Mélanie Astles makes history as Red Bull Air Race’s first and only female pilot

While some little girls dream of living in castles (call it the “Disney princess syndrome”), Mélanie Astles’ childhood ambitions were a little different: She wanted to be a fighter pilot.

Melanie Astles
Astles performs during a free practice at the sixth stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship at Eurospeedway in Lausitz, Germany. Photo: Courtesy of Andreas Schaad/Red Bull Content Pool
“I always wanted to fly [ever] since I was a young girl,” the 34-year-old France native tells GrindTV. “It was inside of my blood.”

She’s now a five-time French Aerobatic Champion who has earned top-10 rankings at the World and European aerobatics, and while her rags-to-riches tale doesn’t involve a musical number, it is changing the course of motorsports history.

This past weekend (Oct. 15-16), Astles became the first and only female pilot to compete in the final stop of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship tour, a two-day event filled with acrobatic aerial action that took place at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Melanie Astles
Challenger pilot Melanie Astles of France prepares for her flight prior to the Challenger Cup of the third stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in Chiba, Japan on June 5, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull Content Pool
Fourteen of the best aerial race pilots went head-to-head in the Challenger Race, a competition that combines speed, precision and skill as contestants navigate a low-level, 1.5-mile aerial track made up of air-filled pylons.

Astles navigated the pylons, which sit at 80 feet, at speeds up to 230 mph while enduring forces of up to 10Gs (for reference, a rollercoaster delivers approximately 5Gs).

“I feel like a little girl who has fulfilled her dream,” she says of being invited to the event. “It’s still not easy for women to persevere in a male-dominated sport; you need a strong and determined personality to fit in. All my colleagues treat me fairly, but it’s still hard at times.”

Melanie Astles
Astles prepares for training. Photo: Courtesy of Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull Content Pool
For Astles, no part of her career came easy. While most pilots hail from an academic background, Astles struggled to earn good grades in mathematics and physics.

She dropped out of school at age 18 without a diploma and, unable to afford flying school, picked up a job at a gas station.

“With my salary, I saved money and took my first [flying] lessons at age 21,” she says. “I was homeless at some points because my priority was to pay for my flight hours. Nothing was stronger than my passion to fly.”

After work, Astles would spend hours studying the technical and mechanical intricacies of flight, and when her plan to become a fighter pilot didn’t pan out, she turned to aerobatic flying instead.

By her 25th birthday, she was a professional pilot, and just shy of a decade later, she flies against some of the best pilots in the world.

“I would not say I’m doing if for the thrill,” Astles explains. “I do it for the love of flying.”

Astles prepares for her flight prior to a free practice on the fifth stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in Ascot, Great Britain. Photo: Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull Content Pool.
Astles prepares for her flight prior to a free practice on the fifth stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in Ascot, Great Britain. Photo: Courtesy of Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull Content Pool
Astles and the other pilots faced tricky weather conditions during the Challenger Cup race, and Florian Bergér eventually took the first place win.

Still, Astles says earning a race spot at the event was a life-long dream fulfilled. Her advice for all those other little girls who prefer their fairytale ending with a side of adrenaline?

“Don’t try to be loved by everybody. Decide what you want and go for it. Don’t search for approval — just get some magic people around you who will support your journey. Passion always wins, believe me. It will guide you through the dark moments,” she says.

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