On the way to Indianapolis !
Air Racing pilot Mélanie Astles on the upcoming season finale and what’s to follow…
Challenger Class pilot Mélanie Astles of France shares insights on the recent Red Bull Air Race stop in Germany and the season climax taking off at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on 14-15 October. She’s got some exciting news for the off-season as well.
Mélanie, let’s get your impression of the race at Germany’s Lausitzring first. You seemed to be firing on all cylinders from day one, taking the top of the timesheet with an impressive flight in Free Practice 2; and when the race was over you’d clinched your berth for Indianapolis.
Ihandled this race with a somewhat new mindset, a bit more focused on what I can do. I know my flying is getting quite strong, and I wanted to fly with a good entry speed and the fewest penalties possible, and ultimately to be in reach of the top scores. As always, I used the first Free Practice to get used to being back in the track. Then the second Free Practice I had an experience something like when you’re “in the zone.” I felt like I was one with the plane, and I had the feeling, That’s it. I know what I have to do. I was flying smoothly but with a little more focus to detail in my flying, which makes it precise. Lausitz was a very fast-moving track, really dynamic. My flying looked good from my perspective, and the Race Committee was telling me it looked good from outside, so I think I’ve got it now. I’ve been flying at the level of [overall leaders] Daniel Ryfa and Florian Bergér.
After that, were you disappointed when you had the bad luck to hit a pylon in the race?
What can I say? I think I touched it by maybe one millimeter, and sometimes it’s not productive to ask yourself too many questions. Basically my flight was very soft. I was afraid about over-G-ing the plane, and I just didn’t push it like I should have. When I say that, I mean that generally, you exit a big turn and you stabilize and you correct. But I pulled less G, so my radius was bigger, which leaves less time to stabilize the plane before the gate. I saw I wasn’t completely centered in the gate, but it was just too late. It’s really funny because in the video you can see when I’m coming back the other direction and I’m doing a “no” with my head, like “You idiot.” But that’s the way it is. Due to some technical issues, we were sharing only two planes at Lausitz, and I was the first to fly in mine, with two guys after me. I was concerned about the effect it would have on the race if I over-G’d and the plane had to be checked out. Who knows what would have happened if I had pushed the way I know I can, but it’s done now. I’m determined to go for it a bit more and think a bit less in Indianapolis, so let’s see what happens.
On that subject, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not only a legendary U.S. motorsport venue, but it’s the place where you first stood on a Challenger Class podium with your second-place finish last season. You must have good memories?
I really loved the track in Indianapolis. It was so much fun. I like the static takeoff, first of all…
By static, you mean that you take off right there in the infield and fly directly to the Start Gate – a very short distance – rather than flying in from a nearby airport. Correct?
That’s correct. And I like it because it’s a different way of flying – flying with a lot of engine effects. I’ve been studying and teaching engine effects a lot as a flight instructor. The effects are really, really so strong at slow speed that you have to be very precise with the rudder and centering the plane, getting it balanced, because otherwise you can lose a lot of energy very quickly.
It reminds me of when I progressed through my aerobatics levels in a very low-energy plane, a Cap10C. When I was flying the high levels with this plane, I had fun with a friend – trying to fly the slowest speed possible with the slowest energy possible, and I really loved it, searching for the little 1 knot you can gain. Also I’ve done a lot of gliding, where you search for the little energy boosts you can get.
So it sounds like you’re definitely looking forward to this race.
I think Indianapolis will be really great, because since doing it last year my flying has improved a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing if that has a positive effect on the times and scares the clock, which is something we noticed in Lausitz; not just on my flights, but for the others as well.
What are you doing to prepare?
I have some videos and data from my flights at Indy last year, so I am reviewing all that. I will be doing a lot of visualizing of the track and also working on all kinds of situations, simulating crosswinds and other things that can happen.
And are you setting yourself any objectives?
It’s the same as for the race at the Lausitzring: I know I have skills to win, but the overall level is very high so I’m not going to put any pressure on myself about the outcome. At Indianopolis the standing start means there is no start speed problem and of course no over-G possibility because of the slower speeds – so just fly clean, pass through that big mass of air between the gates, fly level, and turn just at the right moment. Just do my job and forget the past. Take all the energy of my previous failures and use it to create success. And then see what happens! I’m fifth overall for the moment. I can finish fourth, I can finish sixth, but what will that change? What will really change is me being the best version of myself, doing a great flight and being happy with my race performance. Whatever the position, I’ll be happy about what I have accomplished this season and the progress I have made., I’ll be ready for the challenge of next year.
No doubt your physical training continues as well…
Yes. I’m doing a lot of sport with my coach Romain Guillot. We are working for me to be fit in the plane, but equally, to be fit the whole week of racing. I think our work has been very good so far, because in Lausitz my energy was very high all week. I felt really good in the plane and during the races, and I can see in the videos that when I’m flying I’m very cool in the plane. I’ll be flying a bit with my own plane during the break up to the final, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s not exactly the same as the raceplane, so basically I’m just flying to get the general feeling again.
You’ve had several races in Europe over the summer, but now you’re headed to Indianapolis, a time zone six hours behind France. Any concerns about jet lag?
That’s also part of my physical preparation. About a week before I leave, I will start going to bed a bit later to try to get my body ready and fit for the jet lag.
Let’s jump back to what you said earlier about noticing a big improvement in your times since last season. How much of a difference do you see?
My flying has greatly improved since last year – it’s amazing to realize the difference. I think it’s due primarily to the fact that I’ve been flying a lot with my new plane, thanks to my sponsors, and I’ve been studying a lot, watching a lot of videos… I’ve been pushing it to the high-precision level.
What do you think this means for the future?
I’ve been working so hard, working on it all the time, and I have the feeling the other pilots are doing the same. I’m not sure if that was always the case, because it’s now the fourth season of Challenger Class competition and I only joined in 2016. I guess in the first season everybody was discovering it, and now with all the videos and data we receive the level keeps rising, and I see some Challengers are being helped with their data by some Master Class teams. It’s become really a game of finding the inch to go faster. And we all have the same plane, so I think next year is going to be the toughest Challenger Class ever. It’s really going to be a matter of finding just a centimeter or taking off just a millisecond, and of testing the limits of the judging system. It’s not going to be easy, and I think you will need a bit of luck, also. When I see how all the guys fly, I think basically winning or losing hinges on just a centimeter of deviation. It’s going to be passionate, and it’s going to be frustrating for some. But I think next year the Challenger Class will be really the most challenging class there’s ever been in the Red Bull Air Race.
Sounds like it’s going to be hard for your fans to wait for those 2018 races; but in the meantime, there’s the off-season. What will you be doing?
Closing the chapter of the Red Bull Air Race 2017, a new challenge is beginning, because I’m joining Air France on the 30th of October, starting with intensive training in Paris. Being a commercial airline pilot was always one of my dreams, and it looks like it’s coming true.
Congratulations! But what does that mean for your competitive flying?
The great news is that Air France are very willing to work with me and really pleased to allow me to fly the races and aerobatic championships in the next years. I’m really happy to be joining an airline that is proud to receive me, so thank you to Air France for letting me live my dream. It will be a really new challenge, and I’m going to go back to a student’s life for two or three months this winter, with a lot of work and studying. But I love to learn, and after that intense period it’s going to be exciting. I flew in the cockpit of an airliner yesterday, and it’s a magic job, a fantastic job. So it’s been a great year and I’m looking forward to the next Challenger Cup with a few surprises that will be announced very soon! So I’d like to say to everyone: Stay tuned, smile on and thank you very much for your interest and support!