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Fri, Jul 27, 2007

French Helicopters Fly From Paris To Oshkosh

Heliventure '07 Headed Back To France Thursday

A group of French pilots, flying an array of helicopters, landed in Oshkosh on Tuesday after an exhaustive trip from Paris. Heliventure '07, as the event is called, took the helicopters through several countries and over long expanses of ocean. Several pilots recounted their memories of the trip, which was delayed several times due to weather and an issue with US Customs.

Four of the five helicopters made it to AirVenture, with one R44 being forced to head back after a split belt was discovered. The final count was one Agusta A109, an AS350B Squirrel, an AS355F2 Squirrel, and an Alouette. The Alouette is serial number 3, and the oldest flying Alouette in the world. It was fitted with a fuel tank in the cabin because the helicopter's range would have required frequent stops otherwise.

The trip from Paris to Oshkosh was only half the journey, but an event in and of itself. The journey required around 50 hours of flying time, 26 stops, and flying over 5,000 nautical miles of terrain and open water. A TBM 700 would lead the pack, checking for weather and other hazards. Behind the helicopters, a Diamond DA42 Twinstar followed the group to check on any stragglers and search for weather as well. Frederic Beniada, one of the Heliventure '07 pilots, said the group "initially underestimated the weather."

Heliventure '07 spanned many countries, with the helicopters flying through France, England, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, and after a few frustrations, the United States. The group departed on Saturday, July 14th, and at first had no real weather troubles. Once into Greenland, storms kept the helicopters grounded for some time, and on a few occasions the helicopters flew two-thirds of the way to the next checkpoint only to be forced to return due to back weather. Once over Hudson Bay in Canada, the weather started to improve. "The scenery all over was great." says Beniada.

During a leg in Greenland, the helicopters had to fly over an icepack at 11,000 feet to avoid bad weather. Another leg was supposed to last three hours, only to end up taking Beniada five hours and twenty minutes due to weather issues, leaving fifteen minutes of fuel in the Squirrel helicopter's fuel tank.

While the majority of airports were well-equipped, occasionally the helicopters were forced to land in small villages in the middle of nowhere. Marc Mongeau, a helicopter engineer flying in the DA42 and a copilot in one of the Squirrels, said that Qikiqtarjuaq, an island in Nunavat, Canada, was one such village. It was there that Mongeau and the group was told of a national park in the area, and they made it a point to fly through the park. "It was the most wildlife I've seen." says Mongeau. "There were lots of seals and whales in the ocean."

After leaving Qikiqtarjuaq, the helicopters flew through a valley "at two thousand feet with the mountains above." reflects Mongeau. The crew had survival kits and life rafts, and the pilots were careful to keep track of one another.

Once to the US, the group was held up due to an issue with US Customs. It seems the French translation for commercial pilot is very close to professional pilot, and foreigners flying into the US for commercial purposes require a visa that the crew simply did not have. After many expensive phone calls to the French embassy, the issue was sorted out.

While the trip ran several days late, the Heliventure '07 mission was a success. One can imagine the scenery on such a flight, as well as the drain of flying 47 hours in such a short period of time. For Frederic Beniada, "the most enjoyable part was to get to Oshkosh."



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