Vivacious, bubbly and never one to shy away from a challenge, Mercé Marti’s zest for life is infectious. Having lived and worked in countries around the world, she has run her own aviation businesses in the US and Spain, served as a commercial as well as air racing pilot, and worked as a television and radio reporter covering aviation. Her passion for flying has seen her declared among the 100 Greatest Spanish Adventurers of all time by La Revista, the El Mundo newspaper’s Sunday supplement. Meanwhile, her accolades as an air racing pilot include winning the 1994 Round the World Air Race, breaking three world speed records on Asian and North American routes and becoming the first non-American woman to compete in the Formula 1 Reno Air Race in the US.
Life threw Mercé a curve ball early on, when as a keen sportswoman at school she had her heart set on pursuing a career as a sports coach.
“Back then in the mid 80s, it was difficult securing a place at university to study sports and having failed a test I had a year out before I could reapply,” she says.
Not wanting to waste her year out, Mercé decided to head to the US to study English at Oklahoma City University.
“I literally arrived at the airport with $25 and a piece of paper explaining in English where I needed to get to. My life has been a whirlwind ever since that point,” she recalls.
Once in the US, Mercé discovered that achieving her pilot’s licence would be easier and cheaper than in Europe. Some three years later she had turned her back on pursuing a sports degree and instead had achieved her private, commercial and twin-engine pilot licences. Soon after, alongside one of her fellow students, Mercé decided to open an aviation academy, Cardinal Wings, in Kentucky.
“It was a question of stay where we were and work for the academy we had trained at, or open our own training facility,” she reveals, explaining that the pair settled in Louisville, Kentucky as that was where her business partner lived. Although it has since been sold on to new owners, Cardinal Wings is still going today.
When Mercé’s US visa expired she decided to return to Spain where she worked as a co-pilot for a major cargo company flying a Fairchild Metroliner, before joining Spanair, for whom she flew an MD-80.
“It was during this period that I discovered air racing and decided to get involved in the Round the World Air Race,” she says. She was introduced to a Swedish pilot who was already competing but in need of a co-pilot and in 1994, the pair won the race, making Mercé at the age of 25 the first Spanish person to fly 33,500km around the world in 92 hours and 27 minutes in a Cessna C-210P.
Admitting that ultimately she felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole working for a commercial airline, Mercé decided to take up air racing full time. She has since competed in numerous events, including the Formula 1 Air Race in Reno, the Air Race of the Americas in which she was declared a runner up in 1996, the 2002 Great Hawaiian Air Race, the 2002 US Air Race and the 2010 Royal Aero Club of England Air Race. Other aviation exploits have also seen her organise and fly a discovery expedition in a 1944 Fairchild aircraft travelling all over West Africa.
When quizzed about what skills make a good air racing pilot, Mercé is quick to respond.
“It’s a combination of many things, but the most important qualities for me are passion and determination. Being able to stay calm and focused under pressure is also key, especially in something like the Reno Air Race where you have eight aircraft flying at speed anywhere between 100 ft to 300 ft above the ground. You also need to be physically fit and put in the training, both on the ground and in terms of flying practice.”
Not content with snapping up air racing trophies around the world, in 1997 Mercé decided to take up yet another challenge, establishing Infinit Air in Barcelona to organise and participate in air racing events. In 2000, she expanded the businesses’ activities to incorporate aerial photography and surveillance work as well as tourist flights. Although a change in the law meant that without an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) Infinit Air had to stop offering tourist flights in 2008, the business has gone from strength to strength.
“When I started out some people thought I was crazy as a woman setting up an aviation business in Spain, but 21 years later and I’m still in business,” she says proudly.
Infinit Air currently has a fleet of three Vulcanair Observer 2 aircraft, which are specially designed for observation, surveillance, patrol, filming and photography. The other aircraft is a Piper Twin Comanche, which Mercé uses for competitions and racing, as well as for promotional flights.
As for difficulties she’s come up against being a woman in what is typically considered a male dominated sector, Mercé says:
“It hasn’t always been easy being a woman in aviation, but for the most part I’ve found it empowering. Once you’re in the cockpit, it really doesn’t matter what gender you are. Some people might have claimed that I won the first air race back in 1994 because I was flying with a male co-pilot. But my response to them was ‘okay the next race I’ll compete with a female pilot,’ which I did for the Race of the Americas. I know what I’m capable of and am not afraid to show people that.”
Referencing her own aviation idols, Mercé underlines the importance of celebrating women in aviation.
“There have been so many female pioneers that have played an integral role in aviation’s history, such as Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson and Jacqueline Cochran. We need to make sure they remain visible to inspire the next generation and that we celebrate their achievements.”
In addition, Mercé notes that Air bp has also earned a well-deserved place in aviation history.
“It gives me confidence when refuelling that Air bp has been involved in this sector for more than 90 years and has been a trusted brand building its reputation on safe, reliable fuelling services throughout that period. And on a personal note, as a general aviation pilot Air bp’s extensive fuelling network across Europe is key. After all, no fuel no flight…”
It’s fair to say that Mercé herself has also earned her place in aviation’s history book. “It’s impossible for me to pick out my greatest achievement. Where would I start? I have had so many great experiences.” she says laughing. “I’ve had a rich and adventure-filled life so far, but I have no intention of stopping just yet. I will continue living life to the full whether I’m in the sky or on the ground,” she concludes, admitting that recently she’s also taken up motorbike and car racing. But that’s a story for another time…
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