It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: He was a prisoner of war

Former RAF pilot John Peters was in Singapore to share his story of being captured and tortured during the first Gulf War.
On a mission during the Gulf War in 1991, Mr John Peters' fighter jet was shot down and he and navigator John Nichol were captured by Iraqi forces. Today, 25 years later, Mr Peters is the founder of a business consultancy and has written two books ab
On a mission during the Gulf War in 1991, Mr John Peters’ fighter jet was shot down and he and navigator John Nichol were captured by Iraqi forces. Today, 25 years later, Mr Peters is the founder of a business consultancy and has written two books about his experiences – Tornado Down and Team Tornado: Life On A Front Line Squadron – with Mr Nichol. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
On a mission during the Gulf War in 1991, Mr John Peters' fighter jet was shot down and he and navigator John Nichol were captured by Iraqi forces. Today, 25 years later, Mr Peters is the founder of a business consultancy and has written two books ab
Mr Peters became famous after this image of him on Iraqi TV went around the world. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOHN PETERS
Mr Peters became famous after this image of him on Iraqi TV went around the world.
Mr Peters had wanted to be a fighter pilot from a young age, as he feels commercial piloting is akin to being a bus driver. He is pictured with Mr Nichol (left), who was held prisoner with him for seven weeks. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOHN PETERS

Tortured during the 1991 Gulf War, British airman John Peters found a wisdom he never sought

Mr John Peters is looking dapper, as though he has just stepped out from the pages of GQ magazine.

Trim, with neatly barbered salt-and-pepper hair, the 54-year-old is wearing a well-cut grey suit and a blue shirt with contrasting white collar and French cuffs. Tasteful cuff links and a patterned blue silk pocket square complete the debonair look.

The image is worlds apart from the one which made him famous a quarter of a century ago.

In 1991, a picture of him - bruised, battered and bloodied in his British fighter pilot uniform - appeared on TV screens and newspapers worldwide after he was caught, tortured and coerced to go on Iraqi television during the Gulf War.

That shocking photograph, he says, has been life-changing.

It gave him fame and media attention he did not seek as well as heroic labels which are not always easy to live up to.

On a mission during the Gulf War in 1991, Mr John Peters' fighter jet was shot down and he and navigator John Nichol were captured by Iraqi forces. Today, 25 years later, Mr Peters is the founder of a business consultancy and has written two books ab
PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOHN PETERS

But it has, he says, also given him a voice, one which he tries to use responsibly.

Now the founder of a business consultancy specialising in leadership and resilience training, he was in Singapore last week to give a talk at the Business Insights Series organised by the Singapore Institute of Management.

Not quite the serious and austere former prisoner of war (POW) one expects him to be, Mr Peters is affable, jocular and not above cracking a bawdy joke or two.

The second of three children of a technical sales representative and a cosmetics manager, he grew up in Petersfield, a market town north of Portsmouth in England.

"My parents' whole focus was on education. Their mantra was: Go to university, get a degree and see the world."

The idea of becoming a pilot, he says, took root early.

Not a commercial pilot, mind you, but a fighter pilot.

"A commercial pilot is a bus driver," he says, joking. "You don't want to just sit there, trying not to spill gin and tonic.

"I want to turn upside down, fly on the edge, fly aeroplanes for maximum performance. And maximum performance is right on the edge of failure," he says.

At 14, he joined the Combined Cadet Force - a youth organisation in the United Kingdom which is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence - and took his first flight. Three years later, he got his pilot's licence.

He signed up for the Royal Air Force (RAF), passed all his tests and got a cadetship which paid for his Building Engineering degree at the University of Manchester.

"I also love architecture. I love your Helix Bridge, the ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay Sands. Like flying, architecture is about form and function," says Mr Peters, who married a girl he met on his first day at university. His wife Helen is the chief executive of a tourism management organisation; the couple have two children, aged 26 and 28.

Upon graduation, he started officer and flight training.

"What I love about flying is that it doesn't matter how well you learn stuff. Can you apply it? It requires a different way of thinking.

"Meteorology, meters, engines, survival in the wilderness: Can you learn all that at the same time you are learning to fly? It's hugely compelling."

And hugely dangerous, he adds.

"You have experiences where you nearly kill yourself. I've been to lots of funerals. When I left flight training, I went through an 18-month period when I went to 12 funerals," he says.

He served with the 15th Squadron at RAF Laarbruch which was deployed in November 1990 to Muharraq Airfield in Bahrain during Operation Desert Storm, mounted to free occupied Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion.

"Suddenly the air force went onto war footing. From 15 hours, we were flying 45 hours a week, flying at night in big formations and given new weapon systems," he recalls.

On Jan 15, 1991, their aircraft were grounded.

"We knew we were going," says Mr Peters, whose son Guy was just two and his daughter, Toni, six weeks old when he went to war.

"I've never met so many pacifists than at that moment. Nobody wanted to go to war. It meant you might die. I didn't really want to bomb other people either, we were not psychopaths. But there was a job to be done and we ended up doing it."

