Never before in the history of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) a type of aircraft was operated as long as the Alouette III helicopter was. On December 15th 2015 the RNLAF retired their last four helicopters of this type after a stunning 51 years of service. The first two aircraft arrived at Soesterberg Air Base (AB) on July 31st, 1964. The helicopter was marked as SA 316B, of which at the highpoint 77 aircraft were in operational service with the Netherlands Armed Forces.

51 Years ago

The Alouette III is a light, single engine helicopter which was originally produced by the French company Sud-Aviation, later on known as Aérospatiale and nowadays as the Eurocopter Group. The prototype, known as SA 3160, made its first flight in February 1959. The aircraft is recognizable by its almost oversized glass canopy, non-retractable landing gear and open engine which produces a characteristic metal sound.
Between July 1964 and July 1969 a total of 77 Alouette III helicopters were delivered to the Netherlands Armed Forces, with a dark green color scheme and white registration. Of the delivered aircraft 50 were assembled by Sud-Aviation. The other 27 were assembled by a company called N.V. Lichtwerk, which was settled in Hoogeveen, about 150 kilometers east of Amsterdam. The Alouette III replaced several other helicopters within the Netherlands Armed Forces, such as the Hiller H-23B Raven and the Alouette II.
Although the Alouette III fleet resorted with the Royal Netherlands Army, the aircraft were flown by pilots assigned to the RNLAF. The air force also provided infrastructure and maintenance personnel. The army’s and airforces combined Alouette III operations came together in the Light Aircraft Group (GLA). The GLA operated 72 Alouette IIIs. They were stationed with the 299 en 300 Squadron at Deelen AB and the 298 Squadron at Soesterberg AB. Five aircraft were purchased by the RNLAF to perform Search and Rescue (SAR) and Tactical Air Rescue (TAR) operations. These SAR/TAR helicopters were easily recognized by their dayglow markings and their differing registration which started with an H instead of an A. They were initially based at Ypenburg AB and not much later Soesterberg AB

The '70s

During this decade the Cold War was in full swing. De RNLAF Alouette III regularly flew training missions above West Germany, to train own crews as well as troops serving with the Royal Netherlands Army. The Alouette was also used for reconnaissance. Flying along the Iron Curtain under a callsign belonging to the West German Bundesgrenzgeschutz possible future targets were photographed from the helicopter. The Fairchild K36 camera used for these mission made it possible to capture possible targets up to 50 kilometers in East Germany.
In 1970 the Alouettes were detached for the first time abroad, to Tunisia. This North African country suffered from heavy floods. Dutch military personnel helped to limit the consequences suffered by the population. The helicopter detachment consisted of ten men and two aircraft.
In 1973 the RNLAF decided to found the world's first helicopter demonstration team, called 'The Grasshoppers'. This team performed for 22 years during the RNLAF Open Days and airshows abroad, being one of the showpieces of the RNLAF.

Special ops

Besides its military tasks, mainly reconnaissance and transportation of personnel, the SA 316B was also used in the Netherlands during a train hijacking in the town of Wijster in 1975. With the Alouette representatives of the Dutch Government, like the secretary of Justice Dries van Agt, were transported from Den Haag to Assen to address the situation. Two years later, the helicopter again was used for that purpose during another train hijacking, in the small town called Vries. This hijacking became famously known as the Point Hijacking. Seven South Moluccan youths hijacked a train in their pursuit of a free Republic of South Maluku. Besides the Alouette III, six F-104G Starfighter fighter jets were used to intimidate the hijackers, ultimately ending the crime. Dick Berlijn was one of the pilots. 30 Years later he became the Commander of the Netherlands Armed Forces (2005 - 2008). This decade also marked to movement of the SAR-helicopters. To shorten the flying time to the Wadden Islands, the SAR-unit moved to Leeuwarden AB in 1977.
Retired RNLAF colonel-pilot Freek van der Vaart shares his experience flying the Alouette III during the '70s: "During my conversion on the Alouette III I was fascinated by the engineering and aerodynamics of this helicopter. I immediately got the impression that this helicopter was a simple design, relatively large but had a solid and secure design. Only one switch was necessary to start the turbine engine and advancing one rotor drive handle to the full forward position was enough to be ready for flight. With great pleasure I look back on the liaison-, reconnaissance and humanitarian aid flights." One of the most stunning memories Van der Vaart has, was the following: "In 1979 we had a very harsh winter with lots of snow in the Netherlands. The Alouette III was used to fly in food and other supplies to the enclosed villages in Friesland (northern district of the Netherlands). I was part of the operation and was happy to fly in basic necessities. In addition, we flew around in the area searching for lost sheep. Once found, we took the sheep on board one by one and brought them back to the farmer. In the years I have flown the Alouette III, this multi role workhorse never abandoned me."

