Zermatt Heroes of the Sky

The pilots from Air Zermatt are considered to be the best high-mountain pilots in the world. The pilots and their colleagues are not just famous for mountain rescues. Their helicopters are also essential for tourist flights and transportation.

Text: Zeno van Essel
Images: Air Zermatt

 

Clouds of powder snow in all directions. The Air Zermatt helicopter appears to hardly touch the mountain landing strip on the Monte-Rosa Massif as the passengers, crouched down low, get out, fish their skis out of the helibox and give a thumbs up: "All clear for take-off!" It is scarcely a minute before the helicopter buzzes back across the steel-blue sky in an elegant curve above Zermatt’s Alpine Landscape.

The Fastest Ski Lift in the World

Passengers can quickly and comfortably reach Testa Griagia by helicopter in 20 minutes from the Rhone Valley, in the heart of the ski paradise of Zermatt and Cervinia, at 3,500 metres above sea level. Heli skiing or heli boarding are the best adventures snow sports have to offer. Air Zermatt colloquially phrases the slogan for this exclusive winter sports highlight as "the fastest ski lift in the world". It makes Zermatt even more attractive as a winter destination. Air Zermatt Chairman Philipp Perren says "it should also be noted that heli skiing is considerably less harmful to the environment than is generally assumed. A flight for five persons to one of the mountain landing strips around Zermatt uses considerably less fuel than these guest’s arrival from their home to the mountains. However, heli skiing and circular flights are the only commercial flights during the winter. It is only thanks to them that we can keep the base occupied during the winter months."

Important business income

Heli skiing is not just an important success factor for tourism. Tourist flights are an important part of business income for Air Zermatt. These include circular flights over the Alps around the Matterhorn or over the Aletsch Glacier, as well as taxi flights from Swiss and international airports to Zermatt. Air Zermatt is world-famous for mountain rescue, but the helicopter flight company could not survive on this alone.

Gerold Biner, CEO of Air Zermatt says that "rescue flights far from cover the costs". "However, economic considerations are never the first priority when it comes to rescue. Air Zermatt and its staff have been inspired by the idea of helping since the beginning. Without every individual being so enthusiastic, rescue work of this kind would not be possible at all."

Flying helpers are indispensable

Air Zermatt often saves stricken mountaineers in emergencies. However, the flying helpers are also indispensable for the local population and companies based in Zermatt. If the road into the Matterhorn Valley is blocked by snow in winter, air is the only, quickest and easiest link to large towns in Valais and the rest of Switzerland. Air Zermatt’s help is important, not just for medical emergencies, but also for everyday purposes such as building houses or supplying the Alpine huts.

Worthwhile flights: transportation of materials is the most important mainstay of Air Zermatt. Around 60 percent of flying time is spent on transportation flights. All types and lengths of buklding materials are flown by helicopter to mountain building sites, cableways, mountain huts and avalanche constructions. Air Zermatt also specialises in transportation of wood, installations, tree-planting, fire extinguishing and special orders of high voltage lines with a work platform.

"These uses are important not just in economic terms", says Gerold Biner. "They also give our pilots the chance to accumulate flying hours and to train in special flight situation. All of this improves how we respond in an emergency situation." This makes Air Zermatt’s pilots amoung the most experienced high-mountain pilots in the world, who even train their colleagues in Nepal. Along with the Zermatt rescue station, Air Zermatt set up a recue station in the Himalayas in April 2011. As part of this training project, the mountain rescuers from Zermatt achieved the world’s highest air rescue so far on Annapurna, at just under 7,000 metres above sea level.

Heli pilot Daniel Aufdenblatten and mountain rescuer Richi Lehner received the "Heroism Award" for this exceptional achievement. It is the highest honour in international aviation.

  

@ Schweizer Illustrierte.
Text: produced in collaboration with Zermatt Tourism. Published in the enclosure of the magazine Schweizer Illustrierte of November 4th 2016