BLUEBIRD CLOSING DOWN
Previously announced, postponed several times, but the end of the Alouette III in the service of the Royal Netherlands Air Force is finally there. On December 31, an era ends. The Alouette III service ends after 51 years, no flights anymore for the remaining four royal blue helicopters.
INTRODUCTION IN THE RNLAF
“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)”” says Flight Commander Captain Robert de Lange. He flies the Alouette III helicopter since the early 90s.After the arrival of the first Alouettes in 1964, the emphasis was on building a fleet and the operational applications. The capabilities of the Alouette III were so much greater after the experience with helicopters like the Hiller Raven and the Alouette II. The transmission of this new helicopter at that time was therefore not compare with its predecessors. The Alouette III was embedded in all three squadrons GpLV (298, 299 and 300 Squadron) stationed on the airbases Soesterberg and Deelen, in addition to the already existing fixed-wing aircraft. Also in the SAR / TAR (Search and Rescue / Tactical Air Rescue) role the machine was soon stationed on air base Ypenburg.
BLUEBIRD CLOSING DOWN
The Cold War was progressing and therefore the Alouette helicopters could be found in former West Germany on a regular basis. During the many exercises the GpLV crews often trained together with the army colleagues on the north German plains.
The given tasks were conducted to the satisfaction of customer and operator were conducted in all scenarios. Participation in the first serious operation was unfortunately on its own soil. Several crews flew with the Alouette in 1975 during the hostage-takings in Wijster and Beilen. The Alouette was ideal as a Iiaison helicopter for members of the government and were flown to and from The Hague and Assen. Also, the first operational reconnaissance missions were flown prior to the deployment of the Marines. Another important national deployment at was in the harsh winter of 1979. GpLV- and SAR Alouettes were deployed on a large scale to the snowbound farmers in the north of the Netherlands to provide food for humans and animals.
After the fall of ‘The Wall’ the many exercises in West Germany belonged to the past. The Alouette was quickly deployed to other defence tasks: foreign operational missions. It served during the flooding in Tunesia in 1970,was part of Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 after the first Gulf War. It was also deployed in the E.C. Monitor Mission in Croatia at that time, and for IFOR in Bosnia in 1996. We’ve done all kinds of tasks that were suitable for the Alouette. The space is not too big, but quite versatile, very flexible. The machine is very reliable, which is also its strength.Gradually it appeared the Alouette III was becoming outdated. A ‘new generation’ of helicopters was bought, and put to service.
Fortunately, it was decided to keep some Alouettes to perform supporting services. In 1998, nine aircraft were left of the original 77 helicopters. The remainder were sold or delivered in the form of spare parts to various countries such as Chad, Pakistan and Malta or returned to Eurocopter. Captain de Lange comments: “It appeared the Alouette was indispensable, and that turned out to be true because it would stay in service for 20 more years.”
REDUCTION TO FOUR AIRCRAFT
Of the remaining nine Alouettes four were stored in shelters and five were operationally deployable. In 2000, the A-253 was no longer put through the so-called Groot Onderhoud Alouette III (GOAL) (Major Maintenance Alouette III), but was by the Air Force decided to keep the remaining helicopters (serials A-247, A-275, A-292 and A-301) in service until 2016.
In 2004 all four helicopters passed through the GOAL at the Swiss company RUAG and were provided with a completely new color scheme: Royal Blue. In 2008 the Ministry of Defense decided to close airbase Soesterberg and move the 298 and 300 Squadron to Gilze-Rijen. Of the four remaining airframes since 2000, at least 3 were deployable every day. In my time as a flight commander, we did not have to cancel any mission due to mechanical failure. That is unique. All of the four Alouettes have around 10,000 flight hours.
STILL GOING STRONG
The four remaining helicopters with their crews faithfully carried out the duties they were assigned. The jobs still remained versatile with flights serving the Royal Family, VIP transport and aerial photography. De Lange explains: “We got more engaged in providing services, meaning we have conducted many flights for the Royal Family and VIP flights. We’ve been able to carry out reconnaissance flights, so that the larger helicopters did not have to perform such tasks.” The Alouette carried out assignments for the CML (Centrum Mens en Luchtvaart) (Centre for Man and Aviation) and selections for Tactical Coordinators and Loadmasters. In addition, the benefit of the SGLS (School Grond Lucht Samenwerking) (School Ground Air Cooperation) courses were conducted with the Alouette, because the cost per flight hour was very low. All the (guest and staff) flyers had become veterans on the Alouette III with a Iot of flying experience on this type. Parting with the aircraft is hard for them: “Saying goodbye to this machine is emotional. We all have something special with it. The Alouette is longer with the ministry of defence than its pilots, we can not imagine the RNLAF without it. 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.”
SEARCH AND RESCUE (SAR)
From the spring of 1967 five Alouette III helicopters were positioned in the SAR role and configuration at the SAR / TAR-flight as the successor to the Alouette II. Until the phasing out in 1994, the Alouette III was flown with a high succes rate, in all these years unfortunately one helicopter (H-08) was lost. The crew, though severely wounded, survived the crash. Besides Ypenburg, Soesterberg and Leeuwarden Airbase the helicopter was also flown from different locations on the islands of Terschelling and Vlieland.
Captain de Lange was also a pilot for the famous demo team “the Grasshoppers”. He calls it his “personal highlight with the Alouette. I came in as first lieutenant and was asked if I wanted to be part of display team The Grasshoppers. 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 helicopter display team The Grasshoppers (1973 -1995) was an important showpiece for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. It started life in 299 Squadron, where the grasshopper from the squadron emblem was the reason for the name. Because of the introduction of the Bolkow Bo-105 at 299 Squadron, the Grasshoppers were placed at 300 Squadron in 1979. Over a period of 22 years international fame was obtained with a team that managed to perform a show on a very professional level. Many team members, both pilots and technical personnel, have contributed to this positive image. It is primarily their credit that the Grasshoppers have been such a great success.
So is there a successor for the Alouette? What will the RNLAF do come 2016? As of now, that still remains unclear. The air force will look at every mission request individually. Even hiring a civil corporation is a consideration. Captain de Lange puts it like this: “The Alouette always symbolized always freedom to me. Simple and extremely reliable. It always works. Is there a similar helicopter? No.“
Article by Jeroen van Veenendaal.
Photo’s by Roelof-Jan Gort and Jeroen van Veenendaal.
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