My name is Laura, I grew up in France in the 1980’s, in a family that had no connection to the aviation industry. I caught the aviation bug through flight simulators, which paved my way into real world aviation.
When I was a teenager, my older brother brought home a copy of Flight Simulator 5.1 and I was instantly hooked. He was the only one in the family who had a PC powerful enough to run it, so I found myself begging for access to his computer so I could use the simulator. I remember it came with a thick booklet containing lots of information on how to fly planes, including things like VOR navigation.
A couple of years later, after spending a summer working at a warehouse job, I’d saved enough money to buy my first PC. came with the hardware to run Microsoft Flight Simulator 98. Despite the miserable frame rate, I spent a lot of time flying around the world, learning about navigation and flight planning.
Around this time, my family also got our first Internet connection. I regularly Altavista’ed questions about flight simulation and stumbled upon a vast world of sceneries and plane add-ons for Microsoft Flight Simulator. Eventually, I downloaded the Scenery SDK and started building my own scenery packages, which mainly represented the area around my hometown of Lyon, France. A user reached out to thank me for modeling their airport just south of Lyon, and offered me a ride in a Cessna 172.
It took a bit of convincing to get my parents to let me go ahead with this, but they eventually agreed to accompany me to the airport and fly with my new friend. It was an eye-opening experience. After this flight, I knew had to get my private pilot’s license (PPL). My main problem was raising the money I would need to fund my training. It took me a couple of years, but eventually I sold enough scenery packages for Microsoft Flight Simulator that I was able to pay for my training.
Initially, I trained on a Cessna 152, then a mix of PA-28 and DR-400. I got my license in August 2001 after an excruciating 3 hour flight with a flight examiner who had a reputation of being the toughest in Southeast France. At one of the airports we diverted to during that flight, I remember him telling me I could have a good career in the airline industry. I told him my ambitions were more in the computer science field, and that I viewed flying as a fun project, not as a job. He said it was too bad.
In 2002, I moved to Paris for engineering school. Around that time I started working on a flight simulator project in my spare time. This was a testbed for me to experiment with programming until I moved to California to work for NVIDIA. A friend and I made this project a commercial product. It took us a couple years to create version 1 of Infinite Flight, which came out on Windows Phone in 2011, iOS in 2012, and finally Android in 2013.
We now have a team of a dozen people working on the project, including engineers, community managers, and graphic artists. We feature an online multiplayer mode that has gathered a large following of virtual and real world pilots from diverse backgrounds. The entire team works from their homes. My day job includes flight physics, multiplayer code, and user interface. Flight physics is by far my favorite part. Taking a plane from the 3D Artists and making it fly by reading flight manuals, gathering pilot feedback, and hours of flight testing is so much fun.
In parallel, my real world love affair with aviation grew much bigger in California. A friend I met at NVIDIA introduced me to tailwheel flying. He convinced me to try one flight with his instructor, Lou, a Navy Veteran with tens of thousands of flight hours and just as many insane war flying stories. Lou was based in Oakland and flew a 1940’s Aeronca Champ. That plane was raw, underpowered, and downright scary, but so much fun to fly.
I got hooked by tailwheel flying after this experience and got my endorsement shortly after on a Citabria 7ECA. I’ve pretty much been flying tailwheel airplanes ever since, despite the fact that club of which I was a member had a sizable fleet of G1000 C172’s, which appealed to the nerd in me. Regardless, stick and rudder is what I was always drawn to.
But my story isn’t as straightforward as it may initially appear. Until 2016, my name was not Laura. After struggling with gender issues for 30 years – and helped by testimonies of many others before me – I decided to undergo gender transition. In the years since, I’ve found myself in an endless number of situations that have demonstrated to me the difference in the ways men and women are treated. Transitioning at the intersection of three male dominated worlds – aviation, computer engineering, and flight simulation – I sometimes see myself as a control group of one. I’m the same person, same set of skills, same upbringing. But I’m treated differently now. My experience may be anecdotal, but it’s worth talking about.
