The Red Bull Air Race World Championship will mark its ninth season in 2016 with a groundbreaking entry to the Challenger Cup series, a French aerobatic champion and national team member who also happens to be the first woman to line up for the high-speed, high-G pylon races.
“I will mostly enjoy the tremendous opportunity of sharing my passion with the crowds,” Mélanie Astles said in a Red Bull news release. “I can’t hide the fact that for me it’s a real dream to join the 2016 Challenger Cup, I’m really looking forward to that great challenge.”
The 33-year-old took jobs managing gas stations to earn money to learn to fly, according to her online biography. She will not be the youngest pilot to qualify for this year’s field of 11 pilots who race in the undercard event at each tour stop. That distinction belongs to Kevin Coleman, a member of the U.S. Advanced Aerobatic Team by virtue of his sixth-place finish in the 2015 U.S. National Aerobatic Championships. Coleman, 25, celebrated his qualification as a Red Bull freshman on his Facebook page, as people do these days. (The same goes for Astles.)
Ben Murphy, former commander of the Royal Air Force Red Arrows display team, will be the third new face in the Challenger series for 2016, and will compete against veterans including Luke Czepiela, who returns after a one-year hiatus.
The new pilots will cut their competition teeth in Abu Dhabi in March, when the series launches an eight-stop campaign that includes weekend events in Indianapolis and Las Vegas in October.
Red Bull Air Race veterans Michael Goulian and Kirby Chambliss are also getting ready for the 2016 campaign. Both are looking to improve on a lackluster 2015 series.
“Our #99 Edge 540 race plane is also undergoing some major changes to make our team very competitive this year,” Team Goulian announced in a recent online posting.
The series demands much of pilots, who navigate a pylon course at high speed, required to pass through gates at specified attitudes and work within a 10-G limit. Races are often decided by tenths or even thousandths of a second.