The Highest Ever Flight in a Helicopter - 42,500FT

Following on from our article about Fred North’s movie work in the last issue of GA Buyer Europe, here we recount Fred’s amazing 2002 world altitude record in a helicopter. Around thirty years after the record set by Jean Boulet using an SA315B ‘Lama’ helicopter, Fred North, professional pilot, took an AS350B2 ‘Squirrel’ to the fantastic altitude of 12,954m (42,500ft). Here’s how he did it.

AvBuyer  |  15th October 2021
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    The AvBuyer editorial team includes Matt Harris and Rebecca Applegarth who contribute to a number of...

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    Highest flight in a Helicopter

    How is it possible to beat the world altitude record for a helicopter? North spent two years thinking about it...

    As Fred was starting up the turbine of his Squirrel AS350B2 at Cape Town International Airport, South Africa, on Saturday 23rd March 2002, he didn’t feel like being a test pilot or risking life and limb. For a professional helicopter pilot like Fred, with 8,500 flying hours (including 5,000 hours on the Squirrel) and his own company specialising in aerial work, the challenge itself was enough.

    As soon as the idea came to him, North started to think through the technical, physical, and psychological challenges. He wondered too if his audacity went too far. And in few seconds, the film of his life played back to him, reminding him what he had done to get there…

    Helicopter Performance

    A light 5-6 seat helicopter, no matter which one, is not built to fly at such high altitudes. This type of aircraft is more likely to fly short connections at low altitude. On the other hand, flights in the mountains often required powerful helicopters capable of exceptional take-off performance.

    In its own time the SA315B ‘Lama’ met this need. It worked so well that dozens of them are still operating nowadays, especially in mountainous areas. Even though the power-to-weight ratio was less impressive than the Lama’s, the Squirrel helicopter still met the needs of the aerial operators working in inaccessible zones, particularly at altitude.

    Record Attempt

    When he decided to go through with his record project, Fred North didn’t think twice. He planned to make the attempt on the altitude record in a Squirrel. But his target, even with a modern and reliable engine, still faced more difficulties. During the previous months, before ‘D-day’, Fred approached the manufacturer of the helicopter and its engine (Eurocopter and Turbomeca, respectively) while contacting the French Civil Aviation Authority, the DGAC. The latter was not enthusiastic. 

    Jean Boulet, the owner of the world record certified by the International Federation of Aeronautics, re-opened his files and offered Fred North his flight report, from June 1972. This valuable document contained basic information. For this intrepid pilot, this help was going to be decisive. 

    Choice of Site and Equipment

    As the French regulator didn’t want to authorise the record attempt, Fred North went in search of another, more welcoming location. “Why not South Africa?,” he asked. “I had good memories of aerial work I had over there. Furthermore, the weather conditions, at this time of the year, are ideal. I remembered some conversations with South African glider pilots. For them rising wind currents were numerous and acted like pumps. I knew I would need them,” Fred explained.

    For the shipment of the Squirrel to Cape Town, Dave Mouton, a local operator and boss of a local helicopter company, came up with a solution. 

    Instead of the motorised AS350B2, a new Arriel 1D1 engine was loaned. But two obstacles still remained: the oxygen equipment, and the study of the flight plan — both were critical to success. 

    With no way to pressurise the cabin of the Squirrel, oxygen equipment and a special suit were supplied (including a parachute) by an American firm. The flight parameters were entrusted to Daniel Le Godec, an outstanding technician, and director of the company Air Service Maintenance. 

    “More than preparing the helicopter technically, we had to calculate performance as precisely as possible regarding the peculiar parameters that Fred would have to go through,” pointed out Le Godec. 

    Thanks to Jean Boulet’s flight report, Daniel and Fred managed to extrapolate mathematically the flight curves and to project the lines that the AS350B2 should logically follow. At the end of his calculation, the director of Air Service Maintenance estimated the needed time of flight to reach the objective at 1 hour, 29 minutes. In the event it would be done in 1 hour and 35 minutes…

    Flying High!

