You don’t get the best helicopter pilots meeting at the top of Western Europe every day! Airbus photographer Anthony Pecchi managed to round up three mountain pilot above the Mont Blanc for an exclusive photo shooting, CMBH’s Pascal Brun, Air Zermatt’s Gerold Binner and GMH’s Carlo Cugnetto, each at the controls of their respective Ecureuil B3.
The first helicopter landing on the “roof of France” dates from June 6th, 1955, when Jean Moine landed his stripped-down Bell 47, with mountain guide André Contamine in the passenger seat. This performance has been repeated many times ever since with other helicopters, nowadays by the French Gendarmerie and Sécurité Civile frequently printing the summit snow with their skids, but always keeping the engines running though. Apart from the public EC 145s, the French sector buzzes with many models of Ecureuils, among them the AS 350 B3s flown by CMBH, Savoie Hélicoptères, HeliMountains, Blugeon Hélicoptères or SAF, to name a few. The rotary wings presence is quite impressive in Savoy, a region rich in history when it comes to mountain flying for aerial works and tourism. These activities are very familiar to our three pilots who have accumulated tens of thousands of flying hours in this highly demanding area.
Let’s meet at Chamonix
Earlier in 2018, Airbus Helicopters’ photographer Anthony Pecchi decided to gather three renowned mountain pilots to celebrate the record Everest landing by Didier Delsalle (see insert), with France’s highest mountain in the background as the daily playground of French, Swiss and Italian pilots. And there was no need to beg them in! Meeting was set on September, 23rd 2017 for an exclusive photo shooting with one of Europe’s most beautiful scenery in the background. “I figured it would be a great idea to celebrate the anniversary of the Everest landing by gathering Didier Delsalle, Pascal Brun and Gerold Binner on the Mont Blanc. Unfortunately, due to his workload, Didier could not make it [author: he’s test pilot at Airbus and was flying an NH-90 that day]. I adjusted the project by calling three alpine pilots, each from their respective country in Ecureuil B3s. The main quality of these highly proficient guys is that you can ask them anything, they can deliver right away, no need for several takes. And that day, we had clear sky, the Sea of Ice glacier in the background, bright sun and nice exposure… the spot was Pascal’s idea, he’s quite familiar with the area.”
Anthony had no problem convincing the pilots to meet at Chamonix, “my target was to have everybody spend a great time all together, have these guys meet at last face to face instead of speaking through a radio while in flight. We mustered three Ecureuil teams for lunchtime, I was amongst people happy to meet and fly together, kids high on emotions and good vibes. I found true mountain pilots, a brotherhood of people raised the hard way who can fly anywhere with their perfectly tailored tool-of-the-trade. The Ecureuil is like their Swiss knife, a flying 4×4.”
After a serious briefing-lunch session, the team set up for the photo shooting. “Pascal dropped me on a ridge above the glacier, as planned during the briefing, and I started to place them by radio and hand signals. I wanted a picture that was really exceptional.” Everybody knows each other in the team, as Pascal Brun told us: “We were answering to Anthony’s call to make photos, nothing exceptional for us. He was the master of the show and he moved us around with his well-established skills. This is how we proceeded for the shooting, it did not take long because we know the drill. It was all very easy and simple and the result is outstanding. A good photographer, fantastic surroundings, well-decorated helicopters… gathering three cross-border mountain pilots carried a fine symbol to us. The three of us in our specialty, that made for a great picture. As Anthony had requested, we were all flying B3s, and in these ranges, the Alps for me and Carlo and the Cervin (Matterhorn) for Gerold, it takes a rugged machine to do the job. And the B3 and B3e [Author: now rebranded H125 by Airbus] are the gateway to altitude, helicopters that can take us to the top like what it being done nowadays in the Himalaya. There is no surprise with the B3, much less with the B3e.”
The perfect playground
Having accumulated over 14,600 flying hours, including 13,000 in Ecureuils, Pascal knows his machine by heart but he prefers to define himself as a proficient pilot rather than a test pilot: “We know our helicopter very well because we are seated in it hours every day and we feel it. But we don’t have this intimate technical knowledge like Didier’s, despite our many hours flying it. When I fly, I feel the machine right in my bottom, that’s why I really love my job. I have accumulated a fine experience throughout the years but what I love today, it’s not the technology – I leave this to the younger generation – it’s the craft. Like a carpenter who has the good tool in his hands to make a splendid wood piece: what he loves is what he can do with his tools. I am not seeking technology but he you hand it to me, that’s where I get the fun, like a kid, like with the B3e I fly today.”
No risk taking that day of September 2017, just a fine gathering of skills allowing this meeting to the top. Anthony’s eyes are still sparkling remembering this moment: “These guys are safe, you can do very interesting things with them. It really struck me that they are the perfect match with their helicopters, sturdy and efficient, guys spending 7 or 8 hours flying their machines. There was a powerful drive, full of various accents that day.”
PS: A huge thank you to Pascal Brun for his last minute assistance.
© Samuel Prétat – Nov 2018
Record flight on the Everest
On May 14th, 2005, Airbus test pilot landed his AS 350 B3 Ecureuil on the top of the world in Nepal, on the highest peak called Sagarmāthā, otherwise known as Mount Everest. His production helicopter, F-WQEX serial 3934, had been stripped of all its unnecessary fittings to make it as light as possible. Certified for a maximum ceiling of 23,000 feet, the helicopter landed on Mount Everest’s top at 29,029 feet, demonstrating a comfortable margin for high altitude operations with Airbus’ newest single-engine chopper.
Airbus test pilot then assigned to the B3 model, Delsalle had had this flight in mind for a long time and, after a lengthy and administratively complex process with the Nepalese authorities, the flight took place from Katmandu. Catching updrafts in the mountainous ranges, he managed to stick his skids in the snow of the summit during 3 minutes and 50 seconds by -35°C of temperature. This allowed the flight to be recorded by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.