

You'll have free private health care, with access to immediate doctor and dentist appointments, and you'll be able to take six weeks holiday a year.

There are plenty of chances to further your development, whether that's educationally, professionally or personally, with financial support available.

The RAF also hosts many clubs for different sports and hobbies and you'll be able to take advantage of the many opportunities to take part in adventure training activities across the world, such as scuba diving in the Red Sea, kayaking in Canada or climbing in the Himalayas.

To find out more about the nursing roles available in the RAF, along with detailed entry eligibility, take a look at their website.

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The Student Room is proud to work in partnership with the Royal Air Force. The RAF has a wide range of career options for school-leavers and university graduates. In this section of the site, you can find out more about many of these careers and what it's like to work with the RAF.

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