Audrey Escoubet: “Dear parents, I am flying”

Photography : Photokiff - Text : Elisabeth Grosdhomme
Audrey Escoubet - BAT

Only 7% of Air France’s pilots are women. Only 4% of airline pilots globally are women. Audrey Escoubet is one of them.

She speaks of her work with overwhelming enthusiasm. On that day, freshly back from a trip to Tokyo flying a cargo plane, she shows us pictures she took from the cockpit: Mount Fuji emerging above the clouds, Siberia still covered in snow, the Mongolian desert extending as far as the eye can see. Even with the experience of many years in the air, there is no weariness. Still the same wonder at contemplating these breathtaking sights; still the same excitement at the thought of setting off to places where there is always something new to be discovered.

Audrey Escoubet started flying at thirteen years old. Her father, who felt uneasy aboard planes, was not keen on it (he later changed his mind as he saw how unmistakably happy his daughter was operating aircrafts) but she had struck a deal with her mother: a good mark in school provided for a one-hour lesson at the neighbouring flight school, near Cholet. At fifteen Audrey had her first solo flight. At seventeen, she got her pilot’s licence.

Then came the time for higher education. Audrey moved on to ESSCA, the Angers-based business school. She took it as another opportunity to fly again and again at the nearby aeroclub, on an old plane, dating back to the 1940s, the legendary Stampe SV4 biplane. On campus, she set up flying events to offer first flight experiences to fellow students.

At the end of her first year, off for an internship in Canada: Audrey works the day at a bike shop in Montreal; as soon as her day job is over, she rushes to the aerodrome to fly night hours, gathering precious experience to progress in her pilot’s proficiency; and on weekends, along with many French people who take advantage of their stay in Canada to learn to fly, she goes exploring the territory, notably flying hydroplanes which are able to land on lakes. She thinks to herself that she will later become a « bush pilot », this particular kind of aircraft pilots whose mission is to carry supplies to the Inuit inhabitants of the Canadian High North, or to take along trappers, or scientists on a mission to do field research.

But she first has to finish her studies. The following year, her internship takes place in England. A new opportunity to fly: on working days Audrey sells mattresses in a bedding factory ; on weekends she gives a hand to restoring an old Hawker Hurricane, the historic combat plane of the Royal Air Force, which became most famous battling the Wehrmacht during World War II.

With her diploma finally in hand, Audrey takes two decisions: to definitely go for a professional career as a pilot and to move to Canada. She settles in La Macaza in the Laurentians, where Mont Tremblant airport is located.

All the while however, she keeps one foot in France, participating in the « Tour de France des Jeunes Pilotes », a competition with fifteen-odd checkpoints which consists in flying from city to city while performing tests of precision and flying prowess.

Little by little, while working, Audrey continues to pass the various qualifications required to fly as an airline transport pilot, both in Canada and in France. In the end, under the pressure of her parents worried at the idea of their daughter’s living a secluded life in the Canadian woods, she sends an application to Air France, without really believing in it (« I don’t see myself driving a bus, » she says), to the point of forgetting to show up at the interview which had been agreed. But with her atypical career path and her thousands of flying hours, her application sets off interest. She is hired immediately. They call her back just two days after the interview, while she had already headed off for a hike on Djebel Toubkal, in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains.

And there we are: since September 2000 Audrey has been a pilot with Air France, flying at first Airbus A320s, then A330-A340s, and now Boeing B777s. The technical sophistication of the aircrafts, the pleasure of working in teams, the feeling of responsibility towards passengers rapidly took over the skepticism with which she had at first considered the job.

She is also an instructor and continues to fly for pleasure or to help out in addition to her work: she has thus flown three humanitarian missions in Africa.

As for the future, she is preparing to become a pilot in command before the end of the year, coming back to the Airbus A320 on the occasion. This matters a lot for family life as the A320 signals her return to short and medium haul flights, less disturbing than the long-hauls of the B777: absences from home are shorter, jetlag easier to handle, and overall lifestyle less affected.

Audrey highlights what she owes her family, the patience and affection of her husband and her children, the kindness of friends and neighbours who never fail to help out. Each time she leaves, she makes sure to organise everything so that everyday life is easy in her absence, she leaves everyone with loving notes but still, it would feel good to be more present.

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