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Pre race Porto

Pilot Mélanie Astles opens up about her mindset, her training, and the possibilities for this weekend’s race in Porto

French pilot Mélanie Astles will race at the classic Red Bull Air Race stop in Porto, Portugal for the first time on 2-3 September. In this candid interview, the first woman ever to compete in the three-dimensional motorsport reveals her thoughts on a range of subjects, including the challenges she’s working to overcome.

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Mélanie, what have you been up to since July’s race in Russia?

First of all, I’ve been resting a bit. I think rest is very important for good performance, whether in sports, business, or your personal life. If I’m tired I get angry, nervous, and not very productive. So I spent time in the south of France, seeing friends and relaxing.

And no doubt you’ve been flying, too…

Yes, I did some freestyle. It’s an artistic discipline that’s very special, the one where you see the plane with the smoke on. The plane is dancing in the sky, with dynamic and impressive figures and also slow flying. Like a painter has a brush, a freestyle pilot has a plane and paints pictures in the sky. It requires hours of hard work, but thanks to my sponsors I have my personal plane to train in this elite discipline. It’s a great opportunity.

You’ve also been in England. What was the purpose of that trip?

That’s right. I flew to the UK, back to my origins. My engine needed checking, and I went to the maintenance shop of [2014 Red Bull Air Race World Champion] Nigel Lamb’s former technician Nigel Huxtable, which I highly recommend. I spent three days in Wickham, and they fixed it perfectly. I really would like to thank them. They were fantastic.

Afterward, because I want to fly some air shows in England, I went to Duxford and started the authorization process. I did some training displays, which was crazy, flying between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt! I was also very aware of the history of that airfield, and the fact I was born in England and it’s where my story began – it was very emotional to fly there. It was also emotional to cross the Channel by myself for the first time. Such a nice moment.

On the topic of air shows, you’ve hinted that you’re already planning a program for 2018.

It’s a very big work in progress. I’ve commissioned a musical score from an excellent composer, and the theme will be Dream, Fly, Inspire – DFI. Hopefully we’ll be ready in the spring of 2018, and I’ll probably present the show for my sponsors first. It will be a great way to thank them.

How has your training on the ground been going?

I’ve been working on several things with my mental preparation coach André Armand, especially visualizing the track in Porto and the psychological side. I’m coming into this race with a different mindset, which is a bit more relaxed about the objective. Somewhere deep in my mind I haven’t been very confident and felt like I didn’t deserve winning.

Yet you’ve stood on the podium before, and you’ve produced the top result in Free Practice sessions several times…

I think I have now understood where there is a problem. I know I can win. And I will do it. I think I just need to take it easier because I always have a bit more stress on race day, which is normal, but maybe it is compounded by the fear of success. I need to feel that I truly belong in the race, that I can win, and give myself permission to win. Whatever happens in Porto, I will take a lot of pleasure in it. The level of the Challenger Class is very high, and everyone is pushing, so this is a race where you could finish last even doing a great flight. But my mindset will be good and I will hope for a bit of luck on my side this time.

This is all interesting because you seem like such a naturally positive person. Is that something you have to work at?

My positive mindset is something that I have worked on for many years. I used to be on the dark side, thinking everyone was against me and the world was so unfair. I’ve worked very hard on it, and I love learning new tips to improve. I think I have a lot of tools now, and when I say, “Smile on,” those are not just words. Whatever happens, smile on and keep positive. For me there are no problems, just challenges. When something happens, I think, “OK, this is a challenge, let’s go for it.” But it’s like exercise, you have to keep at it. If you hang out with negative people, they can take you down again. They crumple your energy.

What about physical training?

I’ve been doing a lot of sport. My physical coach Romain Guillot and I have been trying to find the perfect physical condition for an Air Racing pilot and also for an aerobatic pilot, knowing that in aerobatics you’ve got negative Gs on top of positive Gs, and then in freestyle you’ve got all of the directional G forces. A lot of it has to do with reinforcing the neck and abs – basically your body should be one very strong piece. But also you need to be very dynamic and flexible, a complete athlete. Breath, strength, flexibility – we’ve been working on all of this. And evidently I’ve been making an impression, because I have been flying long and intensive flights, and people are surprised that I get out smiling and relaxed. There’s still a lot of progress to be made, but we’re on our way, and I really want to thank Romain, and André as well.

It sounds like it’s been a busy time.

Hopefully just the right mix of busy and relaxing. I also devoted attention to launching my new website at Its aim is to convey the sport and the emotions around it. There’s also a B-to-B page where companies can learn about having a fully organized afternoon or day with my team. There are a lot of possibilities, from having a conference on risk management to drone races and even to bringing in formation flights and luxury catering. Basically, I can create anyone’s aviation dream.

Speaking of your website, you call your new plane your “baby,” and the flying videos you post online are exhilarating. Do you really enjoy flying as much as it appears?

Yes, I do take immense pleasure when I fly. It’s such a great feeling to be able to do basically whatever you want in the plane. I’m still discovering my “baby,” but because I love research and learning new things, I’m really happy to experiment (with the guidance of my coaches, of course) and push the plane to its limits.

What do you mean by pushing the plane to its limits?

For example, sometimes I try to fly at the lowest speed possible, as if the plane has stopped in the air. It’s really difficult, but it’s amazing what this plane can do. For sure, there are moments when I’m in perfectionist mode and my flying isn’t perfect, but I try to remember where I came from and how lucky I am to be following my passion. For me the most pleasurable thing of all is when I get back on the ground and I see stars in the eyes of people who have been watching. I try to share these experiences with people and to spend time with them. Giving happiness to people is really a pleasure.

So now your Challenger Class race in Porto is just days away. How do you feel?

The track in Porto suits me, with the VTMs [vertical turning maneuvers] and chicanes that I
love, but then I guess it suits a lot of the pilots. My family will be there – my mom, dad, and
uncle – and it seems that many fans are very interested in the first female pilot in the Red Bull Air Race. The Portuguese people are wonderful, and it will be very nice to share this moment with them. I really believe that hard work always pays off, and it will pay off for me one day –