Air Zermatt to the Rescue, Part 1
Air Zermatt’s trademark has been high alpine rescue, much of it conducted near the deadliest of the massifs in the Alps, the mighty Matterhorn.
Since the first ascent in 1865, over 500 people have died on the iconic peak. There have been years in which 25 mountaineers died while climbing the mountain.
“Challenging” would be an understatement for helicopter operations in the Alps. Crews face the unforgiving environment of high altitude, extreme temperatures, strong winds, unpredictable and rapidly changing weather, and weight issues as they precariously land “toe in” on knife-edge ridgelines to conduct rescue operations.
Zermatt is also one of skiing’s most desirable locations. In a typical winter ski season, there are 2,000 rescues, or roughly 22 rescues per day. When an alpine adventurer gets into trouble in this recreational paradise, Air Zermatt will likely be an important component of the rescue.
Due to its expertise in high-altitude mountain rescue, Air Zermatt was called upon to provide the training and mentoring for helicopter rescue services in the extreme high-altitude environment of the Himalayas.
Its crews conducted noteworthy rescues, some of which set new aviation records and earned Aviation Week Laureate Awards.
Thus, in May 2019, our group of college aviation students was thrilled to be given a custom tour of the Air Zermatt facility by members of its team who were on “standby” status to provide rescue service.
During the three days prior to this tour, the students had hiked or skied along the glaciers near the Matterhorn, which gave them exposure to the frequent changes in mountain weather, not to mention the challenges of high altitudes. The tour of the facility was an extraordinary educational experience for the aviation students who are still remembering it as a lifetime learning opportunity.
Air Zermatt’s Fleet
In a country noted for its vertical topography, it makes perfect sense that a helicopter would become an indispensable tool.
Approximately 60% of the flight hours flown by Air Zermatt involve the transport of materials, which means its pilots get plenty of external load work in the challenging alpine environment. This includes the transportation of materials for the construction of buildings, resupply of Swiss Alpine Club mountain huts, water supply facilities, avalanche defenses, cable cars, chairlifts, ski lift towers and mounting aerial cables.
Twenty percent of the flight hours involve tourist flights, which includes sightseeing, heli-skiing and air-taxi flights.
Air Zermatt utilizes five types of helicopters for these missions. The Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama is perhaps its most iconic. It is used by Air Zermatt for passenger and material transport, observation and flight training. For almost 30 years the Lama held the altitude record for helicopters after Jean Boulet flew to an altitude of 12,442 meters on June 21, 1972. The pilot’s side canopy is specially designed to allow the pilot to lean sideways to look downward during external load work.
According to Air Zermatt, “In the harsh conditions of the mountains, these robust machines have proven themselves successful. The characteristic howl will be heard in the Alps for years to come.”
The AS350 B3 (now called the Airbus H125) is widely recognized for its high-altitude performance. On March 23, 2002, Frederic North reached an altitude of 12,954 meters in the helicopter. On May 14, 2005, Didier Delsalle landed a B3+ on the peak of Mount Everest (8,848 meters).
Air Zermatt utilizes the H125 extensively for its external load work, performing approximately 7,000 lift rotations from its Zermatt base alone in a year.
The Eurocopter EC130 (now called the Airbus H130) is primarily used for panorama, heli-skiing and air-taxi flights, and is capable of carrying up to seven passengers. The increased power, along with an upgraded gearbox and active vibration control, reduces pilot fatigue and allows the helicopter to perform well at high-density altitudes.
Air Zermatt also operates two Bell 429s that are equipped for air ambulance missions. The interior of the helicopter looks like a miniature version of an emergency room loaded with lifesaving medical equipment.
Due to the vertical terrain, it is equipped with an external winch as well as a belly-mounted hook. These features are invaluable for carrying rescue specialists to steep terrain where a helicopter can’t land, as well as for picking up patients.
The Bell 429 is IFR-equipped, which led to an in-depth discussion comparing the benefits and costs. This was especially poignant when our host pointed at the tight canyon confines and said, “No pilot with good judgment would try to fly in poor weather through that narrow canyon.”
Air Zermatt carefully weighed this debate, knowing that the weather can and does change rapidly in alpine regions. Air Zermatt’s typical rescue mission in which its helicopter is hovering out of ground effect adjacent to a rock face does not lend itself to an IFR network. The cost, combined with the impracticality of trying to do IFR flying in that topography, weighed against maintaining IFR proficiency.
