As this year commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Royal Air Force Air Cadets, to mark the occasion we sat down with Sergeant Bhavesh Chouhan to discuss his time as an adult volunteer, the skills he’s gained from the role and what he’d like to give back to the young adults he mentors.
Sergeant Chouhan, who in his day job is site manager and mental health governor of Mellor Primary School, has been volunteering with the RAF Air Cadets since 2016. He started his role with the organisation as a civilian instructor and later went on to become a uniformed member of staff. In July 2019 he received an Officer Commanding South and East Midlands Wing Commendation followed by a Wing Warrant Officers ‘Above and Beyond’ Award in November 2019. His role predominately involves mentoring young adults through the cadet experience at the 1947 (Birstall) squadron.
It seems that volunteering with the organisation has offered Sergeant Chouhan the opportunity to explore his interests while maintaining the system of values that form the undercurrent of his day job. “For me personally, it was about what I can give back to the youngsters of our communities. It’s about passing on skills that we’ve learnt throughout our lives to embed into the next generation,” he explains. “I’ve also always had an interest in aviation, so it just felt natural to join”.
Air cadets within the RAF undertake training that adheres to a progressive syllabus which is designed to allow all cadets to engage with a wide variety of training activities through a series of progressive awards at blue, bronze, silver and gold levels with some activities also offering the opportunity to gain a nationally recognised qualification.
To the average 13-year-old, the idea of flying a plane would be nothing more than a pipe dream but at the RAF Air Cadets, Flying and Gliding Aviation Training Packages are available to cadets from the age of 13 years and three months. Sergeant Chouhan confirms this is a popular pursuit amongst the cadets: “All of our cadets love it. We take them across to RAF Cranwell where they go in a two-seater powered plane with an RAF pilot. And one of the best things to do is actually talk to your pilot… but then they start giving the cadets control of the aircraft. Now, when you’re 13 and you go ‘I controlled a plane today,’ that’s quite big news amongst your friends!”
Although on the surface, it seems rather a young age to be introduced to such a challenging activity, Sergeant Chouhan clarifies that the training the cadets receive is underpinned by one of the organisation’s central principles: discipline. Providing the example of the Shooting and Marksmanship activity that is on offer to the cadets, Sergeant Chouhan emphasises: “It’s not just about shooting, it’s about the discipline of handling a weapon and doing it in a responsible manner”. For Sergeant Chouhan, the emphasis on discipline is a clear example of how the RAF Air Cadets equips young adults with skills that will prove valuable in their day to day life. “I think having that discipline or having that respect is paramount in society today. You are seeing there’s a lot of gaps in discipline, and we always find that our cadets represent themselves really well. One thing we try to instil is that when you’re representing yourself, you’re also representing your family and the air cadets”.
During his training period, as Sergeant Chouhan was keen to pass on as much wisdom and knowledge to the cadets as possible, he threw himself into the activities on offer. However, he admits that this approach meant he was occasionally challenged beyond his comfort zone: “One of those experiences was camping. Now, I don’t mind staying in a tent, that’s fine, but when you’re camping with no tent that’s… woah, hold on! But the staff team that were training us, they said: ‘It’s fine, we’re here within the area. Let’s try it?’ It’s a nurturing attitude that they have.” According to Sergeant Chouhan, this attitude extends to the cadets too and he feels, can greatly aid their personal growth. “Our most common thing for anyone joining, and this rolls across any cadet organisation, is confidence. A lot of the cadets we get in, they’re quite timid, reserved and shy. And I find it amazing to see the transformation over a six to twelve month period of time”, he says. “As an adult volunteer it’s a great feeling to instil that into the youngsters.”
In fact, this was a transformation that Sergeant Chouhan witnessed in his own two daughters, Sheena and Mya – the former who is an air cadet and the latter who is a sea cadet: “I speak now from personal experience, my daughter Sheena, when she joined, she had that shyness, that lack of confidence and that six to twelve month timeline was bang on accurate for her,” he explains. “As a parent, seeing her develop from the sidelines was amazing. She went from being really timid to someone that’s holding her own ground. My youngest daughter, her going out there in the real world and doing the same thing. It’s amazing.”
Following lockdown restrictions, the RAF Air Cadets were forced to adapt to virtual training but Sergeant Chouhan explains that during this time, the mental well-being of the young cadets was at the forefront of their minds. “The first 20 minutes of every session was always ‘How are you guys?’” He explains, adding: “We opened up platforms where twice a week cadets could just drop in, no appointment needed. Come in and have a chat”. Sergeant Chouhan also joined the organisation’s wellbeing and resilience team which emerged during the Pandemic to support both cadets and staff.
So while it’s obvious that the pandemic has been a catalyst for change in the organisation, Sergeant Chouhan notes that in its 80 year history, there has also been a significant transformation in the demographics of its staff and cadets. “I think when the organisation first opened, definitely it was male. Now, just thinking about our squadron, I’d say it’s majority female. It’s brilliant because they give the lads a run for their money! In terms of achievements, I don’t think there’s a gender split. They all want to achieve and that’s what we find with all cadets after being in a new, disciplined environment”.
Another factor that he acknowledges was the lack ethnic diversity within the squadron he joined. “The demographics weren’t weighted in the Asian community. I didn’t see that as a challenge, I saw that as an opportunity to expand where we recruit from”. However, although Sergeant Chouhan recognises that the ethnic diversity of his squadron has grown, he still feels that there is a misconception about the purpose of the organisation, particularly within the Asian community. “In my parent’s generation, I think there’s that stigma behind a military youth organisation … that we’re a recruitment agency. It’s not a recruitment agency, it’s skills and experiential learning for young adults to take part in and develop themselves”.
Overall, although it’s apparent that Sergeant Chouhan is dedicated in his role of equipping cadets with vital life skills, he’s also gained a lot from the experience too: “Learning how someone learns differently helps to broaden how we function as adults. Not just with cadets but in the real world too. We’re all in the journey together.”