Airbus Helicopters’ Flight Test Engineer Anne Ducarouge is a serial winner, having thrice won the world gliding championships. Rotor takes a short break from helicopters to find out what it takes to be the best at flying an aircraft with no engine.

“It’s amazing to hear the Marseillaise playing at a world championship and know that it’s playing thanks to you.” Anne Ducarouge is sharing the memory of the first time she was crowned world champion. Having won the first of her world titles in 2013, Anne repeated the feat in 2015 and again last year - making her the reigning World Gliding Champion, amassing a collection of medals that will “take a little time for someone to beat”.

Competitive gliding has two forms, aerobatics and racing – neither is for the faint of heart. Ducarouge excels at the latter, which often sees dozens of gliders manoeuvring for position within the tight confines of the thermals they require to keep them airborne. “The weather is our fuel so we have to rely on what we can find in terms of thermals or lifts. You have to be completely aware of your environment when you’re thermaling. You need to know where your competitors are and position yourself in relation to them. It’s quite intense.”

Glider in flight

The lure of the sky

The idea of flying captivated Anne from an early age but she initially had some barriers to overcome. “As a teenager, I wanted to fly but it was not possible. As soon as I joined the Ecole Polytechnic, the first thing I did was organise a first flight for my class when we were doing our military basic training in Barcelonette. It was really the beginning of my passion for flying.”

At first, gliding was merely a convenient way to take to the skies. “I had heard that it was cheaper to learn with gliders – so I always had that in mind.” However, following her first flight, she made impressive progress leading her to compete. “In one year, I went from zero to doing 300km and then when I started competing I won my first women’s nationals.” Around this time, the first world championship for women was organised, a French women’s team was created and as national champion, Anne’s place was secured. In her first international competition she finished third, taking home the first of what would be a record seven medals, three of which are gold.

Seeing the earth from the sky

Not winging it

Of course being an elite pilot with the drive to constantly improve and nerveless precision has some overlap with her day job. In a gliding race, pilots must complete circuits of at least 300km but sometimes as much as 800km, staying focused for hours at a time. “To win, you must be precise on your trajectories – gliding is essentially trajectories – be smooth on the controls and turn well,” notes Ducarouge. “Recently we were flight testing weapons and I had to fly the helicopter whilst firing, following a trajectory and set procedures, so my gliding experience was definitely an advantage.”

Ducarouge also recognises the importance role models have in terms of encouraging more people into the sport and understands that her story can play an important part in creating the next generation of female pilots. “With gliding it’s nice to be able to compete with men. I recently competed in an event with 120 pilots and I placed in the top 10, yet I was the only woman in the competition.” Indeed, she hopes that increasing the visibility of women’s sporting success will lead to more women taking part in all sports and feels a sense of pride whenever she see women compete.

Her main target is simply to continue doing something that she loves “The feeling that I got when I flew for the first time, I still feel today and it’s just that flying is magic. It’s always amazing to see the earth from the sky and I still have this sense of wonder when I’m gliding. As human beings, we obviously don’t have wings, so flying in a glider is probably one of the closest ways to flying naturally that we have.”

*This article was originally published in Rotor Magazine - Airbus Helicopters' customer magazine. If you would like to subscribe, please click here