A bigger world

Besides in the Netherlands and West Germany, the helicopter was used more and more for training flights abroad during the '80s. Examples are flights for paratroopers in the south of France, navigation training in England, Denmark or Spain and public relations for the famous skating event the Eleven Town Tour in 1984 and 1985. SAR-missions also were flown constantly.
The decade noted some special landmarks. Already in 1981 a stunning 250,000 hours were flown with the helicopter. In 1986 the color scheme of the Alouette III was changed from dark green to a green/black camouflage color scheme, with black registrations. The same year the first plans were formed within the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to phase out the helicopter. In 1988, during the celebration of the 75th birthday of the RNLAF, 18 Alouettes flew a formation creating the numbers 7 and 5 during the annual RNLAF Open Day. A year later, the helicopter celebrated its 25 years of service.
With the fall of the Wall of Berlin in 1989, the Cold War was ended. Exercises in former West Germany reduced to a minimum. The Wall tumbling down also caused that the Alouette was used for different missions and tasks within the RNLAF, also for detachments abroad.


After the first Gulf War ended the Alouette III was part of Operation Provide Comfort (OPC). This operation was organized in 1991 by several allied countries to safely extract Kurdish refugees from the Northern parts of Iraq. Three helicopters operated from the Turkish towns Dyarbakir. Later on they moved to Silopi, or Dutch Corner, until the end of July 1991.


In 1991 the European Community embarked the European Community Monitor Mission (ECMM) to monitor the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Slovenia. Four Alouettes flew monitoring missions, mostly from the airport of Zagreb in Croatia. To emphasize neutrality, the aircraft were painted white. Despite this, one aircraft was hit by enemy fire leaving no one of the crew was hurt.


After the fall of the Khmer Rouge Regime in 1979 the People's Republic of Kampuchea was established with support from Vietnam and the Soviet Union. The new government was fought during the 80s by a government in exile, which consisted of the royalist Funcinpec, the Khmer Rouge and the National People's Liberation Front. In August 1989, the four parties and representatives from 18 countries met in Paris to discuss a cease-fire and to organize elections. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) monitored the agreements in Cambodia. The Dutch government decided in March 1992 to be a part of this mission. Initially with the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps (RNMC) and later on, by request of the RNMC, with three Alouettes. These operated from U-Tapao (Thailand) and Sisophon (Cambodia).


The Implementation Force (IFOR) was the last detachment for the Alouette III. Stationed in Santici (Bosnia) three Alouettes monitored the compliance with the Dayton Agreements, working closely together with British Forces. The Dayton Agreements ended the civil war between Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. The detachment, which named itself the 'Santici Air Service', lasted from the 4th of March until the 17th of July.

Reducing numbers

Even though the Alouette III proved its use during the above mentioned detachments, the type was becoming outdated. MoD decided that more helicopters which could be used for a more diversity of tasks were needed. The Alouette III had to be replaced for other types, like the CH-47D Chinook and the AS.523U2 Cougar. This was effected in 1994 when the majority of the Alouette fleet was phased out and replaced by the mentioned types. This also affected the SAR-fleet. The four Alouettes were replaced by three AB.412SPs. These helicopters, affectionately named 'Tweety' because of their yellow color scheme, have been sold and delivered to Peru in 2015.
In 1998 the previously mentioned decisions resulted that nine Alouettes remained. Four of them were stored and five stayed in active service. One aircraft didn't receive its Major Maintenance Alouette anymore two years later, leaving A-247, A275, A-292 and A-301 for operational use until 2016. All the other aircraft were donated to technical schools and museums, were transformed into preserved aircraft or were sold in whole or in parts to other air forces (Chad, Pakistan and Malta) and private companies. 30 Aircraft were sold back to Eurocopter when the RNLAF purchased the Cougar helicopter.

