Pilot Catherine Maunoury: “Aerobatics is the reason I learnt to fly.”
The famous faces that have been reflected in the highly polished wood panelling of aerobatics pilot Catherine Maunoury’s office are the stuff of legend. Heroes and heroines of aviation have shared their stories within these walls and as President of the Aéro Club de France, Maunoury has a duty to keep those tales alive, whilst upholding the spirit of progress that the club has embodied since its foundation.
But how did the career of this energetic leader take off? Here in this historical setting, a stone’s throw from Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, Maunoury shares her own story…
Becoming a pilot
Daughter and sister to pilots, it was not commercial air travel that captured this dynamic young person’s heart. Fascinated by aviation from the age of eight, her father’s friend – the fighter pilot turned aerobatics instructor Marcel Charollais – ignited a different spark in this young girl:
“I learned to fly for one reason: aerobatics.”
Like many pilots, a young Catherine Maunoury took her pilot’s licence before she was able to drive a car. Encouraged by her father, she took lessons and went solo aged 15 after just five hours, feeling the intensity of space as she rose above the earth: “I sang for the whole fifteen minutes!” she recalls with a grin.
With a gallic shrug, she reminds us that “statistically, it’s a very safe way to travel,” but acknowledges that all the same, it was a nerve-wracking experience watching her own children take to the skies for the first time.
“Everything I have done since, I have chosen to do for fun, not with any sense of a future career. My pilot’s licence and my philosophy studies - both were purely for my own interest.”
She believes strongly that people should be allowed to choose their own direction in life. Her two children have not followed her or her husband, the late Dominique Maunoury (architect, painter and aerobatic pilot), into the world of flight. This, despite having watched their mother compete on the French aerobatics team and win numerous titles including not one, but two female World Champion titles.
Maunoury explains that the accidental death of a family friend and pilot may have affected the children: “They stayed in the hangar at competitions. At the time, I thought they weren’t interested, but in retrospect maybe they couldn’t watch me fly.”
Life on the French team
Fear is something aerobatic pilots manage to compartmentalise. Maunoury continued to train and compete on the French team for twenty years as her children were growing up.
She explains that aerobatic flying is a bit like ski racing: “A change of just a few degrees in your manoeuvre, and you’ve lost!” Any tiny deviation from the plan means the difference between success and failure. “Unless your opponents all make mistakes too,” she jokes.
What qualities make a successful aerobatics champion? “For this sport, it is all in the mind. You must be quick as well as tenacious and patient, to accept the injustice of losing.”
It is often the case that in other sports, ageing becomes a hindrance. In aerobatics, it is the opposite: years of experience finally pay off. Maunoury was 34 when she won her first FAI World Championships in 1988 in Canada, flying a Sirius 230. It took over ten years of patient training to win her second (in a Cap 232) in 2000, gradually climbing back up towards the podium year after year.
“I won the female titles but in air sports, there is actually very little physical difference between male and female pilots. Not like in tennis, for example. Physical resistance is important, and in fact there was a study showing that test pilots with a larger mass react more to the g-force than those – like women – with a smaller mass, at say, 400km/h.”
Maunoury is quick to add that aerobatics is not an individual sport, it’s a team sport: “You have to be good at listening. To the mechanic, the doctor, everyone.” It is the small details that are all important at a competition, there are many factors affecting the outcome. She admires the FAI judges whose attention has to be 100% focused and fair: “It’s not something I could do!”
The Russian and US teams were close rivals during her competition years. “These countries are so big, cohesive training is harder. We had a close team, we worked together and it paid off.”
Despite retiring from competition, Maunoury certainly did not retire from air sports. She turned towards instruction and organisational roles, becoming in 2010, the first female Director of France’s Museum of Air and Space in Paris. “It’s a special place, because the historical part sits alongside the Paris-Bourget airport, so visitors can see aviation ‘in action’, something different to a lot of other museums.” A desire to bring aviation to life was integral to her ethos, just as it has been during her tenure at the Aéro Club de France, a role to which she was first elected in 2016.
Does she still fly? “Yes! I share an EXTRA 300 LP with a friend.” Not only that, but she also continues to represent her country. Maunoury is part of the Patrouille aerobatics display unit for the Aero Club of France. The current team are all gold medal holders. “If we are not being modest, then we say we are the most decorated team ever,” she confides with a smile.
Playing her part in France’s rich aviation history is evidently a source of pride for this dynamic woman, who cites legendary female pilots Jacqueline Auriol and Adrienne Bolland as her heroines.
Balancing history and future
One of the eight founder members of FAI, the French Aero Club has existed since 1898 and has been located in its current building, for just under 100 years. The organisation honours the starring role it has played in the history of national and international aeronautics.
In 2023, preserving and communicating this remarkable heritage is the duty of two of the fourteen commissions: one concentrates on History, Art and Letters; another, Heritage, to safeguard physical aircraft, trophies, estates...
Yes, this national aero club exists as a custodian of France’s aeronautical legacy, “but not only that!” declares Maunoury, the first female president of this prestigious organisation, “We are here to bring aviation to life, to promote air sports long into the future.”
Renewable energy in aviation is a hot topic. In late November, the Aero Club hosted the 2023 Air and Space Innovation Awards to celebrate the achievements of new projects using solar and electric energy, and harnessing technology capabilities. Progress is clearly a major focus for the organisation.
Other commissions cover Environment, Innovation, Disability and Youth and Education. “We have a project called Cap sur l’avenir (‘Destination: future’) which targets youth participation in air sports and aviation, and supports education/training organisations with a particular focus on decarbonisation, democratisation and safety. Events are extremely well attended.” she enthuses.
Who knows, perhaps one of these young pilots will end up taking her seat in the presidential office one day in the future?
Balancing heritage and innovation is no easy task, but if anyone can navigate between history and future, an aerobatics pilot can.