When Melanie Astles joined the Red Bull Air Race World Championship as a Challenger Class pilot she made history as the first woman ever to compete in the sport.
Astles has a Anglo-French heritage and grew up in the south of France. 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," she said.
Astles started out slowly in the series, struggling with her training and was frustrated at first. But as her first season progressed the improvement was there. Before the end of her debut season she received her own Extra aircraft, which gave her the chance to train and hone her skills. She finished the season with a second place finish in Indianapolis. After the race it seemed as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders and she said: "I now know I can do it."
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. She is one of the youngest pilots of the Challenger Class and like all the Challengers has 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 videos 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, with such success that at last she has procured her own aircraft for training.
This season she has only raced three times and been on the podium once. She'll race at Porto and Lausitz, which will give her a fantastic chance to make it to the final round in Indianapolis.
Astles also inspires the next generation of potential Air Race pilots. "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," she said. "If I can help them to realise 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."