Today marks International Women’s Day and the start of British Science Week, two national celebrations which mean a lot to our business. We’ve been speaking to some of our female employees and advocates for STEM…

Dr Sarah Ewer is Deputy Head of The Aeromedical Centre and has been working at NATS for 5 years. Based at our control centre in Prestwick, Ayrshire, Sarah is one of five doctors who play a huge part in ensuring the safety of our operation.

With over almost 4,000 employees, NATS has a variety of specialists. Air Traffic Controllers, Engineers and Analysts are all key, but you may not already be aware of some of our smaller specialist teams – such as the Occupational Health Service.

Their role directly supports the NATS operation to keep our skies safe. As CAA Aeromedical Examiners, they conduct regulatory medicals for controllers (a valid medical is essential for them to control aircraft). As Occupational Health Physicians, they conduct regular occupational medical examinations for other NATS staff as appropriate and provide medical advice to managers and staff regarding fitness for work.

Sarah’s interest in aviation and science started when she was very young. Her father was serving in the Royal Air Force and her mother was a nurse, so at the age of 11 she was enrolled into an all-girls boarding school in North Yorkshire.

The school attracted an equal mix of female and male teachers, and many of Sarah’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subject teachers were women.

“It was drilled into us from an early age that we could achieve anything we set our minds to, and no dream was too big! The school really supported us and I loved most of my classes – especially science, music and art.”

A science project on biology, which saw academics visit the school to talk to the students, combined with volunteering in a care home for her Duke of Edinburgh Award, encouraged Sarah to think about her career options. At 14, she decided that medicine was the route for her.

Sarah completed A-Levels in biology, chemistry and physics before embarking on a five-year medical degree at The University of Liverpool. At the end of year one she successfully applied for a scholarship with the RAF and was commissioned into the Royal Air Force as a Medical Officer.

“The opportunities are so varied within a career in medicine. You may think about clinical hospital specialist and GPs, however there are so many more paths; pathology, radiology, public health, medical informatics and IT, medical law, safety and governance…. I could go on.”

It was in the Royal Air Force that Sarah completed her training in Primary Care to become a General Practitioner. Part of that training was done on operations and she met her husband, who worked in Search and Rescue, while on tour in the Falkland Islands. She went on to serve in Kosovo, working with the US Air Force and UN medical teams before taking a posting at RAF Valley in Anglesey.

Two daughters later, Sarah’s family relocated north to Ayrshire, Scotland, and she swapped RAF life to become an NHS General Practitioner.

“Getting the role at NATS was a total chance meeting!  Some friends who I’d worked with at RAF Valley needed to get medicals done at NATS’ centre on the south coast and they mentioned me to the head doctor. The rest is history…”

Dr Rae Chang is NATS’ Chief Medical Officer. She joined NATS in 2012 and has over 20 years’ experience as an aviation medical officer in military and civilian settings, with previous service in the Royal Australian Air Force and Emirates. She has a background in general practice and has undertaken specialist training in occupational medicine.

Dr Rae Chang “As an embedded occupational health and aeromedical team within NATS, our mission is two-fold: aeromedical safety and workforce protection. There are few aviation organisations worldwide who provide both specialised medicals to licence holders and fitness for work advice to every employee. I’m proud to lead a team of highly qualified physicians and administrative staff who provide this service for staff at over 20 sites in UK, Gibraltar and internationally.” said Dr Rae.

“We are also ahead of other UK companies who have had to recruit medical expertise during the pandemic; we have an existing team who understand the business, know our people and have strong networks in aviation, occupational, NHS and public health.”

Over the past year, the role of the medical team has had to adapt in response to the impact of Covid-19.

In March 2020, the CAA published an exemption for licence holders as the infection risk of performing in-person medicals increased and in line with the UK-wide lockdown, giving them a further nine months to continue working without a physical medical.

This meant there were 300 controllers who needed catch-up medicals, in addition to those with rolling expiry dates. On 1 July 2020, in-person medicals were resumed after extensive Covid-secure risk assessment and processes in place including PPE. Subsequently over 800 controller and engineering medicals were conducted between July and November 2020! A further challenge in 2021, is adapting to the new CAA medical IT system which will integrate licence holders and their regulatory responsibilities more closely.

“Our focus over the last year has been making sure NATS’ employees can work safely in a Covid-secure way, working closely with the Quality, Health, Safety and Well-being teams to make this happen.

“As well as the demand on medicals, we’ve been supporting colleagues who are self-isolating, unwell and those considered “key workers” and still required to work on site.”

When she’s not busy working, spending time with her family and studying for her MSc in Occupational Medicine, Sarah enjoys visiting her local schools to educate them about NATS, what we do and how fun STEM based careers can be.

“It is vital that girls and young women are encouraged and supported in the belief that they can excel in STEM based careers. It is a privilege for me to be a small part of that example by showing that it is possible.

“I always tell my girls “All good things start with a dream. Dream Big, sprinkle on some hard work and dedication and you never know what amazing things can grow”.

NATS was one of over 50 companies to sign the Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter in 2018 and has since improved the ways we attract, support, develop and progress women in our organisation.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the women in aviation at NATS, working to keep the skies safe every day.


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