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On the top of an Alpine peak at just under 11,000 feet (3,300 meters), it is cold, calm and quiet; apparently a paradise for bird-watchers. This is until the arrival of a Fuchs Helikopter Robinson R66, announced by a cloud of recirculating snow and the whine and clatter of a turbine-driven teetering rotor. You might not expect to find such a helicopter up to its belly in snow on top of a Swiss glacier, but it’s more common than you’d think. What is unusual is that this isn’t a commercial pilot delivering a load, or the rescue of a stranded hiker. It’s a routine training flight for a private pilot.
High terrain poses myriad hazards to aviation and it requires experience and training to operate an aircraft there safely. These factors alone deter the majority of PPL (Private Pilot License) holders. However, given that most recreation in Switzerland happens in the mountains, that is where anybody with the means to fly a helicopter for fun is likely to want to go.
The majority of the Swiss population lives on a relatively narrow plateau sandwiched between the rocky walls of the Jura mountains in the north of the country and the jagged peaks of the Alps that dominate the south. A 20-minute flight in any direction from any part of the country will likely require a mountain transit. For this reason, the Swiss government has designed a specific mountain flying qualification (known as an MOU extension). “In Switzerland, if you want to be a professional pilot, it’s pretty much a necessity to have [the MOU extension],” explained Philippe Gaillet, a pilot and dispatcher at Fuchs Helikopter.
The company’s founder, Robert Fuchs, began his helicopter operation in 1974 at his factory in Schindellegi, not far from Zürich. In the same year he set up a flight school there as a means to make the aircraft profitable, but training is not the only thing the company does.
“We started with the flight school,” said Robert Stokmaier, Robert’s grandson and now CEO of Fuchs Helikopter. “Everything was built up by 1974 and the helipad at the factory was approved. We had the MD 500, then a [Schweizer] 300 and in the ’80s we started the utility work. At that time the utility work was not how we do things now. Everything was directly hooked in to the helicopter. It wasn’t so safety-focused, as the industry was still learning how to do it.”
Since owning the first MD 500 in Switzerland, Fuchs has owned over 120 other aircraft, becoming a distributor and reseller for MD Helicopters and Schweizer in the process.
“Between [the] ’90s and 2000s, we were mainly using the 500 series for utility, and after 1994 we went into aerial filming,” said Stokmaier. Despite the increasing use of unmanned systems, this continues to provide a steady stream of work for the company.
The addition of Airbus H125 AStars to the company’s fleet presented an opportunity to corner the utility market. “There was not that much work for our first AStar, so it was rented and operated quite a lot by another operator,” said Stokmaier. “But our location really suits that role, as there is nothing close by to get to Zurich by helicopter. When we bought our second AStar in 2016, we started doing sling jobs with it straight away.”
In 2017, one of Fuchs Helikopter’s H125s was equipped with the Swiss Rotor Solutions Maximum Pilot View Kit. Installation involves cutting parts of the aircraft to fit a much larger floor window and bubble door window. This dramatically improves the pilot’s vertical visibility. “We knew the guy who designed the kit,” Stokmaier said. “It really increases [the] safety margin on long line [operations], as the visibility of the load is far better.”
Despite an increasing focus on utility operations, training has not been neglected. When the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certified the R66 in 2014, Fuchs went to great lengths to ensure its was ahead of the curve.
“We found an R66 that was N-registered in the Czech Republic, and we wanted to have the first one in Switzerland,” said Stokmaier. “We had it inspected there, drew up a contract and flew it back to Switzerland. It has a small turbine but it’s a good high-altitude performer because of the big blades. If it’s windy, we fill it with fuel to increase the weight as it’s a bit light.”
The latest fleet member is a Bell 505 Jet Ranger X, which was delivered in 2018. “We wanted a more comfortable aircraft than [the] R66, and the 505 is a little more roomy inside,” Stokmaier said, explaining that it was currently limited to charter and training, but had the potential for utility work in the future. A cargo hook for the 505 is yet to be certified by EASA, and other utility equipment such as baskets, which are widely available for other types, do not yet exist for the aircraft. “But it’s a good aircraft,” said Stokmaier. “These things will come.”
Safety as a cornerstone
Jonathan Brandt, the company’s chief pilot and chief instructor, has been at Fuchs for over 13 years. He was employed specifically to grow the flight school element of the business, and his success in doing so is evident from the pace of business.
But aside from commercial success, Brandt said that setting a safe and professional culture was what he was most proud of. “One of the most crucial things is to be a good example for everybody,” he said. “People will copy role models, and act the same way.”
While the site at Fuchs Helikopter has always conducted training, it is not a
large airfield, and is located next to a
factory surrounded by vertical obstructions. Despite this, its safety record is admirable.
“Since I started as chief pilot here we haven’t lost a single helicopter,” said Brandt. “And this place is maybe one of the most challenging airfields that a PPL pilot will fly to.”
Most of Brandt’s work — aside from the administration necessary to fulfill his various safety roles — is the mountain flying training necessary to qualify pilots for their MOU extension. While he has been flying in this locale almost his whole career, he initially found instructing in the mountains a challenge, as the mandated training was not always so rigorous.
“A mountain qualification has always been a requirement in Switzerland,” he explained. “But it used to be a lot less extensive than today. As a result, I didn’t have the skillset necessary to teach the current syllabus when I came back to instruct the qualification, and I really had to go back to scratch and learn the basics.”
