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Perseverance Helps Female Pilot Astles Soar toward Dreams in Red Bull Air Race

The 1984 movie “The NeverEnding Story” still resonates with a resilient Melanie Astles, especially scenes where the boy flies through the air on his dragon.

“This made me think, ‘Wow, this must be great flying in the clouds and around the mountains,’” said the French pilot, who made history in the Challenger Class Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the Red Bull Air Race’s first woman to be fastest qualifier.

“I felt that this world was another world, and I need to discover it.”

She aspired to be in that rarefied air, which admittedly seemed preposterous at the time, considering Astles was managing gas stations all over France for seven years to try to earn enough money for flight lessons. Every now and then, the dreamer would go outside and look up at the clouds.

“I’d watch the planes,” she said. “I was doing a job that wasn’t my favorite job. It was to earn a living. I was looking up there and dreaming, and I was dreaming big. I had no money, I didn’t study, but I was dreaming really big because this is a dream that everyone told me was impossible. I still believed in it. And it finally worked.”

Astles, 35, also made history last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the best finish by a female flyer when she placed a career-best second in the Challenger Cup race. Now she’s in position to rewrite the record books with an unprecedented victory Sunday. The Challenger Class race starts at noon.

As she thought about that possibility, she shook her head.

“Just the word ‘win’ is building a lot of fear in me,” she said.

But this is a woman who has overcome too much to stay afraid. When in the cockpit, she tells herself to “Switch the smile on,” a reminder to be relaxed and positive. That was her explanation for how she went from slowest pilot in practice to No. 1 qualifier.

“I knew it would go fine when I started smiling and doing it naturally,” she said. “The fact that I could smile, I was feeling relaxed and I knew I was in a good mood to make a nice flight. The previous flights, I was very nervous and angry with myself for not doing well.

“I think there is something that makes me feel good here (at IMS). Maybe it’s just in my mind, but it’s working out.”

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, Astles is excited about accepting a new job next week as a pilot for Air France. It’s another reminder of how she’s persevered to make her life special.

“I don’t think I have to prove anything about my flying skills,” she said. “I’m not the best, but I’m there and I’m flying well, and hopefully, one day, I’ll become one of the best. Maybe that day is starting.

“It’s crazy. I’m an Air Race pilot, I’m going to be an airline pilot, and all of that with no money and no studies. I must admit I still can’t believe it. It’s like a dream still. It’s crazy. Life is good. Life is a great adventure.”

She switches on that smile once again. There’s a lot to smile about. And her father, John, has made the trip to watch her fly this weekend.

Astles is fifth in the Challenger Class points and can’t win the championship in this season finale but knows competitors respect her. She is proud to be a female competitor in a male-dominated sport.

“I’d like to be feminine and stay like that and not fit in,” she said. “Why should I fit in?”

She grew up in Monaco, which meant seeing a lot of Formula One racing. She dreamed of driving one of those cars, and sure enough, enjoyed that experience last year.

Now the dreamer inspired by a movie sets her mind to accomplishing something special with a storybook ending Sunday.

“I’ll fly the dragon again,” she said, “and ask him to bring me up to my dreams of victory.”

Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for the Red Bull Air Race World Championship and for more information on the event weekend. Children 15 and under receive free General Admission when accompanied by an adult General Admission ticket holder.

An interactive Fan Guide for the event also is available at www.ims.com/RBARFanGuide.

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