Joanna Watkinson (Lock) known as ‘Jo’ joined the RAF in 2003; having completed EFT with the UAS she was pre-streamed rotary; following IOT, she was posted to RAF Shawbury to conduct her basic and advanced flying training on the Squirrel and Griffin Helicopters. In 2006 after completing her initial training as a Helicopter Pilot, Jo was posted to RAF Benson and to 28 Sqn and served 4 years flying the Merlin Helicopter. During this time she served 2 tours of Iraq on Op TELIC 12 & 13.
Jo was conducting her pre-deployment work up training for Afghanistan and Op HERRICK when, as a passenger on a Merlin helicopter, flown by another pilot on the Sqn, crashed in the desert in El Centro California.
Jo and her peers from 2 crews were conducting night desert pairs landings when the handling pilot became disorientated in a dust cloud, lost references and drifted in the hover causing the main rotor to impact with the ground. The aircraft span and crashed on its side. Jo and her colleagues could not get out of the exits due to the ramp being held closed under its own weight, the emergency window exits being too far away to reach and the ladder for use in such an event not being attached and therefore unavailable. Their only option was to dig their way out under the aircraft and crawl through the gap they had created. Jo spoke of the difficulties in escaping the aircraft and of having to go back into the wreckage to recover a badly injured colleague and friend.
She spoke to the trainees of ASBT 09/18 about her career and the impact of the crash on her life that resulted in a medical discharge. She offered the course advice based on her experiences in dealing with the physical and mental health challenges of an early exit from her chosen career and emphasised to them the importance of only being able to rely on the kit that is physically attached to your person in a crash, the importance of remembering to take survivors out with you as you escape the wreckage and of the importance of having a good torch to hand and wearing the correct clothing in case of fire. She also re-iterated the mantra, when on Ops, of never passing up on an opportunity to take on fuel, food or ammunition.
Jo left the RAF in 2010 as a result of the injuries sustained on the night of the crash; she is currently employed as an Instructor on 3FTS’ legacy Ground School Sqn.