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Standing on a steep hillside farm on the doorstep of the Swiss Alps, I found myself staring into the eyes of a 1,500-pound cow as it lifted off the ground and briefly hovered in front of me. It looked entirely disinterested in its change of state. It slowly lifted another 50 feet, rotated 90 degrees, and made a beeline towards the farmhouse down below us.
“Huh,” I said to the farmer standing on my left. “You don’t see that every day.” His English being no better than my German, he politely smiled back. Thing is, I couldn’t have been more wrong; in the foothills of the Bernese Oberland, flying cows are literally an everyday sight. In the summer, of course. Not the winter. That would just be weird.
Picking my way between the cow pies back down the hillside, I followed the Swiss Helicopter crewman who was quickly disappearing in front of me. By the time we arrived at the farmhouse, the cow had already been removed from the sling that had carried it downhill, and the Airbus Helicopters H125 to which it had been attached by a 100-foot long line had landed nearby. The animal seemed completely unaffected by its brief transcendental experience, which was the result of a suspected dislocated hip that had left it stuck on the hillside. Now back on level ground, it could be easily taken on a trailer to a vet.
I, however, joined the two crewmembers and pilot in the awaiting helicopter. The whole process, from arrival to departure, had taken less than 15 minutes.
Two minutes in to the 10-minute flight back to the base, a call came in over the radio. Another cow on another farm needed rescuing. It was stuck at the bottom of sheer slope.
For the pilots and crews of Swiss Helicopter’s base in Gsteigwiler — a small village near the stunningly beautiful town of Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland — such calls are part and parcel of summer work. Over the season, they’ll receive about 200 requests to recover cows that have become stuck, injured, or have died in the mountain meadows in which they spend their summers. But while it might be one of the more unusual sights for the uninitiated, it’s certainly not the most common work undertaken by this utility operator.
From heliskiing, skydiving, and sightseeing flights in the Alps, to aerial construction, flight school, and VIP shuttle flights in the densely populated Swiss Plateau, Swiss Helicopter’s operations are as varied as the undulating countryside over which it flies.
A National Operator
Swiss Helicopter AG was formed from an amalgamation of six different operators (Air Grischa, Bohag, Eliticino, Heli Gotthard, Heliswiss and Rhein Helikopter) in 2012. But while the company as a whole is relatively new, the experience it has brought together from these operators is vast. For example, its base in Gordola (in the Ticino Canton in southern Switzerland), which had previously been part of the Eliticino company, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016; while the Gsteigwiler base celebrated recently its 40th anniversary.
Company-wide, Swiss Helicopter has about 150 employees during its summer peak, including about 35 full-time pilots — though they are joined by additional seasonal pilots during busy periods. With a fleet of 31 aircraft operating across 14 bases, it flies an average of 15,000 flight hours each year. Airbus H125/AS350 AStars make up about half the fleet, with the other main types being the Airbus H120 and Guimbal Cabri G2. Beyond this core, it also has access to heavy-lift specialists such as the Kamov Ka-32 and Airbus AS332 C1 Super Puma through its sister company, Heliswiss International.
At the base I visited in Gsteigwiler, the company operates an all-H125 fleet, with the number of aircraft dependent on how busy the base is. During my visit in August — when Interlaken is heaving with tourists and good weather sees the aircraft flying from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — there were four AStars at the facility. These were flown by five full-time and five part-time pilots, with two maintenance technicians performing the scheduled and minor maintenance tasks required to keep the aircraft in operation.
Situated on a small plain between the turquoise waters of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, and surrounded by white-peaked mountains — including a section of the Swiss Alps so striking in its beauty that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site — it’s not hard to see why Interlaken and the surrounding area has been drawing tourists from around the world for close to 200 years. It’s also not hard to see how helicopters have become an integral part of life here, building and maintaining infrastructure and providing supplies to remote Alpine villages, ski lodges, mountaineering huts and other buildings, and also directly catering to tourists through sightseeing, heliskiing, and skydiving flights. And, of course, saving errant livestock.
Martin Burgener, operations manager at the Gsteigwiler base, has an enormous amount of local knowledge having grown up in the area, and having worked as a mountain guide and run the highest occupied hut in Switzerland near Jungfraujoch at 11,975 feet (3,650 meters).
During a brief break in operations at the base, he showed me the schedule for the next day’s work for one aircraft — a long list of various long line supply missions around the mountains, flying everything from work crews to rebar, floorboards, hay and even an excavator. However, Burgener explained that a quarter of the aircraft’s ultimate workload will arrive on the day itself — work such as cow rescues, or tourists that decide on the spur of the moment they’d like a sightseeing flight up in the mountains.
“The pilots you see here all have more than 3,000 flying hours, and they need that to be able to do everything we do here,” he said. “The skills to fly is one thing, the other thing is if you know the area very well. There are a lot of valleys with a lot of wires crossing through, a lot of little gondolas leading up to those mountain barns to carry up goods and all those things. So pilots need to be familiar with the area, otherwise it’s really hard — they’ve got to ask questions all the time, like: ‘Today it’s 30-kilometer wind in the forecast. Can I still fly there?'”
