Crossing the North Atlantic in an Alouette II

© Antoine Grondeau
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A fifty-year-old celebrates a centenary: this phrase perfectly sums up the record set by the Alouette II which crossed the North Atlantic this summer with four other helicopters.

The goal was to fly from Paris to the world’s largest annual convention, the EAA AirVenture Convention which is held each year in late July, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 400 km north of Chicago. The Alouette made this epic journey to celebrate the helicopter’s centenary. Nobody contests the fact that Frenchmen first performed a vertical flight in 1907.
The helicopter in question, with the registration F-GIJE, was no ordinary aircraft: its serial number 1003 indicates that it was the third aircraft to roll off the assembly lines of Sud-Aviation (which then became Aerospatiale, and later Eurocopter). Its owner, Pascal Petitgenet, purchased this Alouette, the oldest helicopter of its type currently flying, 15 years ago. Pascal is a former pilot of the French Fleet Air Arm and is considered one of the leading helicopter specialists. He runs Héli Technique, a Eurocopter-approved maintenance center in Signy- Signets in the Seine-et-Marne département, 50 km east of Paris. His co-pilot, David Dahdi, manages the air tourism company Héliplaisir, which operates helicopters from its base in Lognes. Pascal restored the 1003 partby- part to its authentic state, as it had been in June 1956. This means, therefore, that the aircraft has no hydraulic assistance or heating. Crossing the Atlantic by the most direct route, the one used by airliners, was out of the question: despite carrying a ferry tank, helicopters need to refuel approximately every 650 km. Therefore, the 9,000 km journey had to be made with stopovers in Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada’s far north. At 3,000 meters (the average altitude of the Alps), Greenland reared up like a wall in front of the venerable 1003. Pascal recalls that on the first attempt: “I had to hold the stick between my knees; the aircraft was vibrating so much. We couldn’t make it over.” Instead, Pascal had to stop one third of the way up, and his peers agreed that landing on a rock was the best option. The crew, who had completed a survival course before the journey, spent the night on the icecap, hoping that a bear would not decide to join them. These hardy souls did not throw in the towel, however, and decided to carry on by lightening the vintage aircraft. Just enough fuel was carried to make it half-way, where a refuelling stop was organised at an old US radar station from the Cold War, at an altitude of 7,500 feet. The Alouette even had to fly over the Arctic Circle.
But the reward was every bit as magnificent as the exploit. The helicopters from France opened EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, performing a flypast. The Alouette took the lead, flanked by two Ecureuil/A-Stars, while an Agusta brought up the rear.




_AUTHOR: THIERRY VIGOUREUX



© Antoine Grondeau
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The Alouette crew on the Paris-Oshkosh journey: pilot Pascal Petitgenet and co-pilot David Dahdi.