Alouette III: Triumph and Tragedy

The Alouette III appears incredibly fragile, however it has proved itself on numerous occasions. The contrast between this mechanical insect and the imposing mountain is stunning. The pleasure of floating above the world, crossing slopes, ridges, cols and glaciers in the blink of an eye.

Sikorsky 58 wreck on Mont Blanc

Helicopters have revolutionized the technique of mountain rescue. It makes most operations extremely rapid and effective.

Winter 1956 saw the first dramatic attempt at helicopter rescue in France. It was Christmas. Two climbers, Vincendon and Henry were trapped at 4000 meters on the Grand Plateau on Mont Blanc. Suffering from snow blindness with extreme frost bite they were probably beyond help. After a number of failed attempts the Army sent a Sikorsky helicopter. The pilots had never attempted to land on snow at altitude. Equipped with a piston engine the aircraft slowly lost power as it climbed. The rescue mission was a last desperate roll of the dice for a team at the end of its tether. The pilots, blinded by snow thrown up by the down draft, crash landed. The rescuers now themselves had to be rescued. After a terrible climb to the Vallot refuge they were picked-up by an Alouette II. The stricken Sikorsky became Vincendon and Henry’s tomb. There bodies were only recovered in February 1957.

In the wake of failed mission mountain rescue was put on a more professional footing in France with bases established the following year at le Versoud near Grenoble and at Chamonix. Equipped with the Alouette II, a versatile machine powered by jet turbine that enables pilots to conquer the problems encountered in the high mountains but not without difficulty. Air currents created between cold north faces and warm sunny slopes make landing delicate, acrobatic. Flat landing spots are rare. Many times pilots have managed to touch down a single skid on an outcrop, rotors meters away from rock faces, in order to snatch a injured climber from the jaws of death. That constant battle with gravity and the elements has not been without victims.

On the 2nd of August 1957 the Alouette II of the Gendarmerie was on a rescue mission over Mont Blanc. It was 15h50. After evacuating an injured climber the pilot, Lt Collard, went back for his team of three. The copter lifted off with a full load at 2523 meters altitude. Following a loss of power the tail hit a rock, the aircraft spun out of control and exploded. Four bodies were pulled from the wreckage. They had paid with their own lives to rescue a man. Was it worth it? It is for everyone to find their own answer according to their heart. That accident showed the weakness of the underpowered and small Alouette II.

The Alouette III arrived on the scene in 1962. Designed for mountain rescue operations it has saved thousands of lives but new accidents lead to further improvements. On the 30th July 1962 an Alouette III of the Civilian Rescue Services evacuated a climber suffering from a broken leg from the Requin refuge in the Vallee Blanche During the flight the rear door, probably badly shut, came off and hit the main rotor causing a loss of control. The helicopter crashed landed but fortunately none of the crew were injured.  The means of locking the door was improved.

There were other near misses. Jean-Pierre Roca was on one of his last missions with the Civilan Rescue service based at le Versoud. A paraglider had crashed near the Pied Mouter in the Oisans range. Roca recalls a loud noise, he turned to see one of the rescue workers being dragged out of the helicopter. At the same time the aircraft lurched to the side and began to approach cliffs at high speed. Roca fought with the joystick but to little effect, at the last moment the helicopter pulled up. Looking below he saw that the paraglider’s safety parachute had opened while he was being winched. Fortunately the cord attaching the parachute had broken. When Roca returned to base at l’Alpe d’Huez he saw that the arm linking the winch to the aircraft was completely bent.

In the winter of 1993 the Alouette III from le Versoud was on a mission to find a missing couple in the Vercors. The crew explored a number of zones. The last stop was the cabin de Carrette. As the pilot, Alain Franjou attempted a skidded landing the front skid broke and cut the control lines. The helicopter began a somersault. In a split second Franjou hit the gas avoid total disaster, the helicopter came to rest on its side. On hearing the noise the missing couple came out of the cabin, avoiding death as parts of the helicopter’s transmission crashed into the roof of the building.

Despite these incidents the Alouette has an excellent safety record.

-- JJ Mollaret, Head of Chamonix Mountain Rescue during the 1960s
-- Interviews with aircrew

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 06 May, 2009 at 12:58 PM

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