The general plan is to complete heavy lifting work in the morning, leaving the afternoons for things such as tourism flights, of which there are roughly five a day in the summer. Still, the various moving parts and flexibility required to complete such an ad-hoc program as efficiently as possible require some serious logistic gymnastics on the part of the flight planning department.
“I’ve got to send the right pilot with the right crew and the right helicopter to the right place with the right amount of fuel, with the right gear to do the work, [allocate] the right amount of time and [do it] for the right price,” said Burgener.
A Challenging Environment
During rush periods, such as when the Ski World Cup arrives in nearby Lauberhorn each January, the base can bring in additional aircraft and crews to fly competitors and those wishing to avoid the packed gondolas directly to the ski hill. However, despite the variety of winter activities on offer in the region, it’s typically a period of downtime for the base.
“We get less work in the winter, because all this construction work starts in the summer and ends in October/beginning of November,” said Michael Spörri, a pilot at the Gsteigwiler base. “Then we just operate two or three helicopters in Bernese Oberland, [doing] tourist flights, avalanche bombing, and we are always on standby for Rega for avalanche accidents.”
Throughout the year, air medical operator Rega calls the base to assist in 10 to 20 rescues, said Burgener. The aircraft don’t take medical supplies or carry injured people, but serve in a support role.
“If they’re going to call we need to run, we need to help them,” said Burgener. “We maybe have to fly the mountain guides or fly rescue gear, or in the wintertime we have to fly the avalanche dogs. . . . But we don’t get called directly to an accident. It’s not our work.”
Spörri said the most challenging work for the pilots was sling load missions. “Especially here in the mountains, you have the altitude [consideration], so you go up, if you bring food up to the mountain huts, you work at 10,000 feet most of the time, or higher, up to 12,000 feet,” he said. “The air up there is [thinner], and you get at the end of the power of the helicopter. This is quite challenging as well with the wind in the mountain. Sometimes you have strong winds from the south — we call it the föhn — this can be very very challenging for the hook mission or the sling missions.”
He said the performance and versatility of the AStar were the reasons for its sole use on the base.
“You can take five passengers in the helicopter, but you can use it as well for a sling load, because it’s got a lot of power to bring the loads up,” he said. “In our mountain, it’s the best helicopter for the moment.”
Sporri said a heavy snowfall in 1999 demonstrated the value of Swiss Helicopter to a community like Grindelwald, a small town near Interlaken. As all the valley roads were blocked, the company created an “air bridge” to connect the town with the outside world. “We flew the people in, we brought food in, and we flew people for two/three weeks,” he said. “For all the communities, it’s good that they have a company like us close to their area for such emergencies.”
A Varied Mission Set
Simon Baumann, a pilot who has been with Swiss Helicopter since 2007, serves as operations manager of the Pfaffnau base in central Switzerland, and is also the company’s marketing coordinator.
He said the differences between the operations in Gsteigwiler and Pfaffnau help illustrate the breadth of work the company completes.
“In Pfaffnau, we are located in the lower part of Switzerland, and we don’t offer cargo mission or sling load mission,” he said. “We have two H120s based in Pfaffnau, and they are used mostly for commercial air transport like scenic tours, taxi transfer from Zurich to Geneva, for example, and we also offer our flight school here.”
The flight school in Pfaffnau is one of five located at different bases. The company has 14 flight instructors on its staff, with five of these also working as commercial pilots for the company. Depending on which base they attend, students have the option of learning in a Cabri G2 or an H120.
The schools are recognized by the Federal Office of Civil Aviation as approved training organizations, offering private, commercial, flight instructor, night flying, external cargo sling, mountain landing and ATPL(H) courses with instrument rating.
“The mountain rating is very special in Switzerland — if you want to land on a glacier for tourist missions and also for aerial work, you have to be a mountain pilot,” said Baumann. “You have to train how to approach in high and hot regions, and how to take care of the fuel you take with you, because up in the mountains, you have less power.”
He said the mountain training takes around 20 flying hours, requiring about 200 landings in one of the 40 or so designated mountain landing spots in Switzerland. “We also have pilots from Denmark or Germany, for example, that come especially for this kind of education to take the mountain landing examination here,” said Baumann.
One of the major reasons for the selection of the H120 and Cabri for the training fleet was because both aircraft are relatively quiet and modern, he said.
“That is the key factor for our management,” said Baumann. “Especially here in the lower part of Switzerland, where also most of our industry is located, you have a very noise sensitive area, and if you reduce noise, and you do that especially during training flights, you can make people happy.”
Swiss Helicopter will soon add a fifth Cabri to its fleet, and Baumann said the aircraft was proving popular with students.
“Students love it because it’s the same philosophy as the H120,” he said. “You have a right turning helicopter, because it’s a French helicopter, so the turn of the rotor is the same. You also have an enclosed tail rotor, comparable to the H120, also with the instrumentation.”
Having formed from six separate companies just five years ago, Swiss Helicopter has already established a strong identity as one of the leading operators in a country that provides some of the most challenging work in the world. And in meeting these challenges, it has proved itself extremely adaptable. From flying cows to training the next generation of the country’s rotary-wing pilots — and everything in between — Swiss Helicopter shows the success that true versatility can bring.