They are called ‘Tweety’, and they were called upon for search and rescue missions for over twenty years. But starting January, it is mission accomplished for the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s (RNLAF) three Agusta-Bell AB412 helicopters at Leeuwarden airbase. Their yellow appearance was a familiar and assuring sight to many. A civil contractor takes over the search and rescue task and the three Tweeties are sold to Peru.
In total, Air Force search and rescue helicopters have been operating from Leeuwarden for 55 years, rescueing downed fighter pilots from the cold North Sea, transporting patients from the Dutch barrier islands to hospitals on the main land.
A total of 5,355 emergency or life saving flights were performed by 303 Squadron, the unit that operated the Tweeties every day and every night of every week, month and year. The Tweeties flew about 200 mission yearly. Every now and then, even a sick seal found in the Wadden Sea was picked up for treatment in an animal shelter.
The yellow Agusta-Bell AB412s entered service with the RNLAF in 1994, its predecessor being the Aérospatiale Alouette III. But according to the Dutch Ministry of Defense, search and rescue is no longer a key operation for the RNLAF. Starting January, Air Force AS532 Cougar helicopters will temporarily fly SAR duties from Leeuwarden. A civil party is expected to take over the operations entirely by mid-2015. “A pity”, says an Air Force AB412 pilot, “it was always a great and rewarding job.”
Currently a KLM Boeing 777 pilot, Willem Boiten flew both the Alouette III and the Tweety. Transition from a ‘normal’ helicopter pilot to a SAR pilot required a lot of hovering and hoist practicing.
“Hovering is always difficult when everything around you is moving, which is the case at sea. My final exam included hovering over a buoy. After I succeeded, my colleagues gave me a water proof marker and hoisted me down to the buoy ‘to write my name on it’ – or so they said. You can guess what happened next: they dragged me along the water, for all passengers on a passing ferry to see. The beer I had afterwards still tasted salty, and my colleagues dared asking whether I still had the marker!”
Early in their career, the AB412s and their crew earned recognition for their vigilance during floods that threatened the southern part of the Netherlands in February 1995. Boiten: “We just flew around as troubleshooters, looking to help out anywhere”
Over the last few years, a lot has changed in the Dutch SAR capacity. Dutch Navy Lynx helos operated alongside the Tweeties for many years, but the Lynx was retired and replaced by NHIndustries NH90 Nato Frigate Helicopters (NFH). The new Navy helos were expected to be fully operational from Naval Airfield De Kooy in 2015, but things may have changed since this year’s break in NH90 deliveries over dozens of technical issues .
The AB412 – and the Alouette III before it – were faithful till the end – although not all is over for the yellow Tweeties. According to various sources the RNLAF AB412s are sold to Peru, like Fokker fixed-wing aircraft before them. The official sale announcement is yet to be made. Meanwhile, memories of RNLAF search and rescue missions remain. One of the surviving SAR Alouettes serves as a reminder in the recently opened National Military Museum in Soesterberg.
© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest