A farewell fitting to royalty, that was what happened at Gilze Rijen airbase in the Netherlands on Tuesday 15 December, as the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) said goodbye to its final four Alouette helicopters. Never the most exciting piece of aviation kit, they in fact proved very reliable in over 51 years of RNLAF service. Good enough also for the Dutch royal family.
A flight of two Alouettes, known for their pristine blue paint scheme and characteristic engine sound, saluted those present at Gilze Rijen airbase, home to most of the RNLAF helicopter fleet. Four Alouettes remained in service here for years, serving as flying taxis for the Dutch royal family or as a liaison capability for Dutch forces.
These four were the last of 77 French-designed Alouette IIIs that served in the low lands, supporting ground forces in an airborne observation role and performing search and rescue duties. “My first and eldest love”, says former Alouette- and now KLM-pilot Willem Boiten. “Perfectly suited for its observation role because of all the glass surrounding the cabin, which could seat seven.”
It was, of course, as simple as a design should be. Like a Volkswagen Beetle. “Not much avionics in there, attitude and speed indicator, altimeter and a compass and that was about it. Flying was a basic, hands on job and navigation I did using the map on my lap. Max speed was 113 knots, which isn’t a lot but it is quite a lot when flying at 20 ft over terrain, hugging the ground. You were really flying in that thing, shaking all around the place. If the shaking got too bad, maintenance would adjust the rotor blades. The small diameter of those meant we could land just about anywhere. Some of my best flights were Search and Rescue (SAR) flights, either in a storm over some ship in the North Sea or airlifting wounded to a hospital.”
Above all, the Alouette scored big on reliability. “It never failed me, even when I was sent to Cambodia on a peace keeping mission. The Alouette was chosen over the Westland Lynx operated by the Dutch navy. I remember those flights in Cambodia very well.” Other foreign missions sent Dutch Alouettes on their way to Tunisia in the early seventies and Turkey and Iraq in the early nineties.
A nickname the Alouette never really earned, or maybe it was ‘greenhouse’. Willem: “It could get very hot in that cockpit, but then we ‘d open or remove the large sliding doors on the sides. In winter weather, gloves and a warm jacket were required, as the heating just wasn’t enough. And in rain, my right shoulder would get wet as the door never really wanted to close.
What came to a close though, was 51 years and roughly 375,000 flying hours of continued service – in the Netherlands, that it. The four surviving choppers are to be sold. The Alouette remains in military and civil service in countries around the globe and will probably do so for years to come.
© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest, video shot and edited by Orange Avenue Filmworks
Featured image (top): A royal but dangerous Alouette. (Image © Dennis Spronk)