Air Zermatt to the Rescue, Part 2

A young snowboarder leaps through the air in the small resort of Zinal, Swiss Alps on January 9, 2018, after the access road cut by heavy snowfall reopened. Heavy snowfall has cut off many villages and resorts across the Alps, trapping some 13,000 tourists at Zermatt, one of Switzerland's most popular ski stations, officials said.
Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the makeup of Air Zermatt’s fleet and the company’s origins.

Our aviation students naturally asked, “What does it take to become a pilot for Air Zermatt?”

This turned into a lengthy thought-provoking discussion for these eager and aspiring young pilots.

In the case of Air Zermatt, knowledge of the mission coordination, local meteorology patterns and topography is paramount to the expert decision-making necessary to operate in this high-risk environment.

Almost all of its pilots start within the company in other roles. With a proven record of being a contributor to the team effort, they are encouraged to earn their private and commercial helicopter pilot certificates, paid by the individual.

This proves their commitment. Many times, this training is obtained in the U.S. or Canada, and then the individual converts their pilot certificate into a Swiss pilot certificate.

Upon return to Air Zermatt, they will be mentored in an aerial tour helicopter to further advance their learning and experience. This structured on-the-job training allows Air Zermatt to closely oversee the development of its trainees.

Besides building further flight experience, the trainees are given direct instruction to develop the judgment to fly in this high alpine environment.

The next step in their development is learning how to master external loads. The vast amount of construction work from ski lifts, alpine infrastructure (mountaintop tourism sites, suspension bridges) as well as logging provides extensive hands-on mentoring experience.

The village of Zermatt experiences a lull in its tourist influx during May and October (referred to as “shoulder season” in ski country), during which it allows Air Zermatt to conduct extensive aerial support of construction projects within the village.

On the weekdays we watched a nonstop shuttling of construction materials and equipment from the Air Zermatt platform to construction sites within the village, oftentimes with a turnaround time of mere minutes.

On the day of our visit (a Sunday, which is a non-flying day based on respect for the Swiss village’s deep cultural roots), we were shown the items for transport on Monday’s agenda.

These items covered the equivalent of a football field, and our host emphasized, “That’s just Monday’s workload.” Our group collectively dropped our jaws.

It isn’t until a pilot has demonstrated immense proficiency not just in the “collective and cyclic” control of a helicopter but more importantly with the judgment needed to fly in this high-altitude alpine environment that they are transitioned into rescue flying.

Being a ‘Good Neighbor’ in This Famous Village

While standing on the Air Zermatt landing deck we looked at the expensive homes that had recently been constructed mere hundreds of yards away.

Some owners of those homes had complained about helicopter noise, but their objections resulted in no action from local authorities for several reasons.

First, Air Zermatt provides an indispensable public service to the community. Second, it has been in existence since 1968 and local authorities were less than sympathetic to newcomers who would knowingly build homes close to this heliport and then complain about noise.

It is not uncommon for local Swiss authorities to require owners of newly built homes near existing airports to sign documents that they acknowledge the presence of airport noise and will not seek further noise restrictions against current aircraft operations.

There is yet another major reason why Air Zermatt is a critical service provider to the local region.

On Jan. 8, 2018, Switzerland’s Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research said that at least 80 cm (31.5 in.) of snow had dropped on the Zermatt area over a 24-hr. period, raising the avalanche risk to a maximum level of five on the warning scale.

Nearby roads, cable cars, ski slopes and hiking trails into the town were closed, leaving 13,000 tourists stranded. Even the famously reliable Swiss train up to Zermatt was halted due to the avalanche risk.

Air Zermatt’s helicopters were the only link to the communities below. Swiss authorities deployed Air Zermatt’s helicopters to ferry some tourists to the nearby village of Täsch (3-min. flight time) to escape the snowbound alpine valley.

Our host explained to our group the difficulty of having a large number of passengers, most of whom were not savvy to helicopter operations and safety.

Imagine trying to explain to a tourist who doesn’t speak one of the four common languages in Switzerland the necessity of holding onto their loose items when approaching the helicopter, especially passengers who were in a hurry and not prone to listen to safety instructions.

Ferrying guests who are leaving Zermatt down to the next train station and bringing in the next wave of skiers during prime ski season proved Air Zermatt’s important link to the local economy.

In the final part of this series, we’ll discuss Air Zermatt’s Mountain Emergency Medicine course.


Patrick Veillette, Ph.D.

Upon his retirement as a non-routine flight operations captain from a fractional operator in 2015, Dr. Veillette had accumulated more than 20,000 hours of flight experience in 240 types of aircraft—including balloons, rotorcraft, sea planes, gliders, war birds, supersonic jets and large commercial transports. He is an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University.