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Simone Moro is embarking on a demo tour of Nepal this year with Leonardo’s AW119Kx helicopter. Vertical spoke with him about the challenges of flying in the Himalayas back in 2015. From the archives, here’s our interview.
Italian alpinist Simone Moro has climbed on every continent. He has visited Nepal more than 50 times to climb in the Himalayas, and is the only person to have completed winter ascents of three mountains over 8,000 meters (26,000 feet). He became a helicopter pilot in 2009, with the aim of establishing a helicopter rescue service (now known as Altitude Helicopters) in the Himalayan mountains.
Vertical: A mountaineer, and then a pilot in the mountains. What is the draw for you?
Simone Moro: I love to be there. The reason I decided to start this rescue project was because I saw so many people in the Himalayas pass away from stupid and minor injuries, just because they were in remote unknown locations. All these people could be saved by simple, normal helicopter missions. But there were no people ready to do it. I also understood that being a helicopter pilot could also be my future. Because now I’m 47, and even though I’m a professional mountaineer — and probably at the top of my career — what I’m doing is just preparing for the future.
V: Had you always wanted to be a helicopter pilot?
SM: I was fascinated by helicopters, but didn’t know anything about them. It was spring 2009 when I got my private pilot’s license in the United States, and it took me 33 days. I then completed my commercial license, which took me another 36 days. I was completely focused on the project — I had the clear idea to become a mountain pilot and to organize the rescue project in Nepal, so I tried to be fast and quick.
V: How did you build your time in the mountains?
SM: At the end of 2008, I announced my idea to become a pilot and try to organize something in Nepal related to mountain rescue, and I found a person in Bergamo [Italy] who was the owner of an [Airbus Helicopters] AS350. He told me I could fly his helicopter whenever I wanted — as long as I took him with me. When I was done my training, I started flying any free moment that I had — and I was always flying in the Alps. I wanted learn as much as I could, so I invited all the best pilots that I knew on the Alps to fly with me — pilots with 15,000 or 20,000 hours of flying on the mountains. Those people continue to be my coaches.
V: So how soon were you flying in the Himalayas?
SM: The first flight that I performed in Nepal was in autumn 2010. I went to one of the few local helicopter companies in Nepal — Fishtail Air — and they trusted in me, and I started with them as a co-pilot.
V: What’s been your most memorable mission?
SM: In May 2012, we recovered the body of a Ukrainian mountaineer who had been hanging on the north face of a very high mountain for two years. I was not at the controls for that operation. We had removed the door, the seat — everything — and we were flying with very low fuel. When we arrived at the spot, it was 6,500 meters [21,300 feet]. I was hanging under the helicopter with a drill, and I made a hole in the rock. I put a piton in, attached myself to it, released the carabiners, and the helicopter flew away. I was there working many hours for two days to free the body from the ice and snow. It was the type of rescue mission that is normally performed on the Alps, but it was the first real extreme long line mission on a vertical face in Nepal.
V: You now fly your own helicopter — an AS350 B3 — in Nepal. Was it a difficult process to take it out there?
SM: It wasn’t easy. I took an entire Italian crew to Nepal. We created a contract where Fishtail Air wet leased the helicopter, pilot, and mechanics, and the civil aviation authority of Nepal gave their allowance. It was a huge investment and a crazy unique entity. We based the helicopter directly in Lukla — a village at the beginning of the Everest valley — so we were ready to quickly perform rescues. Many things changed, because we started to perform rescues in the afternoon and in some altitudes that were not imaginable before — not because we wanted to be heroes, but sometimes we played with the right compromise between VFR or special VFR and our experience. It was a kind of exploration.
V: How often are you called for rescues?
SM: Every day. We flew 250 hours in 65/70 days in 2013. Some were “normal” evacuations — but normal is not the most appropriate word, because when we were flying at 18,000 feet, landing, taking two or three sick people on board, and flying away, it probably is not so normal — but we were usually landing in quite a wide spot. Some of the rescues were long line, and for some we landed at 22,000 or 22,500 feet. I don’t want to hide the fact that we were flying at the technical limits of the helicopter — usually, this is something people never say, but I don’t like to lie, so I take the responsibility to say that we flew quite a lot higher than the technical limits. We knew that we were taking our own risks, but we took risks to save lives and we always did it safely. I flew one time together with another pilot to look for two missing people at 8,583 metres [28159 feet]. I was close to the summit of Everest. I able to fly there because I was acclimatized — I had gone by foot to 8,000 metres [26,250 feet] before, without oxygen, so I wasn’t in danger of hypoxia.
V: You must have received some criticism for operating in such conditions?
SM: Of course — and the criticism has different origins. First from people who are not there with us, or not able to do such rescues; from people who don’t accept things that go beyond the standard procedures. But the other criticism is from people who are scared that the presence of the helicopter can give the illusion of safety. I agree with those people, and I want to make clear that the safety of people who are going in high altitude is not increased just because there are a few strange pilots that sometimes, only in good conditions, can perform rescues in high altitudes. Going in high altitude remains a very dangerous thing. It’s true that we can perform some rescues that have never been done before, but they remain every time a kind of exploration, something very extreme — and something extreme cannot be performed daily or normally.
V: Who pays for the rescues?
SM: From 2014, when I took my helicopter, of course I have to pay back the huge investment, but I was just charging per hour, not per rescue. Even the very extreme rescues that could cost our lives and the machine, my salary as a pilot or rescue member was for free — I was just paid for the use of my helicopter. For example, the day we flew at 8,000 meters, or when I did the long line rescue, I was paid exactly as if I was flying for a tourist flight above Kathmandu.
V: Do you view what you’re doing as the extension of the climber ethos of helping your fellow climbers?
SM: Absolutely, yes. I know that I’m not the best pilot — and for that reason I took with me the best people I knew and I’m still learning from them — but I am probably the only pilot who combines being a pilot, mountain guide, high altitude mountaineer, and rescue member at the same time, in the same person. I decided to use this kind of unique combination to be helpful.
V: What’s it like to fly in the Himalayas?
SM: You are flying in one of the remotest and highest places on earth. To fly in the Himalayas is to be on kind of an adventure and an exploration. You are flying in a place where the air is so thin, you are at the limits of the machine. You are also in a place where you can’t fly above everything — and this is something unique.
V: What’s next for you?
SM: I’m going to Nepal, and I will try another mountain in winter. It is a high mountain, it has never been climbed before completely in winter, and I want to climb the mountain in the right style, without oxygen. Then I will stay for three/four weeks just flying and doing rescues. I’m then going to go to the United States for the inauguration of the helicopter school I established with my brother Marcello in San Diego, Calif. It is focused not only on training for a private or commercial license, but to also offer pilots the possibility to perform special high altitude mountain training and a mountain rating. I hope one day I can sit and talk with the helicopter manufacturers to develop a helicopter that can improve the altitude limits reached by helicopters. That’s my dream.
This interview has been edited and condensed.