The current MOU syllabus is comprehensive, and governed by the Swiss aviation authorities. Applicants must fly 200 mountain landings, of which at least 150 have to be on “official mountain landing sites” — and there are 42 of these in the country. Most are on glaciers at high altitude, but some are lower down. At least 50 of these total landings must be at altitudes greater than 3,600 feet (1,100 meters). Once qualified, a pilot must carry out at least 50 mountain landings per year to remain current.
“It used to be only 12 landings, but there were a lot of accidents purely because people didn’t have the necessary recent experience, and suffered skill-fade,” Brandt said.
Taking relatively inexperienced recreational pilots from a complex landing site into a high-workload mountain environment presents obvious risks. Brandt explained that the main mitigation for this doesn’t necessarily lie in complex analysis or mathematics, but more a human touch.
“Accidents happen. They don’t have to happen, but they do,” he said. “There is always a probability of an accident and it is your actions that will decide whether it happens or not. So, when I hear the guys discussing risk factors and using the same language, I feel like I’ve done a good job.”
Arno Parli and Philippe Gaillet are both products of this approach to training. Parli came to Fuchs in 2019 following his military service, specifically with a view to fulfill an ambition to fly utility roles. Having already qualified as a commercial pilot, he has experience flying in the U.S. and the U.K. He currently flies taxi and sightseeing flights while conducting the flight instructor course.
Gaillet completed his PPL training with Fuchs Helikopter in 2016, and qualified as a commercial pilot 18 months later while working in clerical jobs at the company. He is also cutting his teeth flying tourist and taxi flights. Following in his colleague’s path, his next step is to qualify as a flight instructor. He also works as a flight assistant, helping utility operations from the ground. Three years’ experience in this job is a pre-requisite to flying sling loads for Fuchs.
Parli has spent eight years as a flight assistant, including a spell as the chief flight assistant at another company. He is mindful of the need to have the necessary skills before moving into sling-load work. “Maybe I can start with sling loads next year, but it depends on how much experience I can gain,” he said. “One of the most important things that you learn as a flight assistant before going into the cockpit is an understanding of what’s happening on the ground underneath the helicopter.”
Having spent a significant amount of time as the person on the ground, Parli has seen the hazards first-hand. “The weather can be foggy and there are a lot of obstructions, particularly where we do our utility flying,” he said. “The cables are the main risk that we encounter every day.”
Mitigating the risk of collision with vertical obstructions is a perennial challenge to those who operate helicopters close to terrain. Fuchs has opted to install the FLARM collision avoidance system, with the obstacle avoidance extension; a vertical obstruction file that in its case is loaded with a database that’s specific to its operating area.
Brandt is conscious of the need to develop pilot skills in the likes of Gaillet and Parli, but is not prepared to rush. While Fuchs builds its own talent pool, it also contracts sling-load pilots with the experience necessary to meet its own safety policies, and on these Brandt is uncompromising.
“To do safety well, you have to do it every day,” he explained. “The worst thing you can do is make exceptions, because there will always be pressure. People don’t like hearing ‘no,’ but sometimes it’s good to hear because it’s the right decision.”
Supporting the fleet
Having owned and distributed a diverse selection of aircraft over the years, it’s no surprise that Fuchs Helikopter has a well-
developed engineering support operation. Its facility is spread over three levels, all of which have helipads to position aircraft, and the maintenance facility occupies two of these floors. Aircraft are moved in and out of the hangar on an automatic rail system that is heated to prevent it seizing in sub-zero temperatures.
Engineer and deputy post-holder Derrick Cross has worked for Fuchs Helikopter for five years. Having experience working on a variety of aircraft both in the U.S. and for Fuchs, he explained that they all had their idiosyncrasies: “The [Schweizer] S300s are a little maintenance-heavy on the engine side due to the piston engine,” he said. “But there is no better performer in the class at high altitude. The AStars are the most demanding, because they have a 25- and a 50-hour inspection interval.”
Despite the demands of keeping well-used aircraft in the air, Cross explained that actual engineering problems are rare. “They fly the hours on them, but if you maintain them and you look after them, you usually won’t have too many problems,” he said. “But every so often you’ll have to go out in the field to take care of it.”Considering that ‘the field’ is more likely to be a mountainside, it’s perhaps for the better that problems are so rare. “I’ve only had an aircraft go AOG [aircraft on the ground] once in my five years here, and that wasn’t an aircraft issue — it was engine monitoring hardware,” Cross said. However, “I did once have to change a fuel controller on top of a glacier,” he conceded.
The financial burden of maintaining so many different types of aircraft must be significant, but Stokmaier explained that the variety is necessary to support the company’s business model.
“Each aircraft has its niche, and individuals have their preferences,” he said. “Having a broad selection of types allows us to accommodate them.”
Fuchs Helikopter is certainly busy, and with the continuing success of its flight school and a legacy that stretches back over 40 years, it could be forgiven for resting on its laurels. But there is no room for complacency, as Brandt explained. “The problem that you can have is that people can overestimate themselves,” he said. “They believe that what they have experienced is the total of the helicopter world, and it’s not until they have an incident that they realize that there is much more to know.”
Despite the company’s evident successes, there is no sense of overconfidence at Fuchs Helikopter. That might be due to the government-mandated training, or the fact that whichever window you look out of, you will find the imposing Alpine peaks staring back. Taking an R66 safely to the top of a glacier demands a particular approach to risk; one which will serve an inexperienced and impressionable pilot well for the rest of their career.