Tuesday evening, the Monaco Air League held its first cocktail fundraiser, which took place on Sir Stelios’ terrace, overlooking the port.
This was a new type of exposure for the association, which usually hosts two events a year, an award-giving ceremony and the AGM.
Monaco resident Christopher Foyle launched the Monaco Air League in November 2013, to act as a chapter of the Air League in the UK (where he’s Deputy President, Overseas), which encourages “air-mindedness” by awarding scholarships to young people to pursue a career in aviation, either as a pilot or engineer.
And Tuesday’s cocktail stuck very much to the aviation theme with two exceptional pilots as guest speakers, Quentin Smith, the first person to fly to both North and South Poles by helicopter, and Melanie Astles, Red Bull Air Race’s first female pilot.
Melanie Astles, born in Rugby, England, to a French mother and English father, moved to Beausoleil, France, when she was three. She attended school in Monaco, but struggled with Maths and so decided to quit and got a job pumping gas at a petrol station in Roquebrune. She stuck with that job for seven years, being promoted to manager along the way, which allowed her to travel around France. Working in Lyon, she was near the flying club. Her lifelong passion for flying – “other girls played with dolls, I was drawing airplanes” – was unleashed as she started to pay for lessons by the hour.
“It was like my heart was speaking,” she reflected upon her first time flying a plane.
It took her years, but she persevered and despite having no money, she was happy. She had accumulated enough flying hours but couldn’t afford the €40,000 for a commercial pilot licence. She applied several times for financial assistance in France, but was rejected repeatedly.
“Until one day I received a letter granting me 90 percent funding. I will never forget that day.”
As luck would have it, Ms Astles passed her licence the same year as the 2007 crisis, and there were no jobs. She continued to fly whenever she could, but as a volunteer. For three years she slept on sofa’s of various friends. In 2011, she got her first full-time job with ENAC, the French Civil Aviation School, as a flight instructor.
“I bought a bed,” she said, smiling.
The bilingual pilot she finished seventh at the World Advanced Aerobatic Championships in 2014 and first at the female ranking. Last year, in the top aerobatic category, she was ranked 5th best female pilot in the world.
But there was still more. “I wanted to be a pilot for Red Bull Air Race competitions, but no woman had ever been accepted. I just kept trying, and finally in December 2015, after many interviews and tests, I got accepted as a Challenger Cup pilot.”
For six months of the year, the 34-year-old races planes at 400 km/h at 10 metres altitude, completing a course, much like that of the Grand Prix racers.
Melanie Astles, who was issued her first British passport four days ago, now has her own company Air Mel and airplane, for competitions and air shows, but continues to look for sponsors.
“Monaco was one of the first European countries to host an air race. In 1913 and 1914 there were competitions over water here. My dream would be to represent Monaco as a racer.”
Quentin Smith of HQ Aviation Ltd is a product of his lifelong passion for flying: a Guinness World Record Holder, two time Helicopter Aerobatics World Champion, and the first person to both circumnavigate the globe in a helicopter and to fly to both North & South Poles by helicopter.
The fundraising event raised €3,000 from the 120 tickets sold and the honesty bar. Known for his generosity, Sir Stelios doubled the figure and so €6,000 in total was donated Air League of Monaco.
A candidate of any nationality in Monaco or the Alpes-Maritimes can “be offered a rung” on the aviation ladder in France or Monaco through the Air League of Monaco.