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The RAF Wing Commander who swapped Tornado jets to start her own craft business in idyllic Portrush

In her high-flying career with the Royal Air Force, Jennifer Robinson rose to the rank of Wing Commander and worked in various war-torn regions of the world. Now, as she tells Stephanie Bell, she is fulfilling another dream by running her own craft shop in Portrush

Artistic eye: Jennifer Robinson in her shop, Coastville Designs in Portrush
Artistic eye: Jennifer Robinson in her shop, Coastville Designs in Portrush
Joint effort: Jennifer and her brother, Alan, in their shop

By Stephanie Bell

Life has changed beyond recognition for Jennifer Robinson, who has swapped one dream career for another. Waking up every day in picturesque Downhill, she is greeted by breathtaking ocean views from her new-build home on the edge of the coast. A short drive away in nearby Portush, she is excited each morning to open the door of her new craft shop, which she has set up in partnership with her brother, Alan.

It is a peaceful life that's a world away from the action she experienced serving in some of the world's war zones during a distinguished 19-year career as an officer and engineer with the RAF.

Jennifer (42) retired from the forces in April, opened her shop in May and at the beginning of June got a massive surprise when she was awarded an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in recognition of her outstanding service to the RAF.

As a teenager, it was her dream to serve as an engineer in the air force, and now she is realising another dream of running her own craft shop.

"It is like I am living the next dream," she says. "I did live the last dream and I now feel humbled to be so fortunate to be living on the north coast and to have a small business doing something else I always wanted to do."

Jennifer, who's originally from Portadown, grew up with a passion for engineering which she believes she inherited from her father, Jim, who was an engineer at Aldergrove for years.

While a pupil at Portadown College, she joined the Air Training Corps and got a insight into what a career in the air force had to offer.

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Dedicated even then, she impressed superiors enough to secure a bursary from the RAF to study aeronautical engineering at university.

"It was on the condition that I join the university air squadron," Jennifer says.

"I studied at Salford University and joined the air squadron as a ground member, not a flying member.

"It was amazing to be working alongside like-minded people and there was great camaraderie.

"I developed so many skills and I especially loved working as part of a team."

She graduated in 2000 and immediately joined RAF College Cranwell as a trainee pilot officer. Just six months later she was promoted to flying officer and given her first posting to RAF Leeming to work as a flight support engineer, looking after Tornado F3 jets, which were famously used in the Iraq War.

During her career she was posted to numerous bases and was able satisfy her thirst for travel with stints in the Falklands, Canada, Bosnia and Iraq, where she was stationed for a period during the war.

"The Falklands was my first long time away from home and I was there for two years," Jennifer says.

"It was in the days when there were no mobile phones and I remember writing these long letters home. It is a beautiful area.

"One of my favourite places is Sarajevo. It is so eclectic with the new side and the old town.

"Afghanistan was an experience. It was during the war and I was serving as a senior engineer for the flying squadron, which is what I was trained to do and I was very proud to do it.

"For me, that experience was about the people and how everyone from different parts of society was trained to come together and do a job.

"I feel very lucky to have been able to have done the job. Most of the people I worked with, whether they were leading a team or working in a specific role, were all very professional and were there to do a good job and be proud of it."

Jennifer worked her way up through the air force, reaching the senior rank of Wing Commander.

Her decision to retire after 19 years came after she was injured in an accident.

"I was in Canada a couple of years ago and I had an accident. I was hit by a car when crossing the road and I was very lucky," Jennifer says.

"I did break some of the little bones in my back, but it was not too serious, although it did prove to be a turning point for me.

"It made me think what might have been if I hadn't walked away from that accident.

"I had missed out on so much time at home with my parents and friends.

"I loved my career in the air force and I could have very happily carried on, but the accident triggered in me a desire to be home for birthdays and special occasions and to see my nephew grow up and just be able to have coffee with my mum."

Jennifer spent two years planning her retirement and building her new home, opening her new shop just a month after leaving the air force. The business, on Lower Main Street in Portrush, is very much a family affair.

Her parents, Jim and Helen, still live in Portadown but are regular visitors to the north coast.

Her brother, Alan (40), enjoys making furniture, which Jennifer upholsters.

She has also been making soy candles as a hobby for some years, selling them at local craft fairs.

Brother and sister combined their passions for arts and crafts to open Coastville Designs, which also sells a selection of their father's paintings.

In the 1930s Jennifer's great grandfather rented a plot of land beside the beach in Downhill and eventually bought it.

It was here that she decided to build her home.

"It is where we spent our summers as children and where I would come when I was back home on leave from the RAF," she says.

"When I knew a couple of years ago that I was going to retire, I started to build the house.

"Alan and I both enjoy arts and crafts and he has made bits and pieces of furniture over the years.

"We decided to open our own shop. It's early days, but it's going well.

"I have teamed up with a potter, Michelle Butler from the Sperrin Mountains, and present my candles in her beautiful pots.

"My dad likes to paint and we have 24 of his paintings, most of which are of iconic Northern Ireland scenes. We also have some cushions for sale.

"Alan makes furniture from wood and resin. We get a local metalworker to do the framework and then Alan finishes the pieces.

"We both love the idea of getting other local crafters involved and working with them. We have plans to expand our range.

"We opened in Portrush on the May bank holiday and it has been really good. We've had a lot of local support.

"We wanted to have a shop that would be a nice place to be in every day and a place to meet locals and day trippers and tourists. That's just what it has been like. For a new business, we are doing okay."

It is a quiet life, a world away from engineering and the action of the RAF bases she served in during her career.

The icing on the cake was a phone call out of the blue, informing Jennifer she was to receive an OBE from the Queen in recognition of her dedicated service to the Armed Forces.

It was a call which took her by surprise: "I had just dropped my mum and dad at the airport and decided to call in at Marks & Spencer in Sprucefield on my way back," she says.

"I was sitting in the car park when my phone rang and I was told that I was getting an OBE. I am still not entirely sure why.

"I am shocked, humbled, proud and obviously delighted. I'm not sure when I will be going to Buckingham Palace to get it but, of course, I hope to bring my mum, dad and brother with me."

Although her life now is completely different to how it was just a few months ago when she was servicing fighter jets for the RAF, Jennifer has only good things to say about her time in the Armed Forces.

While women, and especially female engineers, are still in the minority in the RAF, she wouldn't hesitate to recommend it as a career.

"Women would be in the minority, especially in the areas of science and technology. I would encourage more girls to go into technical areas," Jennifer says.

"It's not just in the RAF but in these workforces across the board that women still tend to be in the minority.

"I was definitely never at a disadvantage because I was a woman. I feel privileged to have worked for and with other women doing fantastically well. It is a wonderful career."

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