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.
When Astles sets out to achieve a goal, she gives it everything she's got. And that's what she's doing now in the Red Bull Air Race. Astles, 34, is one of the young pilots of the Challenger Class – a small, select group with stellar records in other disciplines who are refining their Air Racing skills through expert coaching, all in the hope of eventually securing a berth in the Master Class World Championship ranks.
"When I was accepted to take part as a Challenger in 2016, I was on top of the world, a major recognition for me," Astles remembers. She was pleased to find that "at the Red Bull Air Race, I am treated as a pilot, not as a woman pilot."
While Astles has a contagious sense of fun (her catchphrase is "Smile on"), it's rare to find her relaxing during a race weekend: she'll tuck herself away to study video of her training flights, or pace with headphones while she visualises her lines through the racetrack. She has determinedly sought advice, and sought out sponsors, too, with such success that at last she has procured her own aircraft for training.
It's that focus which took her from a respectable but nonetheless last-place effort in the unfamiliarity of her first race in April 2016 to second place in only her sixth (and final) race of the season, at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now that she's continued the podium momentum with third place at the 2017 season opener in Abu Dhabi, Astles' rapidly growing fan base is confident that the breakthrough of her first race win can't be far away.
"I hear from young girls – and boys – telling me how my experience motivates them to pursue their passion. In exchange, they inspire me to be even better," Astles shares. "If I can help them to realize that with hard work and strong will, it is possible to live your dream, then I'm happy. It is not just about being a girl in a man's sport, but about being good at what you are doing."
As bold as ever, she adds, "Believe that your dream is attainable if you go and fight for it."