At 6.30 on the morning of Jan 17, he took off in his Tornado fighter jet with navigator John Nichol to bomb the Al Rumaylah South-west airbase. They were flying low, at 700kmh. Their bombs did not drop; the attack was not successful.

The duo were on their way to rejoin their formation when they were hit by a surface-to-air missile, and were forced to eject into the desert.

"At 9.30am, we were in the desert. We didn't have a clue what the hell we were going to do, we were 1,000 miles from anything nice, people wanted to kill us and we no longer had an aeroplane around us," he says.

Knowing that capture was inevitable, they debated if they should kill themselves then instead of dying a slow and painful death later at the hands of their enemies.

But Mr Peters said no because "there is always hope".

"I am a great believer that life is for living. You overcome what comes along," he says.

Not long after, they were shot at by more than 15 soldiers.

"We were buried in the sand by machine-gun fire, hundreds of bullets bouncing 5 or 6cm from our heads. And they missed. I can't believe how they could have missed," he says with a laugh.

They were taken to an interrogation centre after that.

"Over the next five or six days, we were beaten with baseball bats and rubber truncheons. They set our hair on fire, threatened to gang-rape us, threatened to cut off our penises," he says.

They were also starved. In six weeks, the 1.8m-tall pilot lost about 12kg. "I was down to less than 55kg," says Mr Peters, who also suffered two crushed vertebrae.

But he refused to think of death.

"Interestingly, my wife also never felt that I was dead," he says.

After five days, he was forced to go on TV. When he resisted saying the script he was given, a major grabbed him by the hair, pointed a gun to his eye and told him that if he did not do as told, his family would not see him again.

"That was my biggest sense of failure," says Mr Peters, adding that he felt like a traitor.

Along with other prisoners, he was moved several times during his capture when the military bases where they were held got bombed.

One night, the bombings stopped.

"The next morning, the door opened and the interrogators came. 'Good morning, Flight Lieutenant Peters, I'd just like to tell you that the war is over. If there is anything my staff can do for you, please ask'," says Mr Peters, who was released on March 4.

He and the other released prisoners ended up in a hospital in Cyprus.

At the hospital, a nurse asked if he would like to ring his wife and was given a phone card which he had to sign for.

"I said: 'Can I have two please?' And the nurse said: 'Okay but please don't tell anybody.' It was so very British," he says, chortling.

"Here I was, a prisoner of war for the country and I had to sign for my phone cards."

The first question his wife asked him was whether his family jewels were intact.

"She said that from the way I responded to her joke, she knew I was okay. You don't need a big Americanised film conversation," he quips.

Life changed in a big way.

"You were no longer just a fighter pilot; the game had changed. It was frightening getting that level of international exposure," says Mr Peters, who received tens of thousands of letters.

He recalls how he and Mr Nichol received a 15-minute ovation when they appeared at an event in London attended by more than 200 business leaders, including Mr Richard Branson.

Six weeks after his release, he was back in the cockpit. He was with the RAF for another nine years, responsible for programmes on performance, safety and human error in aviation, before he left as a squadron leader.

By then, he had also started speaking about his experiences. Initially he did it for the likes of women's groups and The Balloon Society - for beer and food.

"It is flattering that people want to hear your story. You got to respect that privilege," says Mr Peters, adding that he sought the permission of other POWs before he started doing it professionally.

"People perceive that I have an insight few others have because of what I went through. It gives me a voice."

He now has an average of two speaking engagements a month, and flies all over the world to do so.

When he left the air force, he had already got himself an MBA from the University of Leicester.

The lack of a business background or a wide network of corporate contacts did not deter him from starting UPH, a management development company, with a couple of partners. Not long after, he struck out on his own and founded Monkey Business, which provides expertise on leadership strategies.

"I have done an awful lot of training. I'm very committed to educating myself," says Mr Peters, who has also written two books - Tornado Down and Team Tornado: Life On A Front Line Squadron - with Mr Nichol.

In the last 16 years, he has, among other things, run MBA modules and programmes and designed a leadership psychometric called LEAP (Leadership Effectiveness and Agility Profile). His clients include Capital One UK, Lloyds TSB and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Asked what he thinks of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he says: "ISIS is a very different organisation. My war was a classic symmetrical war, you have an army, an air force and a navy, two sides and you attack each other and the stronger one wins.

"The war now is asymmetrical, fought through the Internet and suicide bombings and not in uniforms. We have to adjust our military and governments to solve the immediacy of the threat. The real issue is how, in a global sense, do we answer some of the fundamental questions as to why extreme groups like that emerge?"

Mr Peters - whose experience has been chronicled in a documentary called Tornado Down - says he does not have nightmares and did not suffer any post-traumatic stress about his time in Iraq.

"I guess I'm a very lucky man. I don't lack for anything in my life."

His ordeal, he says, has given him a wisdom that he did not ask for.

"You learn about life and death and putting your life in order. You get an insight into yourself and the people around you.

"Life is precious and you must not waste it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'POWwow with a fighter pilot'. Print Edition | Subscribe