High Skill, High Altitude

Text by Roelof-Jan Gort and Bjorn van der Flier of Fly High Aeromedia.com
Situated in the French Alps, the town of Briançon houses the Gendarmerie CVM, or Centre de Vol en Montagne, the Mountain Flying Centre.
An AS350 flies through the snow-covered mountains - Björn van der Flier
Mountain training is a part of the overall training for the Gendarmerie Air Forces (FAGN) pilots and flight engineers. Deputy head of the Gendarmerie National Helicopter Training Centre, Major Orain, and Lieutenant Juste give us a deeper look at the tasks and operations of the CVM and its international connections.
The Mountain Flying Training Centre

The CVM, in its current location, has existed since 2014 and shares it with the SAG Briançon, though training was conducted from the previous operational base. In service with the FAGN since 2012 and a mountain flying instructor since 2019, Major Orain is not based in Briançon. However, he is currently assigned to the CVM and is present every quarter to participate in the mountain training courses. He explains, “I have to ensure, under the directives of my chief, the smooth progress of the training courses followed by the pilots and the flight engineers of the gendarmerie in all fields and on our three types of helicopters.” These types are the AS350 Ecureuil, EC135, and the EC145.

But it's not just helicopter pilots they train at the CVM; the modern age also requires drone remote pilots to be trained in the mountains, all with the highest standard of safety in mind. Each FAGN pilot begins their initial training at Dax Flying School of the Army Aviation in southwestern France, alongside pilots from the army, navy, and air force, where they learn to fly the helicopter on the EC120. The training to become a military helicopter pilot at the Dax air school takes about a year and a half, and students must fly about one hundred and thirty hours in real time and twenty hours in the simulator. When they join the Gendarmerie Air Forces, the pilots also receive their qualification training at BA120 Cazaux on one of the three types of helicopters the FAGN operates (AS350, EC135, EC145), depending on the unit they are going to. This training lasts about five weeks and includes twelve flying hours. After this initial training, they undergo their environmental training for the Gendarmerie.

As previously mentioned, at the CVM, training occurs four times a year, covering every season and weather condition, and usually takes about two weeks to complete. There is only one instructor pilot permanently assigned to the CVM, which is Lieutenant Arnaud Juste. Once a course starts, the CVM is complemented with additional instructors to make a total of ten. The team is then composed of personnel with different experiences, and most of them are operational pilots from other FAGN Mountain bases. This structure is to transmit methods and experiences as completely as possible. A week after the pilots have performed their technical qualification on the aircraft, they will come to the CVM to log more flying hours on their respective type and to undergo initial training in the mountains, though not for a full qualification.
AS350BA Écureuil taking off from the CVM with the flight engineer standing on the skids - Roelof-Jan Gort
The Fleet

The CVM houses one AS350 and one EC145, and although they're part of the Gendarmerie Air Forces, they're typically not utilised for operational sorties; their primary role is for training. Only in exceptional circumstances, where the regular SAG fleet proves insufficient and reinforcements are needed, does the CVM fleet come into play. Such was the case during the Germanwings A320 crash in 2015, when the crash site was hardly accessible by land, creating a high demand for flying officials and investigators to the scene.

The helicopters at the CVM are equipped similarly to any other unit of the FAGN, with the only modification occurring in wintertime when they are fitted with snow skids. Flying at higher altitudes does impact engine performance, and when a compromise between aircraft weight and performance is required, the helicopter undergoes a quick weight reduction. Crews often land at a base camp to offload equipment and personnel not required for the mission, just to reach the rescue point, making as many round trips as necessary to rescue everyone.
EC145 in the hangar of the CVM at Briançon - Roelof-Jan Gort
Course and Instructor

As previously mentioned, there are two different types of training at the CVM: the initial training of two weeks and a full qualification course of up to eight weeks. Lieutenant Juste provides a closer look at the complete process of the training.
"We train pilots and flight engineers not only to fly in the mountains but also to operate at the limited power of the aircraft they use. They also learn the methodology for making a safety decision to land in confined airspace," Lieutenant Arnaud Juste stated. Every pilot comes to the CVM for a week after their technical qualification on the AS350 Ecureuil or the EC145. "We have them fly in confined airspaces and apply the methodology for making a safety decision to land according to the aircraft's limits and the terrain's specifications. This also allows them to log more flight hours on the helicopter and gain more experience with it. So, it's not a mountain qualification, but merely an initiation," he commented.