Specialized Rescue Kits Ready for Instant Deployment
With abundant crevasses throughout all of the snowfields surrounding Zermatt it is inevitable that an alpine adventurer will fall into one of them. Crevasses are large cracks within a glacier that can be camouflaged by an over-lying layer of snow that collapses with the load of an alpine skier or mountaineer.
An alpinist can fall among the ice walls, suffering serious injuries until coming to a sudden halt. A traditional rescue would involve nearby alpinists anchoring themselves into the snowfield with ice axes and utilizing a system of pulleys and climbing ropes to lower a rescuer and/or extract the fallen climber.
It requires manpower; all of the rescuers have to traverse the dangerous snowfield to get to the site. By the time they would finally retrieve the injured alpinist, the combination of weather exposure and injury would likely have turned even relatively simple injuries into life-threatening ones.
Experienced alpinists know that descents down steep precipices are often more dangerous than ascents, thus the downward trek with the victim involves additional peril.
These conditions inspired Beat H. Perren, a municipal councilman responsible for the health service, to found Air Zermatt in 1968.
“I can remember when I was a boy; the mountain guides set off with the mules and came back with mostly dead bodies.”
The extreme conditions of these rescues required innovative solutions that Air Zermatt rescue service has developed and refined.
They include a special “ready kit” prepared with a unique tripod that provides a mounting base for ropes to extract a victim stuck in a crevasse. A separate ready kit contains a custom-designed, self-contained winch.
These kits can be quickly attached to the helicopter’s skids and the helicopter can be airborne within 5 min. While this is happening, the rescue coordinators in the dispatch center are contacting ski patrollers and mountain guides who are specially trained and certified in glacier rescue. Within 10 min. they can be at the launch pad or otherwise available to be picked up en route.
A video of the challenges of crevasse rescues titled “Scream One More Time” can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHCHMY3DiYo.
In the background of the video, you can see the Air Zermatt helicopter that provided the vital transport for this successful rescue mission.
Air Zermatt also stands by with a specialized kit for avalanches that includes search and rescue tools appropriate for the cement-hard snow of an avalanche field. The public safety teams also have specially certified avalanche search dogs located at strategic locations within the massive Zermatt ski region that can be picked up along with their handlers in case the rescue will proceed to an area covered by an avalanche.
These special teams and their equipment will be taken first to the rescue zone to immediately start the search and (hopefully) rescue effort. This rapid response is vital because a buried avalanche victim has a limited time to survive under the suffocating snow.
The chances of a successful extraction of a buried avalanche victim rise markedly when search and rescue is started within minutes.
Having rescue dogs promptly on the scene increases the chances of a successful rescue.
Without a helicopter, the arrival of specialized rescue teams would be measured in terms of hours rather than minutes.
Once the avalanche victim is extracted, they are quickly flown down the narrow canyon to the medical facility in Visp, \roughly 7 min. away by helicopter, or 30 min. to Bern if a higher care center is needed.
Another innovation is the utilization of a “long line” for rescue. This involves delivering a rescuer to the site while they are dangling from a long cable attached to the bottom of the rotorcraft.
The effectiveness of long-line rescue was demonstrated in 1970 when mountain guides and paramedics suspended on the end of a hoist cable from a hovering Air Zermatt helicopter were set down at five different sites on the imposing north face of the Eiger, demonstrating the potential for helicopters to deliver vital rescue services to severe terrain that would prohibit a helicopter from landing.
A long line is useful not only for rescues in vertical terrain but also from the numerous ski lifts and gondolas that cross the Alps. An exciting example of this method can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtXKQnvPP2M (warning for acrophobes…this video will trigger your adrenalin).
The video demonstrates the use of a long line for rescuing skiers trapped on a cable car. In case you are unfamiliar with these gondolas crossing the Alps, they sometimes span considerable distances between mountain peaks and are suspended thousands of feet above the terrain.
If the gondola system malfunctions, leaving tourists stranded in the cable car, rescue by helicopter is the only realistic option. This video is an impressive illustration of remarkable airmanship…not to mention the confidence of the rescuer dangling from the long line while being transported thousands of feet high in the air, and the willing volunteers for these practice rescues who probably had the ride of their lives.
In Part 2 of this three-part series, we’ll discuss how Air Zermatt develops its pilots.