Orchestrating a high-flying career in the air and on the ground

Sophia Lazarou is making history

Sophia Lazarou attended her first Avalon Airshow in 2007 as a student volunteer, now she’s back to direct the whole show.

Making history as the first female Ringmaster at the highly anticipated Avalon Airshow for 2023, airline pilot Sophia Lazarou, known as Soph, hopes to be one of many in the future.

“I hoped I wouldn’t be the first!” she says. “I’d love to see younger women learning more about aviation and being mentored like I was to come into the role.”

So, what exactly is a Ringmaster? Soph explains that a ‘Ringmaster’ is a title only used in Australia and is known in the UK as a Flying Display Director. They are responsible for the direction and coordination of an air show to ensure its smooth and, most importantly, safe execution.

Soph is one of only a handful of female Ringmasters in the world and credits her volunteer experience at the 2007 Airshow for starting her on the path to achieving the role.

“The people that I've met through volunteering at the Airshow really have helped my career. They were a diverse group of people and opened my eyes to different areas of aviation that I didn’t even know existed.”

Returning for the first time since 2019, the Avalon Airshow is an international aerospace and defence exhibition held at Avalon Airport in Geelong. As the largest event of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, the Airshow is a fixture on Victoria’s major events calendar, attracting over 200,000 spectators to witness dynamic flying displays, view local and international military aircraft and learn about the latest advancements in aviation and aerospace technology.

Growing up in Richmond, and attending Methodist Ladies’ College, Soph's journey to the skies began with Year 10 work experience at RMIT Point Cook where she experienced a flight simulator and “loved it ever since”.

At 16, Soph was the first female recipient of the RAAF Association/Exxon Mobil Flying Training Scholarship where she received her pilots license to fly solo and regularly practiced by flying her Mum around the airport before school.

After considering careers as an astronaut, professional musician, and engineer, Soph decided to pursue life in the flight deck and studied aviation at Swinburne University of Technology. She has since worked at Jetstar, flown for Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, and is currently a pilot for Qantas.

To become a Ringmaster, Soph completed training in the US and UK and has directed multiple air shows that have attracted tens of thousands of spectators.

“There was such a beauty in the diversity of the shows in the UK, of both the performers and people who attended. I’m excited for Avalon to engage with those people and to bring the crews back on stage.”

A pivotal moment in her path to Airshow 2023 was meeting and flying with the first female Red Arrows (Royal Air Force Aerobatic UK team) pilot.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she says. “So, to see another woman doing that was really inspiring.” Soph explains that diversity is something she admires in the space industry and what she hopes to see more of in aviation.

“Space is so diverse already, being such a new industry in Australia. There is great representation and it’s something we’re not used to seeing within aviation.”

“And the diversity of not just gender, it's the diversity of age, race, background, cultural background. And I think Victoria does that so well. It is so open and welcoming to everybody. It’s home.”

A big focus at this year’s Airshow will be the space displays, which Soph is eager for audiences to see. “Space is what we want to make it and that’s going to be cool to see at Avalon this year. You’ll see a huge push towards unpiloted aircraft in our drone tent and so much about the future of aviation being in space.”

This year, there will be increased interaction between pilots and spectators, providing a hands-on, interactive experience.

“Avalon will have that public connection with flying crews, they’ll bring it to a realistic level for people who may think ‘that’s too scary and I can’t do it’”.

In between planning flying schedules, validating displays and logging paperwork, Soph is looking forward to the Qantas x Air Force Women-Led Formation Flight on Friday 3 March, piloted and crewed by women.

“You’ll see women flying the big Qantas jets and RAAF Fast jets, getting the crews on the ground to be visible and seen to young audiences.”

She shares that it’s important for women in leadership to show vulnerability, “you don’t have to be stoic – accept that mistakes will be made and get comfortable with the fact that things will go wrong. It’s all about how you manage them.”

“It’s hard [as a woman] to be in a male-dominated industry, but the more of us there are and the more we are comfortable to be ourselves, the better it will make it for everyone.”

Her advice for young women hoping to carve out a career in STEM? “Nothing is outside your reach, even if you don’t quite have the right experience. Go for it, get experience along the way, and you’ll surprise yourself with what you achieve.”

Avalon Airshow 2023 lifts off this weekend, 3 – 5 March at Avalon Airport, Geelong  ✈️