For this training, they fly about eight hours with an instructor in the different terrains near Briançon. These flights in confined airspaces also enhance their understanding of the helicopter and their experiences. After this intense week of flying in the mountains, they return to their unit. If they wish to fly in the mountains and meet the conditions, they must spend a specific rating week at the CVM. The pilots who pass begin the training course of mountain flying, which lasts eight weeks, equating to two weeks per season.
It’s not just flying; there is also classroom training at the CVM - Roelof-Jan Gort
Training to Fly in the Mountains at Night

Before joining a mountain air unit, pilots must undergo training to fly with Night Vision Goggles (NVGs). They need to have a minimum of seventy hours of NVG flights and two hundred hoist operations by daylight, followed by a training that lasts one week with about five hours of flying. To perform in the mountains, they need to train as each crew every year for more than twelve hours (minimum).

"We train the pilots in night flying the same way we do by day. We employ about the same analysis method for landing, and we conduct these training flights in every kind of terrain (high and low altitude, snow, dry, very dark night, and full moon conditions) - the light conditions are quite different by night and through the NVGs. We need to train regularly to acclimate to them (no relief through the NVGs)," Lt. Juste explains.
AS350 night ops. The crews use NVG to navigate through the mountains - Björn van der Flier
The Different Training Phases

Lieutenant Juste elaborates on the selection process: “The selection is conducted prior to the training, encompassing a week of flying and a motivational interview with our instructors. The candidates are volunteers, and they must inform their hierarchy of their intention, along with holding at least a thousand flight hours.”

The mountain flying training course unfolds in four stages following the rating week. The initial phase is termed the elementary phase. Here, pilots acquaint themselves with basic mountain terrain, honing flying skills devoid of any horizon reference, ensuring path security, and mastering aerologic analysis. The subsequent phase, the fundamental phase, sees them learning analysis methods across varied terrains and honing skills on the EC145 C2. The third phase, known as the development phase, engages pilots in method analysis on rough terrains, snow landings, and operations in aerological and adverse weather conditions. The final stage, the synthesis phase, focuses on training for operational rescue management. As mentioned earlier, this training spans eight weeks, plus the qualification rating on the EC145 C2 helicopter.
The AS350 flies over the beautiful countryside - Björn van der Flier
The Various Difficulties of Mountain Flying

For inexperienced pilots, navigating the mountains is no easy feat. The challenges encompass evolving within confined environments and airspaces under harsh weather conditions. Moreover, flying at the helicopter's limits when all these factors converge proves challenging. “As a mountain pilot, thorough understanding of the helicopter's performance, situational analysis, and making safety decisions when necessary are crucial,” Lieutenant Juste remarked.

There exist conditions under which pilots cannot proceed with a flight. The foremost among these is extremely adverse weather either at the departure location or at the rescue point. Either of these conditions warrants mission abortion for the pilots.
Post-training at the CVM, pilots are qualified for mountain flights. However, training continues alongside crew members and rescuers of their prospective unit. Additionally, they must conduct reconnaissance flights to familiarise themselves with obstacles, dropping zones, and the area's challenges.
Two mountaineers of the PGHM waiting to be picked up by the EC145 - Roelof-Jan Gort
Training of the Hoist Operators at the CVM

Apart from pilots, hoist operators too receive training at the CVM. This course spans about two weeks. All candidates are volunteers and undergo a three-day selection process entailing security briefing, knowledge assessment, hoist operations, and evaluating ease or ability in confined spaces and high altitudes. “The training lasts two weeks. The hoist operators perform hoist operations in diverse spaces available here like canyons, high altitudes, forests, snow, and snow lifts in the ski resorts. Besides, they also refine their skills in the areas of rescue missions and their involvement in ensuring the helicopter's and the occupants' safety,” Lieutenant Juste added.
A mountaineer of the High Mountain Police Squad (PGHM) keeps an eye out for the helicopter to return - Roelof-Jan Gort
Diverse Types of Missions

In the mountains, FAGN pilots execute about five distinct types of missions. The first type encompasses law enforcement missions, during which they gather information, address local crises, relay information to administrative authorities, search for missing persons, and ensure border security. Judicial missions form the second type, where they hunt for criminals, transport investigators or intervention groups. The third type entails rescue missions, rescuing mountain hikers, mountaineers, individuals trapped under avalanches, and patient transportation. The fourth type is training missions, encompassing day and night training (with NVGs) and hoist operations. Lastly, the fifth type, technical flights, involves training to maintain the helicopter during flight and at specific locations.
The EC145 during one of its landings in the high mountains - Roelof-Jan Gort
Performing a Rescue Mission in the Mountains

Upon receiving a 112 call, it's forwarded to the Departmental Fire and Rescue Operations Centre. Initially, the staff member attempts to calm the caller, inquiring about their name, precise location, and the nature of the emergency. This information allows the staff to accurately gauge the required assistance. Subsequently, the staff contacts the air unit of the gendarmerie (SAG) in Briançon to relay the report.

