Many people would call her story extraordinary, and with good reason. Chief flying instructor of fixed-wing at ETPS in the UK, Isabelle de Montet-Guerin, has enjoyed a long and varied career with roles that have included working as a pilot for British Airways on the Boeing 757 and 767 and as a test pilot for Airbus at the facility in Toulouse.
During her tenure at Airbus, she accrued more than 2,200 hours of experimental flight test time as a class B pilot and was involved in the development of the Airbus A320 neo, A330 neo, A350, and A380. Her specialization in flight testing extends to an expertise in electronic warfare, and she has also been involved with gliding with the Air Training Corps and worked with the air cadets.
So, how did she build such a rich and diverse career?
Isabelle, also known as ‘Izzy’, says: “The way that things have worked out for me have been often quirks of fate, though I’ve taken huge, calculated risks. But I think that’s an important thing to say, that taking calculated risks and weighing all the options before making any decision is a good way of moving forward if you want to have an unusual career.”
This spark of innovative thinking, as well as her approach to aviation and life, was inspired by the aviation stories passed on to her by her late father. In particular, she enjoyed stories of her father’s escapades in the Royal Air Force when he was a fighter pilot.
“My father always said that he would like me to at least try flying. So, after he passed, it seemed like there was no better time and we were lucky to have enough money for a trial flying lesson which, back in the day, I still remember was £83.66. It’s a lot more now isn’t it!”
She adds: “That was it, I was bitten by the aviation bug. It was from that day on that I really resolved to have a job in the aviation industry and I’m just lucky that it’s worked out the way it has.”
Her inspiration and courage to tackle aviation also stemmed from the influence of “three lovely ladies”, says Isabelle.
“My mum has been a wonderful support and everything that I’ve done so far I’ve done with the support of my mum, not just financially, but also from a human perspective. She’s always maintained my morale and said, keep your eyes on that distance star, you can do anything you want.”
The other two “ladies” are from further afield: Jacqueline Auriol, who was the first French female test pilot and the first French lady to break the sound barrier, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut in 1963.
Taking to the skies
Meanwhile, Isabelle’s first exposure to flight came within the Air Training Corps where she met a vibrant and supportive group of people whose focus and input propelled many of the next generation into careers in aviation. Subsequent to her time with the Corps, her tenure with British Airways began, where she was immersed in yet another environment that hinged on bringing out the best from their people.
“I was lucky, as again within British Airways it was a very supportive and protective environment for new people, not just females, but I think that British Airways do a very good job at bringing the best out in their people.”
It was at British Airways that Isabelle flew the Boeing 737 on training, out of London Gatwick, and later put in a bid for the 757 and the 767 during which she completed 757 conversion courses. Isabelle admits that this was her happiest time within commercial aviation. “It was a delight to fly, the route structure was fantastic, the people were fantastic. I stayed on the 757 and a 767 until the end of my time in BA which was in 2010.”
Isabelle’s journey as a test pilot began with a Class B test pilot course at ETPS in 2010, which she self-funded from her savings.
“When I talk about calculated risk, taking the course was a massive gamble. There weren’t many jobs in flight testing to go into as a civilian upon graduation, which of course was not guaranteed as you have to reach a standard. The civilian is then almost required to go on a job search and do job hunts which is what I did. I went to Farnborough in 2010 following my graduation in June and I literally went to every pavilion with CVs and cover letters and made a right pain out of myself with all the manufacturers that were there. But off of the back of that, I got four interviews face to face, and two offers to do some kind of flying. One was with FR Aviation, and the other was with Airbus. And luckily both of those yielded jobs.”
Shortly after, this led to her tenure with Airbus as a Class B test pilot, where 50% of her time was spent on experimental flights and the remaining 50% on production.
“I was in test flying first flights of production aircraft where I was involved in the development of the A320 neo A330 neo A350 A380.” Isabelle admits that of all the aircraft she’s flown, she favors the A330.
“I absolutely adored A330, specifically the 300, because it was more of a challenge to fly than the other Airbus types and it’s just a beautiful airplane to look at. I know that it’s probably not a conventional thing to talk about the art as well as the science of it, but it’s got a beautiful wing cross-section. I really enjoyed flying the bigger types that were somewhat less modern, perhaps because more pilot-in-the-loop decisions were required. Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed the A330.”
At this stage in her career, Isabelle says that despite her venturing into multiple intricate projects which challenged her aptitudes, her development and progression was always centered on reaching an endpoint. Referring to her current role as an experimental test pilot at ETPS, she says: “Fitting it all in, that was never the goal, it was always to get to an endpoint, and this is my endpoint. I’m very content with where I’ve got to now and it was always the goal to get somewhere like here. Whether that was in the Air Force or in civilian aviation, or maybe even in aerospace.”
Looking to the future and next generation of pilots, Isabelle believes that one’s pursuit of opportunities and jobs should always be done with consideration to human qualities such as empathy, sympathy, and understanding people’s constraints. In bringing up the next generation of test pilots, she says: “It’s about fostering the best qualities that we want to see in a test pilot. So that integrity, that philosophical approach, the incremental approach, the questioning mindset.”
That questioning mindset is something Izzy will encourage all pilots to adopt and it has clearly served her well throughout her successful career. It will be interesting to see what comes next, but whatever features on her future flightpath, we know that this is one pilot who brings together the kind of empathy, logic and integrity that results in an inspirational and impactful career.