Training with the Royal New Zealand Air Force

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Nicole Johnson
  • 613th Air Operations Center first sergeant
It's 6 a.m. and I've just been assigned to a Royal New Zealand Air Force team. We were given a timed task to build an underwater cage with basic materials while treading water in less than 20 minutes. The next thing I know I'm in the back of an off-road truck traveling up a mountain. We arrived at a specified destination using coordinates, a grid map, and a compass in less than 90 minutes. But before starting we were blindfolded prior to crossing a suspension bridge dangling over a raging river. And there, my training experience with the RNZAF began.

I was honored to be selected as the first U.S. representative to attend the RNZAF Warrant Officer Promotion Course. Warrant officers perform duties similar to that of the U.S. Air Force first sergeant, so I was selected to be part of a subject matter expert exchange. The four and a half-week course of instruction was similar to our professional military education and included leadership models, a written paper, and of course some public speaking. But the training was a very different experience.

I was challenged physically by treading water for 20 minutes while simultaneously assisting my team with building an underwater cage. This was followed by hiking through mountains, over rocks and rivers in an unfamiliar country, with unfamiliar teammates, facing my fear of heights, all while not knowing what was around the next tree.

Along the way we were given puzzles to solve and leadership topics to discuss; those envelopes with instructions eerily reminded me of exercise injects from evaluators during base-level exercises. All of these obstacles counted against our 90-minute time frame to reach our destination.

At the end of what turned out to be four hours hiking through the mountains, we tackled an obstacle course, three more team-building exercises and brain teasing puzzles, before resting overnight in sleeping bags in wooden huts - without heat. I was tired, cold, and yet very excited to be a part of the experience.

The training was just the beginning of the differences in our military education. Drill, for instance, was a bit awkward for me at first. "Flight will advance to the left in three's" is the preparatory command for a left facing movement. I stepped on toes and heels, ran into people, and at one point marched in the wrong direction.

When it was my turn to call the commands, my classmates were good enough to do as I commanded even if it they didn't understand my accent or my instructions. My new "mates" helped me get on track and encouraged me to keep trying, and with their help, I passed my drill evaluation.

To be an effective warrant officer in the RNZAF, you also have to be able to lead through vision and values and know how to cross-functionally network in the [joint] New Zealand Defense Force. So we packed up and traveled to military areas in New Zealand including the Defense Headquarters in Wellington, the Army training base in Waiouru, and Naval Station Philomel in Devonport.

Through this week of travel I learned that as senior enlisted leaders across services and countries, we had the same challenges - just on different numerical scales. The conversations were sounding very familiar to those at home station and included topics such as budget cuts, joint working environments, policy and procedure changes, and discipline issues.

At the end of the course, we celebrated our new knowledge with a traditional RNZAF Dining In. Based on the British tradition, there were more rules I had to learn for the event. The splendid silver candelabra was our only light, drinks were passed from right to left, women do not pour their own drinks, and toasts were made by all to the Queen of England.

My "mates" also toasted to the President of the United States and the President of Singapore in honor of the Royal Singapore Air Force Warrant Officer on course with us. That evening was a magnificent ending to a magnificent, yet challenging experience.

To say it was an honor to be selected for this course is an understatement. The leadership exchange, knowledge expanded and shared, and friendships formed are only a few of the things I gained.

As our countries build on our international relationship, we will find ourselves participating in more exercises, deployments, and disaster relief with the Royal New Zealand Air Force. I can only hope I am honored once again to work alongside them in any capacity.