Orange is not a colour that suits many people. But Justine wears her orange boiler-suit proudly because it shows that she is involved in flight testing. From pilot to engineer, all those involved in flight testing wear orange so that should things go horribly wrong and they have to eject from the aircraft, rescuers will find them more easily.
Justine, whose last name I'm not allowed to reveal for security reasons, is a civilian in the French Ministry of the Armed Forces. She's a young flight test engineer specialised in tactical data links who's about to undertake another year of studies so that she can become a lead flight test engineer. We chatted one afternoon at the recent Paris Air Show, a quiet moment away from the crowds and the noise.
“I actually knew nothing at all about aeronautics as a child,” she recounts, “but when I was about 13 I took my first ever flight and we were allowed into the cockpit. I was fascinated and decided on the spot that I was going to be an airline pilot!”
But during her first year of preparation for the competitive exam to enter the piloting stream of the French national civil aviation school (ENAC) “I realised that in fact I was more interested in the engineering side of things so decided not to sit the exam.” Instead she switched to preparing to get into ISAE-Supaéro, an engineering school in Toulouse which specialises in aerospace engineering. The studies are brutal. Thousands sit the exam and only 120 get in. Justine was amongst them, together with around 15 other girls. “Never during my studies did I feel any difference between the girls and the boys. There was always a balanced relationship. We were all just students together with the same fears and hopes,” she remarks. It's been four years since she graduated “and we're all advancing at the same rate,” she notes with satisfaction.
What does annoy her sometimes today is the paternalism amongst some of her older male colleagues. “I don't want to be congratulated for being where I am,” she says indignantly. “I get really upset if anyone suggests that I got my job because I'm a woman. That's the ultimate punishment.”Justine has noticed that some address her differently than they do her male colleagues. “It's still a bit hard for some of them to have a young woman telling them what to do,” she says. But generally she finds there's a lot of goodwill towards the five or six women in the 80-strong test team. In her own sector, tactical data links, there are two women in the team of 10.
Work experience was obligatory during her studies. She had internships at Dassault Falcon Jet (USA), at ATR and at the EPNER (Ecole du Personnel Navigant d'Essais et de Réception), the French test pilot school and one of the four main test pilot schools in the western hemisphere. It is controlled by the DGA French procurement agency which is part of the Ministry of the Armed Forces. “It's where they train the pilots, engineers, mechanics, technicians, air-traffic controllers and parachutists who will be specialised in flight testing,” she explains. “It was the one I liked the best,” she says, so she joined the Ministry but as a civilian rather than “military, because as you move up the ranks you have less “in the field” jobs and I don't want that at the moment. But as a civilian in the ministry I still feel that I'm serving, that I'm being loyal to my country. I'm really interested in knowing that I'm useful to a cause, to a person, to my family,” she stresses.
In September 2020 she will begin the one-year course at EPNER and will emerge as a lead flight test engineer “which is like conducting an orchestra,” Justine says enthusiastically “and I absolutely love it because it's team work.”
Whilst at Supaéro she got one of the 20 slots available to get a private pilot's licence at preferential prices. It's important to have a pilot’s experience because if something were to happen to the pilot during a test flight, she could help manage the return to the airfield. She also has her glider pilot's licence. “Now that's a sport that is hyper pukative” she laughs. “Hyper pukative” is a word that's new to me! Is nausea not a problem in a combat aircraft, I wonder? “Oh, you get used to flying and then there are anti-nausea patches, a bit like the nicotine ones, that apparently work really well,” she smiles.
A diamond flashes on her left ring finger as she talks. Justine very recently became engaged to the “exceptional” young man she met at school. How are they going to reconcile their careers with their personal lives? “It's not easy,” she concedes “it's something we have to work at every day.” For the moment their jobs have taken them to different parts of the country. “But he is resigning so that he can follow me to Istres (south-west France) when I'll be at the EPNER. In the future it may be the other way around !” She looks thoughtful.