The tragedy of the Germanwings flight: a textbook case for the French Gendarmerie
By Frédéric Left
The French Gendarmerie helicopters were the first to get to the site of the Germanwings A320 Airbus crash in the French Alps. They played an essential part just after and in the days following the disaster.
ON TUESDAY MARCH 24 2015, THE GERMANWINGS 9525 FLIGHT TAKES OFF FROM BARCELONA AT 10H01 WITH 150 PASSENGERS AND MEMBERS OF CREW ON BOARD. THE DESTINATION OF THE FLIGHT IS DÜSSELDORF. AFTER 20 MINUTES IN THE AIR, THE AIRBUS A320, REGISTERED D-AIPX, REACHES ITS CRUISING ALTITUDE OF 38000 FT WHICH IT WILL MAINTAIN DURING ITS FLIGHT OVER THE MEDITERRANEAN. AT 10H31, JUST AS IT REACHES THE FRENCH COAST BETWEEN MARSEILLES AND TOULON, THE PLANE STARTS A REGULAR DESCENT WITHOUT AUTHORISATION. AT 10H34, RADIO CONTACT IS LOST. THE PLANE CONTINUES TO GO DOWN, AT AROUND 3000FT/MINUTE, WHILE KEEPING A CONSTANT 030 HEADING. THE CRNA (CENTRE EN ROUTE DE NAVIGATION AÉRIENNE), THE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL CENTRE OF SOUTH EAST AIX–EN-PROVENCE THEN DECIDES TO CONTACT THE MILITARY AUTHORITIES: A 2000C MIRAGE PLANE LEAVES THE ORANGE BASE AT ONCE, BUT IT WILL REACH THE AREA AFTER THE CRASH. AT 10H41, RADAR CONTACT IS LOST AS THE PLANE IS FLYING AT 700KM/H, DESCENDING A FURTHER 6000 FT. IT HITS THE TROIS EVÉCHÉS RANGE OF MOUNTAINS IN THE FRENCH ALPS ONLY A MINUTE LATER. THE PLANE IS PULVERISED IN THE PROCESS.
“ At 10H43, the CNRA contacted the aerial section of the Dignes les Bains Gendarmerie, which was the closest to the plane’s trajectory,” indicates Colonel Jean-Paul Bloy; He was then in charge of the aerial forces of the South Gendarmerie, to which the Dignes section answers to. “It is then considered to be a crash and the air traffic controllers ask us to intervene immediately in the area where the accident is presumed to have taken place.” At 10H47, the EC145 signal Choucas 04 is put on alert and prepared for take-off. The crew includes the pilot and commander of the aircraft (Captain Jean-Paul Marzi), the flight engineer and winch operator(Chief Warrant Officer Jérôme Collenne) and two members of the PGHM 04 (peloton de gendarmerie de haute-montagne des Alpes de Haute Provence). An emergency doctor from the CODIS O4 (Centre Opérationnel Départemental d’ Incendie et de Secours), a local fire and rescue emergency centre, is also on his way to reach the Gendarmerie base and take part in the mission. Meanwhile the Codis 04 is also putting through two witness accounts to the RCC: both calls describe a very low flying aircraft in the area of Prad Haute Bléone. One of the witnesses mentions an explosion and the other a black cloud of smoke.
These witness accounts are transferred to the aerial section of the Gendarmerie a short time before take-off. The pilots take note of the reports and decide to change their area of research to the one described by the witnesses. At 1OH56, the emergency doctor arrives at the base and four minutes later, the EC145 is in the air. It climbs to 5000 ft and aims for the area in which the crash is estimated to have occurred, taking less than ten minutes to get there. Only 17 minutes have gone by since the first alert was given. The aircraft has six people on board and 600 litres of fuel, which gives it a flight range of 1H40. “The helicopter reaches the Prad area at 11h07, but there is nothing to see, no sign of the crash,” adds Colonel Bloy. “Radio contact with the RCC confirms that the position of the helicopter matches the last radar contact of the A320 which was heading 030. The crew decides to continue flying in that direction.”
The EC145 pursues its journey for another 8 minutes without seeing a thing, until a member of the crew spots a thin stream of grey smoke coming from the ground. The helicopter then reaches a vertical valley, situated at 2000 ft of altitude. The ground is strewn with small debris and is here and there fuming with light streams of fire smoke. A few scattered pieces of sheet metal can be seen from the sky. Later a picture will show a part of the fuselage, with a few aircraft windows, bearing the German flag and the plane’s registration number: D-AIPX. For the six men on board the helicopter it’s now clear that they have reached the site of the crash. The total lack of recognisable debris is an indication of the terrible violence of the impact which pulverised the Airbus. The news was radioed through to the RCC: the site of the crash has been located and there is virtually no chance of finding any survivors. Between 11h15 and 11H35, the two gendarmes and the doctor on board are lowered into the valley. Then, for a few minutes, the EC145 pursues its flight over the area, spotting around 12 dismembered bodies. It will then land nearby for a short while, at the level of the Mariaud pass, before leaving for Dignes to fetch some more gendarmes from the PGHM 04 and start securing the site. Meanwhile the RCC, the CODIS, the police headquarters and the whole Gendarmerie forces have been put on alert. As it is extremely likely that there are no survivors, the operation which folds out will have to rapidly focus on the judiciary investigation. “I was then in Hyères at the headquarters of the South Gendarmerie forces group,” describes Colonel Bloy. I am first told that our aircraft took off to find the plane,which it did and that it reported there were no survivors. I then passed on that information to commander of the PACA region gendarmerie General Galtier, who happened to be inspecting our premises. His presence and the placing under his authority of the whole Gendarmerie means (helicopters, mobile gendarmes, departmental gendarmerie and communication services…) made things much easier for the operations that followed. We then notified the Dignes prosecutor, the prefect and the commander of the departmental Gendarmerie forces and left together to make a first appraisal of the area on board an EC135.”