When the DAG at Briançon receives this rescue alert via phone or radio, a briefing with the obtained information is held. This briefing covers the alert type, location, weather conditions, urgency level, and number of individuals involved. Post-briefing, they fly to the nearby hospital to pick up a doctor, then proceed directly to the specified location. En route, the crew, rescuers, and doctor discuss the local situation and make decisions. A typical rescue mission includes one pilot, one hoist operator, two rescuers, and one doctor. The crew ensures flight security, pathfinding, hoist operations, and the safety of individuals on board. Rescuers focus on securing the affected individuals and managing the rescue operation, while the doctor's task is to stabilise the patient for the flight to the hospital.

Flying at high altitudes doesn't necessitate any modifications to the helicopters. “It's merely a compromise between the helicopter's performance and the altitude of the rescue site. We often need to land at a base camp to shed weight, like offloading rescue equipment, personnel, or the doctor. Without this excess weight, we can reach the rescue point, making as many return flights as necessary,” Lieutenant Juste explained. “Yes, we don appropriate gear and jackets to cope with the weather conditions, and there's a rescue bag on board for emergency landings. It contains essentials for a few days of autonomous survival like winter clothing, food, water, etc. For snow landings, the helicopters are additionally fitted with snow skids.”
Landing the EC145 on a snow-covered terrain, the flight engineer keeps an eye on the ground - Björn van der Flier
International Relations

The CVM isn't solely focused on training French Gendarmerie crews (pilots and flight engineers); it has long-standing international connections with the Spanish Guardia Civil Air Forces, Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie Air Forces, and in the past, has engaged in exchanges with Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. The cooperation with the Guardia Civil commenced in 2020, and annually, they travel to Spain for training, reciprocated by a visit from the Spanish to the CVM. For them, the focus is on mastering a method for landing in mountainous terrains and winching. While they are acquainted with these techniques through training in the south of the Pyrenees for mountain rescue, they venture to France to tap into the mountain flying expertise the French Gendarmerie has established at the CVM in Briançon, which offers an incredibly unique training experience globally. The training for pilots and flight engineers spans about fifteen days. The Moroccan connection dates back even further to 2012, and remains highly active to date. Instructors travel to Morocco to train pilots several times a year, and likewise, welcome them at the CVM. The primary aim is to tailor the training to their needs, whilst maintaining the same training standards as in France.

Acknowledgements are extended to Major Orain, Lieutenant Juste from the CVM, and Captain Lahri from the HQ of the Gendarmerie Air Forces for their invaluable assistance in making this possible.
Major Orain - Roelof-Jan Gort
Major Orain exemplifies the Gendarmerie Air Forces' capability to impart high technical skills to pilots in a short term. With a law degree, Matthieu Orain, as a budding Gendarmerie officer, had no prerequisites when he embarked on the rigorous recruitment tests for military pilots. A decade later, he's an elite pilot of the FAGN, mountain pilot, and instructor, qualified on all types of helicopters operated by the French Gendarmerie. In addition, he has amassed nearly 3000 flight hours and instructs pilots in mountain flying across three continents. In 2021, he made a notable landing with an Airbus Helicopter EC145 D2 at 5500m on the side of Cotopaxi, closely rivaling the record for a Gendarmerie pilot.
Lt. Juste in front of the AS35BA Écureuil, is the only permanently assigned instructor to the CVM - Roelof-Jan Gort
Lieutenant Arnaud Juste, with nearly 3500 flight hours under his belt, is an adept mountain pilot and instructor. He assumed command of the CVM on December 1, 2022. Prior to this, he's a highly experienced pilot having served in air units of Villacoublay, Rennes, Ajaccio, Tarbes, and Briançon. He regularly engages in cooperative training with Morocco and Spain, and has hosted Chilean and Peruvian pilots at the CVM for their mountain and high mountain pilot training.
Personnel of the CVM - Roelof-Jan Gort
This article first appeared in the August/September edition of RotorHub International.