Defense Helicopter Command

In 2001 MoD launched a study to look for a possible merger of all helicopter operations conducted within the Netherlands Armed Forces. This resulted in the foundation of the Defense Helicopter Command (DHC) in 2008. All helicopter operations are resorted under this command since then. The majority of the fleet is based at Gilze Rijen AB, including the four SA 316Bs. Several of the NH90s are stationed at Naval Air Station De Kooij, 85 kilometers north of Amsterdam.
Captain-pilot Robert de Lange, commander of the Alouette flight, says: "Under command of the DHC the Alouettes were used for several tasks. Painted in a 'Royal Blue' color scheme since 2004, 'Bluebird' had the important task to transport members of the Royal Family and VIPs. When transporting the Royal Family, one orange window was added to the helicopter. The SA 316B was also used to support military training, such as educations for Landing Point Finder (LPF) and selection flights for Tactical Coordinators and Loadmasters." The last exercise the Alouette III was planned to participate in, was the Tactical Helicopter Procedures Update in May 2015 at Beauvechain AB, Belgium. However present, the helicopter ultimately didn't fly a mission. Last but not least, the Alouette III turned out be a perfect photo platform and was frequently used as such, for example during the RNLAF Open Days.
Sergeant-major Arnoud Schoor, photographer and cameraman with the MediaCenter Defense, says: "With the Alouette III I photographed military tureens to monitor tureen changes and areas which are used for exercises or as alternative landing places. We also performed nonmilitary tasks, such as photo registration of wildlife in the Oostvaarderslakes and we supported police investigations." Untill 2010 the special vertical camera K17c was used for those purposes. This is the same camera which was used in the RF-84F Thunderflash during the late 50s and early 60s. Schoor continues: "The Alouette III to me is the most suitable helicopter for air photography. Because of the superb overview it's possible to communicate visually with the pilots of the helicopter. Even with pilots from other aircraft when flying next to the Alouette during air-to-air photography assignments. On top of that, the helicopter is very cheap to operate in comparison with the other DHC-helicopters."

Reunion 2014

On the 12th of September 2014 50 years of the Alouette IIIs operational service with the RNLAF was celebrated at Gilze Rijen AB. For the reunion several Alouettes from other countries were invited. One Alouette III of the Belgian Navy and two of the 552 squadron of the Portuguese Air Force attended. The latter accomplished the 2,000 kilometers journey from their home base Beja AB in 13 hours and with three stopovers. For this occasion all four RNLAF Alouettes were adorned with golden colored celebration markings.

Bluebird closing down

Captain De Lange clocked about 2,500 flying hours with the Alouette. He says: "During its 51 years of operational service all assignments could be flown if a helicopter was available. An assignment never had to be cancelled due to technical problems, on occasion due to weather circumstances. We don't know yet if and how our assignments will be performed in the future because a decision on that matter still has to be made. The 10 pilots and 10 technicians with the Alouette flight will either be retired, trained for other helicopters within the DHC or reassigned."
The RNLAF Alouette III officially flew last on the 15th of December 2015. All personnel of the Alouette flight wore a striking patch, reading 'Bluebird closing down', to mark this date as the end of an era. Before touching down after a flight of about half an hour, the two last helicopters made several fly-by's above their homebase. Traditionally, new aircraft and aircraft that are being phased out are given a shower by the fire department. This tradition was honored by the personnel at Gilze Rijen AB. After that, the keys to the four helicopters were handed over to the Commander of Netherlands Airforce, lieutenant-general pilot Schnitger. On the 1st of January 2016 the helicopters were handed over to the Defense Materials Organization, which will try to sell them.
In total all four 'last of the Mohicans' reached over 10,000 flying hours, leaving a long and lasting memory. De Lange and Schoor both conclude: "If we had to describe the Alouette III with one striking word, that would be servitude." Bluebird closed down.


This article was published in Koku Fan 03-2015 and Lotnictowo Avaiation International 3-2016.

Global Air Power Media thanks Arno Marchand, Mediacentre Defence, for his efforts to deliver pictures fro mthe collection of the Netherlands Institute of Military History.