At 27 years old, Marie is a busy woman. She is a First Officer for Air France flying Airbus A320s on such routes as Moscow to Casablanca and Manchester to Istanbul.
Hello, Marie. First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you did before coming to ESMA?
To begin with I intended to have a career in military aviation, but I didn’t have the required medical fitness for the military, so I turned to studying to become a commercial pilot. I did a Bac S (equivalent of A-levels in sciences and mathematics), a classe préparatoire and a degree before starting at ESMA for the Theoretical ATPL. During these years I tried for Air France cadet selection twice.
What made you want to be a pilot one day?
I started flying at an aero club when I was 13 after an Air Canada Captain, who let me visit the cockpit, told me that nothing was impossible, that I should believe in my dreams and that if his job appealed to me then I should go to an aero club and try it. As it happens, this pilot, who is now a colleague, has been following and supporting me for more than 10 years!
Which memories have you kept from your airline pilot training at ESMA?
Exciting discoveries and the assurance that I really did want to have a career in aviation and that I wasn’t on the wrong track. Instructors who supported me, believed in me and helped me to prepare as much as possible for my Air France selection, going beyond their normal responsibilities as an instructor in supporting me. They suggested possibilities for my future in case I didn’t get through the competitive selection process and enabled me to dedicate myself to studying at the school. Finally, there was a really friendly atmosphere with my group and I was able to make great friendships that I haven’t forgotten and that have continued ever since.I spent an exciting year at ESMA and it’s the best opportunity I have ever been given. I made my best acquaintances and had the best year of my studies.
How did you fund your training?
My grandmother, who has always supported my dreams, funded two-thirds of my training. I worked part-time during the year before I started training to pay the rest. And knowing my financial difficulties at the time, ESMA offered me very helpful long-term payment conditions.
While you were a student, you decided to create the ESMA Student Association. How did that come about and what projects were you able to develop?
I had done the Tour Aérien des Jeunes Pilotes (‘Young Pilots Air Tour’ event organised by the French Aeronautical Federation) in 2005 and come across the association ‘Envolée’, which brings together the previous participants of the Tour and allows new ones to meet people from every sector of aviation, to obtain all sorts of information and to network. I thought it was a great opportunity and a good exchange between people who share a passion.
I wanted to recreate an association like that at ESMA under the name of AZIMUT’Aéro in order to set up a directory of former students and to allow students to have contacts in the professional aviation world. In this field, contacts are very important and it is more difficult for students without any contacts in aviation. I also saw that a community of former students had been put in place by ESMA. It allows students to get in touch with former students who are now in post more easily, which I think is good. In addition, with training being expensive, the Student Bureau has created quite a few partnerships in the Montpellier area so that students can save money, including with restaurants, banks, insurance companies, aviation shops etc.
These days you are an Air France First Officer on Airbus A320s… How did recruitment work?
I was deferred for 18 months in 2004 at the Air France interviews. My debriefing pointed out that I didn’t have enough links with aviation and therefore not enough knowledge of what my job and my life would be. So, I did the Theoretical ATPL at ESMA to gain this knowledge. I went through the interviews again immediately after gaining my ATPL and was accepted as a Cadet at Air France where I began training a few months later.
Which routes do you operate on most often?
I am on medium-hauls, so I do everything that the A320 can do… That is to say wherever in Europe – France, Morocco, Russia, some Eurasian countries and some in the Arabian peninsular.
What is your favourite?
The visual approach to a sunny runway 31R at Montpellier airport, of course! It always brings back lots of memories when I fly over ESMA!
So, what is your greatest memory from your early career?
The first landing in a real “big aeroplane” after several weeks in a simulator! There are also the four days that follow when an Airbus A320 and an instructor are put at our disposal without passengers on board for training, circuits and all sorts of failures.
For you, what are the pluses of being an airline pilot?
The challenge of keeping to schedules, ensuring safety, adapting to different situations on a daily basis (failures, weather, destinations etc.), adapting to each new crew and the way it works… Also the landscapes we fly over, which are always different depending on the time and the season. Stop-overs too – discovering cities and countries, trips, the evening atmosphere, the cuisine, fashions… Meeting people and new crews each rotation with their personality, interests, experiences, way of working etc. And the free time and the financial benefits too, obviously. All of these elements make the job of an airline pilot a job where every day is different and never tedious.
There must still be downsides…
Yes, of course, and without hesitating I would say the separation from your circle of friends because we have few free weekends and a bit of a different view of travel. Some can have the impression that pilots are on holiday 365 days a year and don’t understand our fatigue and our schedule. I rarely even have time to unpack my case and I live in hotels more than I do at home! The future of an airline pilot is also uncertain because it is directly linked to their flying hours with a salary that is entirely dependant on the circumstances and that is therefore very variable. That can make it difficult to take on long-term projects, for example. On top of that, training is incessant in airlines, so you can rarely ease off with simulator tests scheduled every 6 months, a line test once a year, English tests and a yearly medical examination to have!
Finally, what are the key things for becoming an airline pilot?
Motivation, motivation, motivation and passion! I would also add the ability to adapt, rigour and being sociable. And when you forget why you put yourself through the difficulties, go to an aero club or onto the tarmac to get your head sorted out and know why you are there!