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The first helicopter in active duty over Indochina

       Let me first do a brief historical recap on the situation in Indochina shortly after the Second World War. After the armistice in 1940, the Japanese who were at war with China, imposed the stationing of their troops in Indochina. On March the ninth 1945, they attacked the French all over Indochina, catching them by surprise. The fights were extremely violent but the French troops were soon taken prisoner and held in concentration camps. In the North, Ho Chi Minh and his troops ran down from their mountain hideout to take possession of the administrative buildings in Hanoï. In the South, some revolutionary elements formed a government placing it under the authority of Hanoï. On August the fifteenth 1945, after their capitulation, the Japanese troops laid down their arms only very slowly, with many soldiers preferring to desert and go over to the Vietminh.

       In order to bring an end to this increasingly difficult situation, General De Gaulle decided to re-establish French sovereignty over this territory by launching a military expedition. General Leclerc landed in Saïgon in October the fifth 1945. He first endeavored to restore order while entrusting Sainteny with the negotiations with the Vietminh. Following the failure of those negotiations, the Vietminh launched a general uprising against the French barracks and the French civilian population. That signaled the start of the war.

       It took from September 1945 to March 1964 to set up the Far East expeditionary carp. The vastness of the Territory located 12,000 km from France combined with the growing intensity of the fighting meant that the number of Army personnel had to be increased gradually, rising from 115,000 men in 1947 to 230,000 in 1954.

       What sort of equipment was available to the Medical Service to carry out its support to the combating forces? Considering the particular conditions of a guerrilla war that lead troops to be scattered over a large territory and submitted to deadly ambushes along the roads, the Headquarters of the Medical Service adapted its means in order to evacuate the wounded to the nearest first aid center, medical unit, surgical unit or hospital. On firm ground, stretcher bearers had the greatest difficulties in progressing through rice paddy fields or dense forest. In mountainous areas, horses were used at times, if the soldier’s injuries were compatible with such means of evacuation. Furthermore a number of medicalized jeeps, Dodge and half tracks were available. On the rivers, the light boats of the Navy provided fairly comfortable but slow evacuation, and was therefore unsuitable for the most pressing cases. There were also advanced or mobile surgical units, and later groups of parachutists with their airborne equipment that were dropped over or flown to the theater of operation. Their use entailed that:

       · The medical unit had to be protected.
       · The wounded had to be evacuated when the conditions were right.
       · A ground or air evacuation had to be set up to link up with the units at the rear once the mission had been carried out.

       All these prerequisites seriously hampered the progression of the ground troops and might jeopardize the military operations. What of the air means? At first only the Morane 500 aircraft were used, with two stacked stretchers in the fuselage. But these planes required a 400-meter runway which meant that the nurses or stretcher bearers sometimes had to cover long distances across the bush to reach it. It was Doctor General Robert who proposed to purchase in the US the first two mobile wing aircraft in order to reinforce the existing means of sanitary evacuation.

       They were two Hiller 360 UH 12 A, number 126 and 133, that first flew over Saïgon in April 1950. These marvelous little machines immediately took to the fancy of people and had a distinct impact on troop moral. Thanks to them the wounded, from then on, might be evacuated directly from the place where they had been hit to the nearest medical unit, if not straight to the hospital. At the same time as he purchased these two helicopters, Doctor General Robert saw to the training of two pilots and four mechanics of the French Air Force sent on secondment to a firm, Helicop Air, to be trained in France. This was the birth of the first ‘helicopter section’ in Indochina, attached to Air Liaison squadron n°52 in Tan Son Nhut, Saïgon airport, with Lieutenant Alexis Santini as commanding officer, himself the first military helicopter pilot in France. The unit went on its first mission on May 16 th , 1950, North West of Tanuyen, in particularly difficult circumstances: the heat was intense, and they had to airlift two wounded European soldiers from a narrow clearing. One hour out of the one hour and fifty minute flight had to be done at night. It was Lieutenant Santini who carried out that mission, and the latter was the only pilot left in the helicopter section until October 1950 because the NCO who had been chosen to be trained at the same time he had failed a test early in training. His replacement became operational in October but he had to be evacuated in his turn in July 195 1, after a road accident.

       Lieutenant Santini then decided to train himself, and on the spot, a Morane 500 pilot who was already a specialist of sanitary evacuations. Meanwhile, my Director, Doctor General Robert, who wanted to have an extra pilot, took into consideration my request to become a helicopter pilot. He had no particular bias against me and, as my file mentioned my total dedication and high motivation, plus the fact that I had flown some light aircraft and gliders and had done some parachuting, he agreed to send me to Comeilles en Vexin to be trained. Then I soon went back to Indochina to be made an operational pilot.

       I nevertheless had to wait for several months, for the two helicopters we had there were not always available, pending the delivery of spare parts coming from the USA. Furthermore I was allowed to fly only if I was not busy in my neurosurgical ward and if one of the Hillers was available. As a result, my training was intermittent with long periods when I was unable to fly. I had to wait till March 16 th , 1952 to go on my first mission, alone in my helicopter, to pick up two wounded soldiers in the Bat Nao post in the Tonkin. From then on there were two of us flying missions over the Tonkin as the two Hillers had been airlifted to Gialam, one of Hanoï's airfields, in a Bristol Freighter cargo airplane. As you know, the Hiller 360 weighed 660 kg and was fitted with a 178 horse power Franklin engine. It cruised at 100 to 135 km/h and its range was roundabout 200 km. It could carry 2 wounded persons lying in two sorts of pods attached on both sides of the fuselage.