    Cape Town International Airport, South Africa. The weather was fantastic. 200 kg lighter compared to its normal configuration, the Squirrel took off. It has a total weight of 1048 kg, 25% of fuel in the tank (132 litres), and minimum equipment on board – a little VHF radio, altimeter, the engine indicators and a Mode C transponder. 

    With all that, Fred crossed his fingers. His trust in his colleagues was total. But it was on his shoulders that the hopes relied. The South African civil aviation authorities, enthusiastic, watched over. His friends, tense but happy for him, were supporting him. No reverse gear was possible! 

    “I didn’t want to do it anymore. Too much pressure and high risks, even though they were calculated; it was difficult on a psychological level. But of course it was too late to give up,” recalled North.

    A previous test flight had been necessary for the pilot to understand the high altitude — he went up to 10,000m “just to have a look” – but still the uncomfortable unknown remained. The ascent started. Everything was fine on board. Stress was rising and would be present all the way through. Fred didn’t enjoy the view of the clear blue sky.

    The magnificent Cape of Good Hope showed the extreme limits of the continent in between the two oceans.

    The sunlight, getting brighter and brighter, irradiated the interior of the Squirrel. His oxygen mask was giving little by little the vital air to the pilot. The turbine and the rotor worked properly. Approaching 8,000 metres, the physical risks became real. In fact, it would be very risky if he wasn’t wearing a thorax compression jacket, as the air in his lungs without external pressure could kill him. 

    Even so, something started to bother North. More and more as he was going up towards the big blue, the pilot felt his jacket blowing abnormally. He started to have trouble breathing. A quick call on the radio to the technicians on the ground confirmed his intuition. 

    The regulator valve pressure didn’t work properly. If he didn’t act quickly, Fred might suffocate. 

    The problem was located: his parachute strap, tightened on his shoulder, stubbed out the valve. With his left hand, Fred managed to put his fingers through his suit, and in extremis, to deflate the jacket. After a few anxious minutes, he was breathing normally again. He had made it.

    “This Guy is Crazy”

    This unwanted test didn’t diminish his mental strength. Confidence was coming back to him. But he still needed to go further up. The atmosphere in the cabin was unreal. The distance between the ground and Fred was growing. Breathtaking — 38,500 feet. On the radio, a human voice breaks into the cold silence. 

    “What’s that?” questioned the Boeing 747 pilot from South African Airways, flying in the area. On his radar, an unusual echo. “It is just a French man who is attempting to break the world record in a helicopter. Don’t worry…,” answered the air traffic controller in Cape Town. 

    “Is he crazy?” yelled the pilot of the Boeing. Fred didn’t miss a word. What if he was right? The drama of the situation didn’t eliminate all the efforts made during those last months.

    Fred was not crazy. Or just enough to exceed the limits. But the pilot didn’t think about that. He had other priorities! As they thought, the higher it went, the slower the Squirrel got. The power of the engine was four times less in this atmosphere than at a lower altitude. He had to keep on getting the rising currents, the famous pump.

    The minutes stretched little by little. Psychological pressure was high. Higher, higher and higher… The vibrating waves that the rotor made were unusual. Mechanically, the engine arrived at its maximum level of performance. 

    The helicopter went up and down and up again. Fred fought with the stratospheric molecules. It had been an hour and a half that he was in the air. The limits had been reached. It was time to go down now. 

    The previous experience of Jean Boulet shared, Fred decreased slowly the collective pitch to avoid a flame out and engine failure. Everything was fine. The helicopter was slowly going down. A little more pressure on the collective pitch and the turbine shut down — but they had anticipated this possibility. On autorotation, the Squirrel kept on track. 

    The pilot remembered the best moment to restart the motor. At 12,000 feet, the turbine can be reactivated and the engine can continue normally. 

    Fred North got back to the departure point, happy but exhausted. “I will never do it again!” As a message from the heart, as a confession, these words tell us a story. The story of a man who kept his nerve, who went over his own resistance limits, over old demons, over 12,954 meters, somewhere unfathomable.

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