Isabelle de Montet-Guerin, 32, is Airbus’ youngest and first British female test pilot, with almost 15 years of experience. Her childhood passion has led her to fly some of the largest aeroplanes in the world.
I grew up with flying, my dad was in the Royal Air Force. He fostered the interest I had and both my parents were fantastic, so anything I wanted to do that was aviation related; museums and learning, they’d try and help. After he died I had my first flying lesson aged 12, which was a tribute to him. Once I’d done it I was absolutely hooked.
My mum said: “Fine, if you want the licence you’re going to have to earn it yourself because I just don’t have the money.” So I started washing cars and doing all sorts of odd-jobs to raise the money, and eventually the air force very kindly gave me two scholarships which topped off the private pilot’s licence fund.
It’s the combination of artistry and science that grips me about aviation; the two items would be considered incompatible in most jobs, but you really are required to be both an artist and a scientist. It’s a dream come true.
As a production test pilot based in Hamburg, my working day begins around 7am with a “rejected take-off”, which is like driving at 115mph in your car to make sure the brakes work. After that we may fly up to twice a day. If we’re conducting a first flight profile, which is the very first time a new aeroplane will take off, every system needs to be tested very thoroughly; from flight controls through to hydraulics, fuel and electrics. The crew can consist of up to 11 people if we’re testing the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, but more commonly when we’re testing the A320, there’ll be four of us; two of whom are pilots. We tend to finish around 7pm each day.
I’m the first British female test pilot. When I went to the Empire Test Pilot School to study, they were convinced I am either the only, or one of the very few. I do have a female colleague in Hamburg, who’s French, and we fly together quite a lot, which is fantastic. I really don’t think about being one of the very few women in the crew, it honestly never crosses my mind.
It feels great to be where I am, I feel very privileged to be in this position as I’m only 32, the youngest test pilot they’ve ever hired. I’ve got a lot of friends in Toulouse now and I get to see them two or three times a month, which is great.
I’ve been with Airbus for 18 months now, and when I started I was based in Toulouse, then moved to Hamburg. Previously I spent 10 years with British Airways flying a variety of brilliant aeroplanes, and just under two years with a company called Cobham FRA working in flight refuelling aviation, and electronic warfare; simulated military attacks on the navy, that kind of thing.
I’m really happy where I am, and I have another 30-odd years to give to the company, which is great. This is the biggest aircraft manufacturer in Europe, so this is where it’s at – I’d recommend it to anyone who has a love of aviation. I’m quite healthy, not saying my body is a temple, but I don’t drink or smoke.
The only problem is you can’t have a social life on the side, it’s really very hard work. You need to have a lot of dedication, and to be prepared to study – and I mean study into the night. I come back to the UK about twice a year, so I don’t get the chance to see family that much. You need to not think about the hours you’ll have to put in, or the times you can’t go to certain events because the most important thing is making sure you’re on top of your game.
When I was at test pilot school I worked six days a week, 16 hours a day, sometimes more, and the only thing I can remember from that course was how happy I was. You’ll work extremely hard for years and years, but the rewards at the end of it are beyond worth it. Flying the biggest passenger plane in the world has to be the most rewarding thing about it. I genuinely don’t consider it a job – it’s fun.
Isabelle is a test pilot for plane manufacturer Airbus
Words as told to Rhiannon Williams