       However, the limited power of the engine was a handicap in those tropical conditions, This meant that the missions had to be carried out without an escorting nurse or doctor, just the pilot. The weight of the equipment in its medicalized version, with two wounded men on board and a single pilot often meant that, in order to prevent overloading, we had to reduce the amount of fuel on board, thus lowering the range. As a consequence, we often had to refuel en route for a mission, hence the setting up of fuel depots scattered in the diverse outposts, and where each pilot was able to fill it up.

       Let me add a personal remark here. Indeed it stands to reason that a jockey-size pilot such as I could take more fuel on board . . . The Hillers were strictly reserved for sanitary evacuations and bore a large red cross painted on white in each of its side pods. However, the Vietminh, not being signatory to the Geneva Convention, shot at our helicopters which were particularly vulnerable on short final take-off, and more especially while the wounded were loaded onto the aircraft. This meant that an air escort had to be provided when operating over hostile territory. We usually rendez-vous-ed over the landing zone. In January 1951, a fighter pilot who had crashed, was able to hide underwater in a swamp for several hours using a bamboo stalk as a snorkel. A Siebel aircraft crew managed to spot him and he was finally picked up. From then on, our missions include the recovery of crashed aircrews.

       In 1950 the Hiller choppers flew 218 hours, and evacuated 69 men. In 1951 both aircraft flew 362 hours, evacuated 241 wounded soldiers and rescued 5 pilots. In 1952 the helicopter fleet was reinforced:

       · 4 Hiller H 23 A were bought by Medical Service
       · 1 Hiller H 23 A was offered by the city of Bordeaux and the veterans of the Expeditionary Corps of the Southwest Region of France.

       Thanks to these new aircraft, two helicopter sections were created, one attached to the 52 nd Air Liaison squadron based in Saïgon, the other attached to the 53 rd Air Liaison squadron of Hanoï. Moreover, that same year the Air Force bought 9 Westland Sikorsky S 51 in Great Britain and started training pilots and mechanics in Yeovil.

       As of March 1953 the Air Force bought 6 Hiller H23 B powered by 200 HP engines. This increase in power brought such an improvement to the aircraft that it was soon decided to equip all Hillers with 200 HP engines. As a result of this increase both in equipment and in personnel, the two sections totaled 2,896 flight hours in 1953, evacuating 3,503 wounded and rescuing 24 pilots in the insurgents’ territory. The first Sikorskys S 55 were delivered by the United States to the French Air Force in September 1953. Early in 1954, the French Air Force decided to transfer a part of its fleet of helicopters to the Army. This is why some Army pilots who had received their initial training in France, and who had been sent to Indochina, came to the 52 and 53 Air Liaison Helicopter squadrons for their operational training. Just a reminder here: Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7 th 1954. On July 1 st 1954 it was decided to merge the two Helicopters sections into the 65” Helicopter fleet, whose commanding officer was an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with an Army officer of similar rank as second in command. Once fighting had stopped in Indochina, the fleet kept training pilots and was used until 1955 as VIP transport for the International Ceasefire Commission. Here is a summary of the gradual building of the helicopter fleet in Indochina:

       · April 1950 ......................................................................... 2 Hiller 360 UH 12 A
       · February 52 ....................................................................... 4 HillerH23A
       · February 53 ....................................................................... 3 more H 23 As
       · In the same year ................................................................ 6 Hiller H 23 B
       · In 1952 .............................................................................. 9 Westland Sikorsky S 51
       · Late in 53 and early 54...................................................... 18 Sikorsky S 55

       In all, 42 aircraft. The activity of those helicopters in Indochina from April 1950 to September 30 th 1954 was:

       · 7,300 hours and 5mn of operational flight
       · 2,261 hours and 40 minutes of non-operational flight

       Total: 9,561 hours and 45mn airborne for a total of

       · 11,193 wounded evacuated.
       · 38 pilots rescued and
       · 80 soldiers airlifted from the Dien Bien Puh enclave.

       A few final words if I may: All things considered, I dare say that, even if we only had a handful of helicopters in Indochina, it greatly contributed to raising troop moral, The men were well aware that in case they were wounded, their being airlifted by this new and quasi miraculous machine was their only chance since a swift evacuation would enable them to be operated upon within reasonable time and would spare them the pains a long and bumpy ground evacuation would have entailed. The same applied to the crews who had crashed behind enemy lines or to the escape prisoners of war. Furthermore, the ground evacuation of a single wounded soldier, either by carrying him or driving him away in a sanitary vehicle had to be done under the protection of an escort of about 40 men, all likely to be ambushed, where as when the helicopter was used, those ground troops were not diverted from their mission and were therefore able to carry on with their progression. Finally having recourse to the helicopter enabled the medical staff to stay in the hospitals instead of being scattered around the advanced medical units close to the theater of operations.

       General Valerie Andre