Some History

Fast-moving dark lines below the plane suddenly became a glacier. This did not immediately register — I just knew that we were very close to whatever it was. Later I discovered that the lines were crevasses. As I reached up and threw the throttles, propellers and mixture forward and pulled back on the yolk, I told my co-pilot, "we are in the mountains!" My copilot thought I had vertigo so he held his yoke, which kept me from pitching up. I reached over and forced him off the controls and, almost as quickly, I said: "we are on the ground."

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This could easily be a description of a correctly executed glacier landing, but it wasn’t the report of an experienced Swiss mountain pilot. Instead it describes the experience of a 25-year-old US Air Force pilot, Ralph Tate, who in 1946 became lost while flying a DC3 over Switzerland. On board were 12 passengers, high-ranking officers and a few civilians including women and children. Aside from a few bumps and bruises none were injured and fortunately the wireless set was still functioning.

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Tate’s wireless call for help sparked the first Swiss glacier rescue operation. The accident victims waited for three days on the Gauli glacier at 9,900 feet. When the weather cleared, two Swiss military pilots, Captain Viktor Hug and Major Pista Hitz, risked a landing in their Fieseler Storch. As fate would have it, the men had recently mounted skis on their planes and practiced some landings. Despite the extremely short available landing area, the unheard-of operation was a success, witnessed by a collected world press.

The dramatic and glorious birth of Swiss rescue flight operations was also the beginning of a grand tradition of mountain flying that continues today. Even though the helicopter has mostly replaced the airplane for mountain rescues, there are still about 60 male and female pilots who practice the extreme art of glacier landings.

In Switzerland, each applicant for a glacier-landing license must be available for rescue missions and are required to complete a one-year training program — theory and practical hands-on experience — prior to conducting glacier operations. Accompanied by a mountain pilot instructor, the applicant must make a minimum of 250 landings on different glacier landing strips followed by a check ride with a Swiss Air Department examiner.

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