Astles is making her mark in aviation
If you want to know what change looks like, just watch Mélanie Astles. On International Women’s Day last year, the French pilot was deep in preparations to make her debut in the Red Bull Air Race – and the pressure was on. No woman had ever competed in the motorsport, and despite her background as a five-time French Aerobatic Champion as well as an instructor, there were skeptics in the sporting world. She’d have to go head-to-head with the men of the Challenger Class. Could she be competitive?
Now, as the world marks International Women’s Day once again with the 2017 theme “Be Bold For Change,” Astles’ current streak of two consecutive race podiums is the resounding answer to that question. She’s the real deal.
Astles got where she is by being bold herself. “I like to dream big and to aim big; even if it doesn’t work, at least I won’t have regrets,” she says. Surely it’s not coincidental that Women of Aviation Worldwide Week – 6-12 March – coincides with International Women’s Day on 8 March. While the earth’s population is almost 50-50 in terms of women and men, studies find that the worldwide percentage of pilots who are female is in the single digits. “In France, only seven percent of airline pilots are women,” Astles points out. Experts say that a lack of female role models perpetuates that disparity. Although she never set out to be a role model herself, Astles has become just that.
The Frenchwoman believes that most male pilots acknowledge women’s flying capabilities as equal to men’s, and she is deeply appreciative of the encouragement she’s received from both genders through the years. Nonetheless, she notes, “It’s not easy for a woman to persevere in a man’s world.”
So how did she get to this point? Of Franco-British heritage, Astles grew up in the south of France, and when she was just a child she had the chance to sit in the cockpit of a fighter plane at a British air show. “From that moment, I knew the sky was where I wanted to be,” Astles recalls.
The odds were against her. Just taking flying lessons is expensive, and Astles came from modest circumstances. She joined the workforce at 18 and advanced to manager of several petrol stations, saving whatever she could for lessons. Meanwhile, at a local airfield, trainers recognised the enthusiastic young woman’s potential and enabled her to work in exchange for instruction, which she began at age 21. After getting her Private Pilot’s Licence, Astles took up aerobatics and improbably – despite limited finances, no plane of her own, and relatively little experience – she steadily began to make headway against top pilots with extensive resources. By 2015, she was a member of the French team that won the Unlimited Aerobatic World Championship.