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A veteran pilot recently reached 21,000 flight hours in helicopters, recorded over an accident-free career that has spanned more than 52 years of flight over almost every continent.
Richard Alzetta, 72, has flown with Calgary, Alberta-based Mountain View Helicopters for the past 20 years, where he has specialized in mountain flying instruction, utilizing his extensive experience having worked in the Pyrenees and Alps in Europe, Denali area in Alaska, and in Papua in Indonesia.
“The most challenging work to me has always been flying in the mountains, because of the weather, the wind, and the altitude,” Alzetta told Vertical. “And that’s what I enjoy the most actually, because of the challenge.”
It was in his native France that Alzetta was bitten by the aviation bug, when he took his first flight at the age of just 11.
He gained his fixed-wing licence in 1962 aged 17, and then joined a French military pilot program that saw him transition to helicopters. During his six years in the military, he flew Aérospatiale Alouette IIs and IIIs in an anti-tank armed configuration, a Vertol H-21, and a Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw. He was also a member of the military helicopter formation demonstration team in the Paris air show in 1968.
His career then took him to the U.S., where he flew agricultural spray work and mineral exploration support across the Western U.S. and Alaska, and then Asia, where he spent 25 years based in Indonesia.
Alzetta’s work in the archipelago largely involved flying seismic crews and mining camps throughout the jungle areas of Borneo, Java and Irian Jaya (now known as Papua). There, he flew Bell 47G-4s, 205A-1s and 206Bs, and Sikorsky S-58Ts.
He eventually became managing director of the company, controlling all aspects of operations from New Zealand, through Asia and the Middle East, to Sudan in North Africa.
Among his more notable flights during this time was a period during 1979/80 when he flew an instrument flight rules Sikorsky S-58T on a contract with the United Nations Refugee Agency to support refugees — mostly Vietnamese boat people — who were under attack from pirates as they crossed the South China Sea. It was during one of these flights that one of his engines exploded.
“I found a little island in the China Sea and I landed on the little beach that was barely bigger than the helicopter,” Alzetta said. “Me, my copilot, and the United Nations guys with us, were actually rescued by a Vietnamese refugee boat, which took us to a United Nations camp on an island that was not that far away.”
From there, he caught a freighter to Singapore, where he bought a new engine. He then had to lease another helicopter to fly him, the engine, and a couple of engineers back out to the small island to complete the repairs.
During his last years in Indonesia, Alzetta flew in the high mountains of Papua, regularly moving drilling rigs at between 10,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level. His highest landing was at 16,300 feet on the summit of Puncak Jaya (also known as Carstensz Pyramid) — the highest peak in Oceania — and he also reached an altitude of 21,000 feet above sea level to complete a bad weather medevac.
But in 1997, with the political situation in the Papua region of Indonesia deteriorating, Alzetta decided to move his family to Canada. He established himself in Calgary, and obtained his Canadian pilots licenses. He started teaching at Big Horn Helicopters’ flight school (later known as Mountain View Helicopters), and ultimately became a co-owner of the company alongside Paul Bergeron.
Alzetta “semi-retired” in 2011, but still instructs part-time, flying about 300 to 400 hours a year. He said the qualities that make a good pilot are an ability to absorb a lot of information, good hand-eye coordination, and someone who can study and likes to read.
“And I would say the love of flying is very important,” he added. “To me, personally, unless you love what you are doing, you’re probably not going to be super good at it. So, you really have to love what you are doing.”
With such a varied and interesting career, it’s perhaps not surprising that Alzetta has few regrets.
“I would not change anything,” he said. “I’ve loved it since the first flight I did when I was 11 years old. I still love it and I’m still amazed that I’m doing this. I would do it all over again, and I hope to do it for many more years.”