She thought she'd be an army dog-handler. But instead, Lt Alicia* is a French Army helicopter pilot. She flies the Puma, a four-bladed, twin-engine, medium-size utility helicopter. Alicia is only 24 but her maturity, drive and focus are astonishing.
In a lively Skype conversation Alicia says nothing in her background pre-destined her for a career in the army. “But I'd seen TV documentaries, I had a friend whose father was in the military and he'd tell me about some of his work and when I did my [obligatory] defence preparation day (JAPD) that just confirmed what I'd already found in the reserves, that the really strict military framework was just up my street.”
So when she was 18, with her science baccalaureate under her belt, she pushed the door of the nearest army recruiting centre and told the officer that she wanted to be a dog-handler. But the foresightful man started questioning her and told her that with her good science marks she would do well in a wide variety of army careers. Over the course of “many” visits, they decided that she should try for army pilot “even though I had absolutely no aerospace background whatsoever: I'd never even been in a plane,” she laughs delightedly.
The first hurdle was to pass the initial tests: sports, logic, English and two psychology tests. Then she had to do one “on a sort of video game where you use both hands and both feet so that they can see how coordinated you are and above all what your scope for progress is,” Alicia explains. “Given that I had no flying experience at all I had tremendous scope for progress,” she giggles. Of the four people retained for this test, she was the only girl and the only one to pass! “The three boys all had quite a lot of flying experience but I think that gave them preconceptions which might have been a handicap to their progress,” she muses. She works with one of them today: he became an army meteorologist!
Two more days of tests followed, including a tough medical. After jumping through all these hoops, if the army doesn't actually need new pilots at that particular moment, well, you get put on a waiting list! But Alicia was immediately whisked off to spend four months at the Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan army officers' training facility in Brittany. She was the only woman amongst the 10 trainee pilots “but as I'd already been in the reserves I knew more about the military aspect, stuff like marching, than my nine colleagues did, so in fact I was the one who could explain things to them!” None ever gave her a hard time “but then I love the military [life-style]” she says simply.
She concedes, however, that “a woman does have to find her place in the army. We're more observed simply because there are fewer of us so we're more visible.” She draws an interesting parallel: “it's just like men training to be nurses. They stick out because they are a minority so people remember them!”
After basic army training at Saint-Cyr, Alicia went to Dax in south-west France for her 18-month pilot training course. “That was much more difficult because I had no theoretical background in aerospace at all so I found it really, really hard.” After passing the final theory exam she was able to actually learn to fly a helicopter. “We flew every day and were marked for every flight so you have to be good, every single day.” At the end of their training the young pilots are qualified as civilian helicopter pilots and are assigned to fly transport helicopters or combat helicopters depending on their abilities. “You generally stay in that category: it's extremely unusual to change,” she remarks.
With their civilian qualification in hand, the young pilots then move 750km due east to Le Cannet des Maures where they spend two years obtaining their military qualification. Alicia does not once mention any issues with harassment. “Society is changing,” she says, “and nobody says they would rather fly with a man than with a woman. I think that we are complimentary,” she continues “because I, and other female pilots, have qualities that men don’t have, such as being smoother and more precise in general with our aircraft handling.”
She's been on exercise to Lebanon and will deploy to Djibouti in mid-October but what is day-to-day life like?Different depending on whether the day is a flight day or not. “Sometimes we might fly every day and then stay grounded for a week. The flight basically takes all day because first you have to prepare for the flight and revise the basics; it then takes up to an hour to check the aircraft, then we do the flight and have a debrief after. And on non-flight days there are all the other jobs to do!” Alicia explains.
All army helicopter pilots sign a contract for 10 years after qualifying so Alicia will be 32 when her contract comes up for renewal. For the moment she can't imagine doing anything else. “This career seemed totally inaccessible to somebody like me, but if I managed then anyone could!” she laughs. In 10 years time Alicia expects to be still in the army “but perhaps also be a mother, married. I'd really like to make my professional and private lives compatible,” she says thoughtfully.
* Her surname is withheld to conform with French Armed Forces Ministry security regulations