By Frédéric Lert
The last three Alouette 3 of the French Navy will be definitively retired on December 31. A few days ahead of time, this end of career was celebrated by 34F squadron at Lanvéoc Poulmic naval air base.
1962-2022: the count is good! 60 years of career and retirement at an age much higher than that of certain categories of people in France… 60 years for a helicopter is a long time, and it is not easy to determine whether or not this canonical age for a military machine is something to celebrate. Nevertheless, the Alouettes have shown exceptional availability until the last minute, even if their maintenance was becoming more and more expensive.
Since its entry into service in the Navy, the Alouette has been used in a large number of missions, both on land and on board ships: search and rescue, surveillance, “Pedro” on board aircraft carriers, light transport, anti-submarine warfare, liaison, etc. It has been used for the training of aircrews and for the training of aircrew. It was used for pilot training within the 22S squadron until 2018. Since then, the training work has been entrusted to the Dauphin. When the Alouette will be retired, there will only be twin-engine aircraft left in the Navy, and continuing training on such an old single-engine aircraft did not make sense anymore. So, training work is over, but in the last few years, Lanvéoc was still involved in surveillance missions for submarines stationed at Ile Longue, embarkations and distant deployments.
A few weeks ago, one of the last three Alouettes in service was still in operation, embarked on the BCR (Bâtiment de Commandement et de Ravitailment) La Somme during the Silent Wolverine exercise organized around the battle group of the USS Ford, the new US Navy aircraft carrier. It would have been interesting to see the Alouette, one of NATO’s oldest helicopters, land on the latest US Navy aircraft carrier. But this was not the case: “We scrupulously respected the 40-nautical bubble that surrounds the aircraft carrier,” explain the crews of the 34F. The Alouette was able to participate in logistical maneuvers between the ships involved and even in a medical evacuation.
Earlier in the year, another Alouette carried out the last long-term embarkation on the anti-submarine warfare frigate Latouche Tréville. There, it demonstrated one last time its simplicity of use and maintenance.”We can compare it to a 2CV of the air because everything is simple and everything is interchangeable on this helicopter, which makes it relatively easy to maintain, and we had enough spare parts to keep it going until now,” explained a non-commissioned officer to the Breton daily Le Télégramme.
Until the end of the year, the last three Alouettes will continue to serve the Navy, notably by monitoring the Brest Narrows during the entry and exit of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, the SNLE of the deterrent.
Up until now, the French Navy has had a total of 37 Alouette IIIs, in two versions: the SA316B and the SA319B, equipped for IMC (instrument flight control) as well as for ASW from Tourville class frigates, thanks to the carriage of two Mk-46 torpedoes. In sixty years, these aircraft have flown more than 330,000 hours.
In mid-December 2022, the last three in service are Alouette n°997 (which will be sent to the Rochefort museum), 161 and 302. Alouette n°997 is a celebrity, which is why it carries the special decoration designed by the 34F. It is the only one equipped with a radar which allowed it, for example, when it was embarked on the scientific ship Henri Poincaré and then on the Monge, to search for ballistic missile debris after test firings.
For a few more hours, the last eight pilots of the 34F squadron qualified on the Alouette will be able to enjoy flying an aircraft offering sensations like no other today, with a “buttocks” piloting and an extraordinary visibility. “It’s an old friend who is going to leave us,” summarized the 34F squadron.