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16 November 2018Last updated
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Meet the first woman to conquer the skies in the Red Bull Air Race

We talk following your dreams, industry sexism and the upcoming Abu Dhabi race with Melanie Astles

Louisa Kiernander
8 Feb 2017 | 12:56 pm

RB 1

When did you decide you wanted to be a pilot?

My love of planes dates back to my early childhood. When I was 6 or 7, my parents took me to an airshow in England, where I was able to sit in the cockpit of a fighter plane. From that moment, I knew that the sky is where I wanted to be.

How long was it before you actually got to fly a plane?

Although I was good at school, I was not interested in the syllabus and I left it behind when I was 18, working at gas stations throughout my native France. One of these stations happened to be near an airfield, so at age 21, having saved a bit of money from working, I took my first flying lesson. That was a revelation and I was lucky to come across people who encouraged me and recognized my ability to become a pilot.

Later on, I discovered a new passion, aerobatics, and quickly found success by winning titles in that discipline. Then I passed the exam to enter Air France as an airline pilot which really boosted my confidence and to this day I am on the Air France waiting list for when they start enrolling again. Of course, when I was accepted to take part in the Red Bull Air Race as a Challenger in 2016, I was on top of the world, it was a major recognition. 

RB 2

You are the first female pilot at the Red Bull Air Race and air racing is a very male-dominated sport, have you ever felt like you have had to work harder, or prove yourself more, as a woman pilot?

Even in 2016, it is still not easy for women to succeed in air racing, it’s a man’s world! You need a strong and determined personality to fit in. Aviation in France is a strongly male dominated activity and only 7% of women hold a pilot’s license.

Of course, as women, our sports career is sometimes shorter if we decide to start a family; pregnancy and having children is quite often the reason why some of us quit the sport.

So female pilots probably will face sexism, but you just have to believe in yourself and focus on your objective. At the Red Bull Air Race, I am treated not as a woman pilot but just as a pilot. Still, as the only woman in the race, I naturally get more media attention and I hope that through this I can inspire other women.

How do people react when you tell them what your job is?

I get all sorts of reactions. The Red Bull Air Race and aerobatics are not as well known in France so I find myself having to explain in detail what I do. Women will often react very positively and feel proud for me, although most of them admit that they could not see themselves doing the same.

With men there tend to be more mixed feelings. You naturally get the male chauvinist reactions claiming that “this is not a woman’s place”, but fortunately they’re in the minority. I get plenty of encouragement and admiration from lots of men and most male pilots I know recognize women’s flying qualities as equal to men’s. 

RB 3

Are you into any other thrill-seeking sports?

I love racing in general and from time to time I get on a race track with a car. I am lucky that my sponsor BMW gives me this opportunity so I get to go on race bikes and race cars like the BMW M4, which has 430 horse power and is very fast much like my Extra 330 Lx plane In the Red Bull Air Race.  

What do you do when you are not flying?

I fly in my head, but I also train at the gym to get fit for flying and I work hard to find sponsors which are essential to continue work as a professional race pilot. 

You have to be pretty fearless to do what you do, but what are afraid of?

My biggest fear is having regrets later on from not living my life fully. So I make every day a special day and remember how precious it is to live my dreams without any limits in my mind. I like to dream big and aim big - even if it doesn’t work at least I will not regret the chances I didn’t take! 

RB 4

If you weren’t a pilot, what would you do instead?      

I would be an entrepreneur. I’m full of ideas, I just need more time to build them into a good business.

Where do you see your career going?

Last year I was focused on doing my best, first by going around the track safely and then bit-by-bit getting faster. Throughout the races, I strived to improve my technique and time, and concentrated on details. I was able to reach the podium at Indianapolis so of course this year I want to have great results and maybe join the Masters one day. (The master class is the highest class level for competing pilots.)

My unusual career path has not been easy. But it has helped build my determination and given me a strong mental state. I am someone who never gives up, whatever happens, and obstacles have only reinforced my willpower. 

The Red Bull Air Race is celebrating it’s 10th year in Abu Dhabi on Friday the 10th and Saturday the 11th of February. Go to www.redbullairrace.com for more information. Get a taste for some of action here:

Photos by Predrag Vuckovic//Limex Images, Balazs Gardi/Red Bull Content Pool and Chris Tedesco. 

Louisa Kiernander

Louisa Kiernander