Landing on Air
By Mielikki Org Photograph by Patrick Penna
||FREE BIRD: The turbocharged Eurocopter ascends toward the peak of Everest.|
French pilot Didier Delsalle touches down on top of the world in a controversial Everest first.
Ever since Hillary and Norgay claimed first dibs to the summit of Everest in 1953, others have attempted their own "firsts" on the 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) peak (see "More Unusual Everest Firsts" below). But on May 14, 2005, test pilot Didier Delsalle, 48, of the French company Eurocopter made Everest and aviation history by landing his unmodified turbo engine AS350 B3 helicopter on the world's tallest mountaintop. His solo flight broke the unofficial record for highest helicopter landing, previously held by Nepalese Lt. Col. Madan Khatri Chhetri, who in 1996 rescued climbers Beck Weathers and Makulu Gau near Camp I at approximately 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). (The record for the highest helicopter flight is 40,820 feet (12,442 meters), set by Jean Boulet in 1972.) Although Nepalese authorities initially gave Delsalle clearance, they later rebuked him for flying without permission. Some climbers also expressed dismay that he topped out without the hard slog, but six-time summiter David Hahn said, "I look at it kind of selfishly. It improves the possibility of rescues in the future."
Was it hard to control the craft in the thin air and 75 mile (121 kilometer)
an hour winds?
Very. But the landing itself was the hardest part. I didn't know if I was touching down on snow above rock or snow above nothing. If it was snow above nothing and the snow broke, it would have been difficult for me to increase the power and get away.
Were you nervous?
I had some sleepless nights thinking it through. During the approach, I was so focused I had tunnel vision. But I arrived very gently and asked the mountain to accept me. It was like making a new friend.
You actually made two landings. Once wasn't enough?
I did it twice to make sure it's repeatable. To qualify as a landing, you have to touch down for at least two minutes. The first day, I landed for three minutes and 50 seconds. On the second day I was there for four minutes.
Why are Nepalese authorities claiming that you and Eurocopter violated their air space?
There was a big misunderstanding. Nepal gave us a flight permit with no specific limitations. They even wrote "Wish you the best" on our permit. But when we came back, it was a totally different feeling. We really don't know why. It was very disappointing.
Maybe because you broke a Nepalese colonel's record?
Does this flight improve the prospects for future rescue operations?
The thought of rescuing climbers was one of the things that motivated me to do this project. But the forces I encountered were so powerful that to guarantee a safe flight you'd have to design a more powerful copter.
Still, you managed to mount a rescue while you were there.
Yes. I rescued two Japanese climbers at 16,000 feet (4,877 meters). It would have been impossible for the small Nepalese helicopters. But for me, it was no problem.
Any chance of a Café Everest on the summit someday?
Tourism is unthinkable. You'd need safety standards comparable to passenger flights on an airliner. Personally, I'd like to see the Tibet and Nepal governments make rules to ensure that tourist flights never happen.
More Unusual Everest Firsts
May 6, 1970: Japan's Yuichiro Miura (aka "The Man Who Fell Down Everest") tumbles 1,320 feet (402 meters) (and lives) on the first ski descent from the South Col.
May 23, 1996: The first umbilical cord interment is made by Thierry Renard (the cord was his son's, in a bottle).
May 22, 2003: Miura, 70, achieves the first septuagenarian summit.
MAY 30, 2005: Nepalese couple Pem Dorjee and Moni Mulepati are the first to marry on the peak.
Pick up the September 2005 issue of Adventure magazine for more news and feats by modern-day explorers.