Across the impressive green landscape of Austria, a high pitched screeching sound reverberates against the Alps. It doesn’t seem to worry two women walking a baby stroller on this sunny day. They’re not impressed as the sound comes even closer, only to be drowned out by the sound of a beautiful waterfall at the foot of a mountain called Grimming. The two local women know this waterfall, they know this mountain, and they know this high pitched screeching sound alright. It has been around for 47 years in Austria.
The sound is the familiar sound that lets everybody in the area know there’s an Alouette III helicopter about. It just took off from nearby Aigen-im-Enstall airbase for a training flight including winch operations next to the waterfall. It’s routine stuff for the pilots of Mehrzweckhubschrauberstaffel (utility helicopter squadron), who know the Alouette and the scenery surrounding Aigen-im-Enstall like the back of their hands. However, they also operate in theaters where they are less familiar, the ongoing mission in Bosnia being a prime example. During the May 2014 floods, Austrian Alouette and Black Hawk helicopters hoisted many dozens of trapped civilians to safety.
“It was constant hard work for our colleagues. They flew 60 hours in three days”, says Thomas Schönauer, an Alouette pilot with 1,500 flight hours, 2,100 high mountain landings and 800 winch operations under his name. “Three of our 15 Alouette pilots are now in Bosnia, and in Austria we also always have an Alouette and pilot standing by in Schwarz and Klagenfurt. These operations take a big hit on our squadron, and while it seems a bit quiet here at Aigen-im-Enstall, we’ve actually been very busy for a long time.”
Search and rescue (SAR) is perhaps the most important mission of the Sud Aviation / Aérospatiale Alouette III, of which the Austrian Bundesheer has 24, of which in turn 16 are part of Mehrzweckhubschrauberstaffel. “While the Alouette is of course an old design without autopilot and fancy avionics, it is actually very suited to the mission. It is a very reliable helicopter, and it’s max take-off weight of 2,200 kilograms – or 4,848 lbs – is plenty. It is also easy to maintain. We are quite independent and do almost all kinds of maintenance ourselves here at Aigen-im-Enstall”, says Schönauer as he points out a mechanic working on the Alouette’s 460 horsepower Turboméca Artouste IIIB turboshaft engine.
Austrian Alouettes can be found operating all over the Austrian Alps, involved in SAR, looking out for avalanche danger in wintertime and dropping explosives to trigger one, transporting military personnel from one base to the other or just doing VFR training across the famously impressive Austrian landscape. “We usually fly in the valleys and only go up the mountains when we really need to. Still, we are perhaps the most experienced in Europe when it comes to mountain flying. Crews from Germany, the UK and Ireland come over here to see how it’s done.”
Mountains cause problems when it comes to communications. The VHF and UHF transmission are blocked, and the Austrian Bundesheer is now starting to install digital radios in the Alouettes. Other modifications include new seats and a simple GPS. Also, the Alouettes are adapted for the use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG).
Austrian Alouettes have been around for 47 years now, but they won’t be around forever. “These helicopters are getting old, and we now have to look more carefully at flight hours”, says Schönauer. “We will see a reduction of flight hours over the next six years. It may mean that our pilots fly less hours a year than than we would like to see.”
If it was up to the pilots at Aigen-im-Enstall, the Airbus Helicopters EC645 T2 is the helicopter to replace the aging Alouette. “That is the helicopter that meets all our requirements. It operates in the spectrum that is required to keep up our experience. Unfortunately a decision has yet to be made on replacing the Alouette.”
So, until at least 2020, the sound of an Alouette will regularly reverberate across the Alps, be it during training missions or during an all important, actual search and rescue mission. Of course Austrians don’t worry when hearing the high pitched screeching sound; they know it’ll be alright.
© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Elmer van Hest