Post-transition, I sometimes feel a bit guilty when I’m credited with accomplishments like starting my own company, having a pilot license, and flying planes. Guilty because I had it easy. No doors were closed to me, there was no invisible ceiling to crash through. No one had any doubts was when I wanted to start a project. I didn’t have to face any social pressures based on gender stigma. While it’s hard to tell where I’d be today had I transitioned earlier, evidence points to the fact that I might have had to push harder to open the same doors.
One of many stories that hint at those difficulties happened at EAA Airventure in Oshkosh. Although I have attended this event for many years, last year I brought a colleague along to help. Our mission was to explore what it would take to book a booth at the show the following year.
Friends at the NGPA offered us a couple of hours of booth space to use to meet with members of the Infinite Flight community who’d come to Oshkosh. While at the booth, a gentleman in his early twenties approached my colleague, Jason. After trying Infinite Flight, he started asking technical questions about the flight model.
Jason is our digital marketing person, so he called me to join the conversation. The flight model was the first building block I designed back in 2004. As I answered the question, I noticed that the man was looking at Jason, and addressing all his subsequent questions to him. Jason kept directing him back to me, saying “well, again, Laura’s the developer… so you want to ask her the questions.” This went on for two or three questions, until I decided to leave the conversation.
I had a similar experience at a booth at FlightSimExpo in Las Vegas. The company in the booth next to ours had installed full size cockpits and used “booth babes” to assist attendees with getting in and out of the cockpits.
During a downtime, we had a discussion about how this reflected poorly on women in general, especially at a show where the majority of the attendees identified as males. While I have nothing against the “booth babes” themselves – all power to them for making a living – I questioned what it said about how the roles of men and women were viewed within the industry. I pointed out to my colleagues that people who first walked by our neighbors’ booth would come to ours and assume that I was the girl handing out ipads to attendees. Some of my colleagues expressed skepticism. But only five minutes later, a gentleman who appeared to be in his 50s or 60s came to the booth and asked in a tone that made me feel out of place: “Hi, so…are you also into aviation?” I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember how invalidating it felt.
But my reply in these situations is such a pleasure. I take a deep breath and say: “Actually, I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of the company, I work on the flight physics, multiplayer, database, and UI. Would you like to try the app?” And I do it all with a smile on my face. I’d like to think that every time this happens, I’m breaking a little bit of the glass ceiling. But it’s also interesting to note that now, every time I write this, I feel as if I’m bragging, something that I didn’t feel before I transitioned.
These two stories represent only a fragment of what I’ve experienced since I transitioned. They and many other situations have been enlightening. Hearing similar stories from other women and members of other minority groups is touching, but living them makes the experience much stronger and real. I’m hopeful though. Times are changing, and I hope the work we do at Infinite Flight can be a conduit for this change.
While the community is largely male-dominated, we do everything we can to help women get into aviation via flight simulation. This includes reaching out to women who may have an interest in aviation and making the 3D models of pilots in the sim women. And of course, have them seated on the left side of the cockpit. In the TBM we released last year, the pilot has a great fashion sense too, sporting a Kate Spade-inspired t-shirt with a bow. This triggered a discussion within our community. But that’s OK. We have planes with male pilots and I want everyone who plays Infinite Flight to see themselves represented in the sim, too. The plane that came out after the TBM was the A-10, and the pilot was a person of color. Happy to report no one made a fuss about it.
We’ve already had a few parents tell us their daughters are starting to use Infinite Flight and I encourage other parents and women who would like to get into flight simulation to reach out to us. Doing our part to inspire the next generation of women pilots is something of which we couldn’t be more proud.
It’s important to me to tell my story because I believe that when underrepresented people are trying to break into an industry, seeing a member of their community succeeding really helps them believe they deserve to be there as well. From my personal experience, seeing transgender women in business, aviation, and science helped me realize it was OK to be myself and live authentically.