The French Navy Is Finally Retiring These Antique Helicopters After 55 Years of Service

The service says it simply can't afford to keep flying the Alouette III, even though replacement helicopters aren't ready yet.

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The French Navy will reportedly retire the last of its Alouette III light helicopters after more than 55 years of service and at least a decade before its scheduled replacement arrives, as the Cold War-era helicopters have become a nightmare to maintain. The service plans to lease Airbus Helicopters AS365 Dauphins to fill the resulting gap until the European consortium's new H160 become available.

French newspaper La Tribune first reported the decision on Jan. 19, 2018. At present, the French Navy’s aviation arm, or l'Aéronavale, has fewer than 20 of the aging Alouette IIIs, which first entered service in 1962. They increasingly serve in the reserve utility role, if they fly at all, but as of as least 2016, a number of them were still assigned to the unit Flottille 35F. That year they deployed aboard some of France’s warships, even taking part in large, multi-national exercises, such as the U.S. Navy’s Rim of the Pacific drills, or RIMPAC.  

According to La Tribune, French Navy Admiral Christophe Prazuck, the service’s Chief of Staff, told the Defense Committee of the country’s National Assembly in October 2017 that it now costs approximately 13,000 Euros per flight hour to operate each Alouette III, equivalent to almost $16,000. This was up from 5,000 Euros in 2010, or approximately $6,100, and at least twice the price per hour to operate similar, but much more modern helicopters in the same roles. At the same time, less than 40 percent of the French Navy’s total fleet was actually flyable at any one time on average.

The main reason for this is that the Alouette IIIs have been in French Navy service for more than 55 years and the design has been out of production for more than three of those decades. Admiral Prazuck reportedly complained to the assembled lawmakers in October 2017 that the helicopter had already been in service for two years when the movie Fantômas, starring famous French actor Jean Marais and featuring the chopper heavily on screen and in its marketing literature, came out in 1964 and his service was still flying it more than five decades later.

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French Navy Captain Francois Duhamez, a defense attaché with the United Nations, exits an Alouette III helicopter during an exercise on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 2014.

France’s Sud-Aviation had first flown a prototype in 1959. It continued to build the helicopters even as the company subsequently became part of French aviation consortium Aérospatiale in 1970. Production finally stopped in 1985, after which the company eventually became part of what is now known as Airbus Group.  

The helicopters have performed a wide variety of missions, but have primarily spent their time as small personnel and cargo transports and air ambulances with militaries and civil operators around the world. The Alouette III's good performance in so-called hot-and-high environments made it popular throughout search and rescue duties, especially in mountainous terrain.

Pflatsch via Wikimedia

An Austrian Alouette III flies in the Alps in 2005.

They also became heavily associated with limited conflicts in Africa during the 1960s and 70s, where countries such as France, Portugal, Rhodesia – which became Zimbabwe after the transition from white minority rule in 1980 – and South Africa, turned them into small air assault platforms and light gunships. Even after 1985, Romania’s IAR and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) continued to build additional models under license, as well.

It’s a testament to the durability of the design that it’s remained in service in France and more than a dozen other nations for so long. But it’s also an increasingly dated design that the French military as a whole has been working to phase out for decades already. The country's Army and Air Force had formally retired their examples by 2013.

The video below offers an overview of various specialized units within the Rhodesian military, including footage of Alouette IIIs:

When it came to the l'Aéronavale, the Dauphin steadily took over from the Alouette III in the search and rescue role after its introduction in the late 1970s. The Panther, a further improved derivative of the Dauphin, also replaced it in the anti-submarine warfare role in the 1980s. The French Navy bought a number of Westland Lynx light helicopters for the latter role, as well.

But it’s not entirely clear why the Alouette has remained in French Navy service up to this point. It’s single-engine design and navies have increasingly preferred multi-engine rotary-wing aircraft as an added safety precaution in case of one of the powerplants failing during over-water flight, which could leave the crew with little option but to ditch in the sea. The Dauphin, Panther, and Lynx are all twin-engine designs.

Below is a video montage showing helicopter operations aboard France's aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in 2012, including Alouette IIIs that were part of its air wing at the time:

Part of the issue appears to have been a desire to try save money by waiting for a replacement under the Inter-service Light Helicopter program, also known by the acronym HIL. This goal of this project is replace the Alouette, as well as the remaining Dauphin, Panther, Fennec, and Gazelle light helicopters across all of France’s military services, with versions of the Airbus Helicopters H160.

Unfortunately, the development schedule for the H160 has continued to slip since its first flight in 2015. Two years earlier, Jean-Yves Le Drian, then French Minister of Defense, had suggested the French Army would have its first examples in service by 2024. Now, according to La Tribune, budget difficulties have pushed this back to at least 2028. In September 2017, France announced it would boost defense spending by $2 billion to help improve readiness and speed up various modernization efforts.

Whether Airbus can have the helicopters ready on time is a separate matter. In 2016, the multi-national firm said it would deliver the first civilian versions to customers within two years. A report by Defense News says the European aviation consortium has now pushed this back until at least 2019, when it expects to have the first three flying prototypes ready for flight certification. Its helicopter sales and deliveries reportedly slowed in general between 2016 and 2017.

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One of the three Airbus Group H160 prototypes.

These delays are likely why the French Navy has decided to ditch at least the Alouette IIIs and lease more AS365s in the meantime. Since it’s a type the service already operates, it will have little trouble integrating them into the overall force. Still in production, the Dauphins will be cheaper to maintain and keep mission ready than the older helicopters, too.

This arrangement could continue until the H160s finally begin to enter French Navy service, sometime after 2028. The French government expects to sign deals for between 160 and 190 of the helicopters in total across the services starting in 2022 or 2023, which would be a major boon for Airbus' production line. If that delivery schedule slips any further, however, France may feel it has to trim the total buy and seek other solutions as other helicopter types, such as the also out of production Gazelle, become increasingly more difficult to maintain. 

However that program plays out, though, the Alouette III’s career in French service is finally coming to a close after nearly five decades.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com