At 3pm, four hours after the tragedy, all the pieces of the set-up have fallen into place: a helicopter temporary take-off ground has been installed near the village of the Seyne les Alpes, at around 15 km from the crash zone. The gendarmerie is very quickly able to gather three EC145, one EC135 and one AS35OBA aircraft, making use of two additional helicopters which happened to be in Briançon for a mountain flight training course. Two refuelling trucks carrying 2000 litre tanks are lined up and will go back and forth transporting helicopter fuel. A communication relay is set up on the Blayeul top at a height 2200 metres, around 12 km west of the crash area. Civil security EC145 helicopters will then join the Gendarmerie aircraft, as will Fennec and Puma devices from the Air Force.
“The aerial operation will go on for 15 days,” adds Colonel Bloy. We focused on getting the right means to enable us to work fast, while also saving our energy to be able to outlast the duration of the operation. “ Helicopters were used to drop off the investigators and collect the body remnants in the crash zone and will do so until an accessible road is opened up. Two EC145 helicopters worked simultaneously over a 65000 square meter vertical drop zone, which forms the shape of a triangle. The bottom point of the triangle is situated at 1500m while its base reaches a height of 1900 m. At around half way between the two points, an imaginary line has been drawn to separate each helicopter’s working zone. The separation of both areas is coupled with the instalment of local itineraries. A NOTAM has made it a no-fly zone except for official aircraft. All the helicopters in the zone were working on an air-to-air basis, sharing the same radio frequency. No incident was reported during the period. The human remnants were sealed into plastic bags which were then placed onto stretchers. These were then winched and transported a few miles down the road to the village of Vernet where medical examiners had gathered and set up a so-called “chain of biological investigation”. Because it is such an out of the ordinary mission, some leeway has been given to the inspection of the aircraft: instead of being looked over after 50 winches, the aircraft are used extensively during the day and checked at night by maintenance engineers. After several hundred winching manoeuvres during the two week period, no incident or breakdown was reported. The Gendarmerie is quite blatantly pleased with the use of the Goodrich equipment installed on the EC145 helicopters. “The first few days of our mission were carried out in very good weather conditions; But from March 27 that changed with strong gusts of wind blowing our way,” recalls Colonel Bloy. We had peaks at 200 Km /h on the highest mountain tops. Lower in the valley, gusts still reached 70 km /h. We had to adapt by taking less fuel and less passengers on board to maximise our flight power. The subsequent opening up of a track enabling safety staff to reach the zone on foot or with an SUV thereby reducing the need for helicopters.”
As he looks back at the circumstances and the use of the aircraft of the Gendarmerie, Colonel Bloy is keen to stress the excellent performance of the devices used by the various forces but also how lucky they were. “We accumulated 100 flight hours on the site, of which around 70% were carried out by our EC145s. And there were no accidents despite the sometimes difficult flying conditions. We were able to focus on the mission thanks to the CPGC (Centre de Planification et de Gestion des Crises), a crisis management centre, that we set up a few years ago precisely to provide support during big operations like the one we conducted in March. The Centre dealt with and organised visits from officials, whether French or international as well as all the logistical aspects allowing the investigating team to get on with the job. We were also lucky with the weather for the first few days and the fact that two helicopters from Cazaux, which were stationed in Briançon for a mountain flying exercise, were available also gave us a huge break. Our aircraft were also in perfect shape and in no need of maintenance.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Hautes Provence Alpes region is a busy flying zone, frequented mostly by light aircraft, ULMs and gliders and that around 20 search and rescue operations take place in the area each year (SATER missions). The Dignes unit is therefore used to carrying out such missions. “I am 50 years old and it is only now that I have really got to know the unique skills of our country’s intervention units and more specifically the Gendarmerie,” Colonel Bloy concludes. Civil security, gendarmes and other military forces but also park rangers and local inhabitants, all of them behaved in an exemplary fashion, and that in front of the cameras showing images of the tragedy around the world. The crash of the Germanwings 9525 aircraft was a huge tragedy for the families of the victims but it also powerfully affected the people who were involved in the aftermath of the accident, so much so that they will never forget the event and the days after.”
Copyright : Gendarmerie Nationale