Bluebird’s last flight

After 51 years of service, the Alouette III has finally retired from the Royal Netherlands Air Force—an emotional milestone for the aircraft’s crews. RNLAF/Arnoud Schoor Photo

Previously announced but postponed several times, the end of the Alouette III’s service in the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) has finally arrived. On Dec. 31, 2015, the last four royal blue Alouette III helicopters were officially retired, 51 years after the model was introduced.
Over its more than half-century of service, the Alouette III proved itself to be uniquely reliable and versatile, and its retirement marks the end of an era. As Flight Commander Captain Robert de Lange put it, “The Alouette has been with the Ministry of Defence longer than its pilots; we can not imagine the RNLAF without it.”
According to de Lange, who has flown the Alouette III since the early 1990s, “We started with 77 Alouettes in 1964. They were implemented in the GpLV [Groep Lichte Vliegtuigen/Group Light Aircraft], a forerunner of the DHC [Defensie Helikopter Commando/Defence Helicopter Command].”
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After experience with less powerful helicopters including the Hiller Raven and the Alouette II, the Alouette III represented a tremendous leap in capability for the RNLAF, and the initial emphasis was on building the fleet and expanding operational applications. The Alouette III was embedded in all three GpLV squadrons (298, 299, and 300) on the Soesterberg and Deelen air bases. From the spring of 1967, five Alouette III helicopters were also flown in the search and rescue/tactical air rescue (SAR/TAR) role from Ypenburg, Soesterberg, and Leeuwarden air bases, and from different locations on the islands of Terschelling and Vlieland. 
The Cold War was progressing at the time, which led to regular deployments of the Alouettes to what was then West Germany. During many exercises, the GpLV crews trained together with army colleagues on the plains of northern Germany. 
An Alouette III on a School Grond Lucht Samenwerking (SGLS/School Ground Air Cooperation) landing point finder exercise. The Alouette’s versatility and cost-effectiveness made it valuable for a wide variety of missions. Jeroen van Veenendaal Photo
Over the ensuing decades, the Alouette played an important role in missions both at home and abroad. In 1975, Alouette crews supported the response to hostage-takings in Wijster and Beilen; as an ideal liaison helicopter for members of government, the model operated regularly between The Hague and Assen. Another important national deployment came during the harsh winter of 1979, when GpLV and SAR Alouettes were deployed on a large scale to the northern Netherlands to provide food for snowbound farmers and their animals.
Alouettes also served during the flooding in Tunisia in 1970, and were part of Operation Provide Comfort after the first Gulf War in 1991. They were also deployed in the European Monitor Mission in Croatia at that time, and for the Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia in 1996.  “We’ve done all kinds of tasks that were suitable for the Alouette,” said de Lange. “The space is not too big, but quite versatile, very flexible. The machine is very reliable, which is also its strength.”
The Alouette III became an important showpiece for the RNLAF with the creation, in 1973, of the “Grasshoppers,” a helicopter demonstration team that existed until 1995. The demo team got its start in 299 Squadron, drawing its name from the grasshopper in the squadron’s emblem. (In 1979, after the MBB Bo.105 was introduced in 299 Squadron, the Grasshoppers were placed in 300 Squadron.) Over a period of 22 years, the Grasshoppers achieved international fame, performing at a high professional level.
De Lange was a pilot for the Grasshoppers himself, and described performing with the team as a “personal highlight” of his career. “I came in as first lieutenant and was asked if I wanted to be part of the display team the Grasshoppers,” he recalled. “It looked like fun, and it was great and even more than that — cooperation, trust and showing the maximum capabilities of the helicopter, both individually as well as collectively.”
The long goodbye
Gradually it appeared that the Alouette III was becoming outdated. A new generation of helicopters was bought and put into service. Most of the RNLAF’s Alouette IIIs were sold or delivered in the form of spare parts to countries such as Chad, Pakistan, and Malta, or were returned to Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters). However, it was decided to keep some Alouettes in a support role, and in 1998, nine aircraft of the original 77 remained. Commented de Lange, “It appeared the Alouette was indispensable, and that turned out to be true because it would stay in service for 20 more years.”
The RNLAF’s Alouette IIIs were honored during an official last flight ceremony on Dec. 15, 2015. Roelof-Jan Gort Photo 

Of the remaining nine Alouettes, four were stored in shelters and five were operationally deployable. In 2000, the RNLAF decided not to put one of these operational helicopters, A-253, through the so-called Groot Onderhoud Alouette III (GOAL) major maintenance inspection, but the other four (A-247, A-275, A-292 and A-301) were put through the GOAL by the Swiss company RUAG in 2004. They were also given a completely new color scheme: royal blue.
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The four remaining Alouettes faithfully carried out their assigned duties, which included royal and VIP transport, and aerial photography. “We got more engaged in providing services, meaning we have conducted many flights for the royal family and VIP flights,” said de Lange. “We’ve been able to carry out reconnaissance flights, so that the larger helicopters did not have to perform such tasks.”
The Alouettes also carried out assignments for the Centrum Mens en Luchtvaart (CML/Center for Man and Aviation) and selections for tactical coordinators and loadmasters. In addition, School Grond Lucht Samenwerking (SGLS/School Ground Air Cooperation) courses were conducted with the Alouette, because the cost per flight hour was comparatively low.
According to de Lange, of the four airframes that remained after 2000, at least three were deployable on any given day. Each of the aircraft accumulated around 10,000 flight hours over its service life. “In my time as a flight commander, we did not have to cancel any mission due to mechanical failure. That is unique,” he said.
Each of the RNLAF’s last four Alouette IIIs accumulated around 10,000 flight hours over its service life. Jeroen van Veenendaal Photo

De Lange noted that parting with the Alouette has been hard for many of its crews: “Saying goodbye to this machine is emotional. We all have something special with it.” He added, “For a lot of pilots, this also means the end of their flying career. They will not fly another type, but get another task within the Air Force.”
Is there a successor for the Alouette III? What will the RNLAF do now that the last of the aircraft have retired? That remains unclear — the RNLAF has said that it will look at every mission request individually, and has not ruled out hiring a commercial operator to perform some of Alouette’s former missions. Whatever the future holds, the model will in some ways be irreplaceable.
“The Alouette always symbolized always freedom to me,” said de Lange. “Simple and extremely reliable. It always works. Is there a similar helicopter? No.”

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