Helicopter Type 4A – The Swedish Air Force joins in

Ironically enough, it was the Swedish Air Force that was the last of the Swedish Defence Forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) to procure helicopters. The Army and Navy appreciated early on the advantages offered by helicopters in a supporting role, and both these Defence arms therefore started their own helicopter trials and gradually set up their own helicopter units. At the outset the Air Force was indifferent to the value of helicopters in a military context. During and especially at the start of the Cold War, the Swedish Air Force was entirely focused on battle operations. Any vehicle that could not be assessed as contributing to the implementation of air warfare or be able to provide efficient ground attacking capability was of no interest. However both the Army and Navy quickly realised that the helicopter offered effective transportation and co-operation with ground-based and maritime units.

Eventually the Air Force also saw the light and began to realise how the helicopter could contribute to its own operations, namely as a rescue helicopter to recover pilots who had crashed or been forced to eject. In addition helicopters could of course help the rest of society with similar functions. The first helicopter model that the Air Force looked at was the Agusta-Bell 204 (See the article on the Swedish Helicopter Type 3), and in that case worked in conjunction with Army aviation who were also interested in the same helicopter. The first were delivered in 1962, and at that stage the Air Force was on the hunt for a larger rescue helicopter. Naval aviation was also looking for a new and heavier helicopter that would succeed the Type 1. Thanks to the Type 1 the Navy had experience of tandem rotor helicopters and it was only natural that they would start to look for an H-21 (Type 1) replacement. So in 1963 the first Type 4A helicopters were delivered to the Swedish Air Force. The following year the Navy received its first, designated the Type 4B. These Navy helicopters were adapted to maritime service and were expected to perform a wider range of tasks than the Air Force version, which concentrated on rescue services.

A Helicopter Type 4A from 21 Wing at Luleå landing on the icebreaker Ymer.

It transpired therefore that it was the FRÄD (Swedish Air Force Rescue Group) that developed rescue procedures within the Swedish Defence Forces even though this later became the remit of the Swedish Navy. The Air Force helicopters were distributed throughout Sweden in order to rescue pilots in need, wherever they might be located. This also meant that the helicopters were made available to the general public in another role, which made the Type 4 well known and very much appreciated, namely as forest fire suppressors.

From a child’s point of view

My first meeting with a Helicopter Type 4, or Vertol, took place when I was in Class 5 or 6 at about age 11 in a little village school in the Swedish province of Norrbotten (North Bothnia). It was a normal school day and I think it was in the early autumn. We had done our physical education, orienteering I seem to remember, and some of my classmates had strayed quite far away. While this was going on we saw smoke in the woods, and soon some fire engines turned up. We went inside the school and couldn’t see very much, but were told that a forest fire had broken out not far away. For us children this was a bit of a thrill but looking back with the wisdom of age and with my own experience of fighting forest fires with Civil Defence I now realise that the situation was in fact rather serious, as the flames were close to buildings.

However the most serious problem was that some of the boys from my class had not returned. The teachers were worried and started searching. It was then we heard the sound of a helicopter. In the sky appeared a big green helicopter with a water bucket underneath. It swept away towards the big lake in Vitådalen and the Vitåfjärden nature trail, soon returning and then disappearing behind a hill, in the direction of the fire. Then it returned and flew once again towards Vitåfjärden to fetch more water and then attack the fire once more.

Now at last my classmates appeared and excitedly began to relate what they had been up to. While they were engaged in orienteering they passed the area where the fire was raging. There some firemen asked them to each grab a long branch and help to fight the fire. We others were mostly jealous for having missed all the fun, but today I realise how serious the situation must have been. A forest fire had started very close to buildings, and the firemen must have been really desperate to commandeer a group of schoolboys of about 11 or 12 years old to get branches and help! Having a helicopter to come and assist also showed how serious the situation was.

I can’t remember how long it took, but gradually the danger seemed to be over, and we schoolchildren and our teacher went to the scene of the fire. There I saw the helicopter on the ground with the water bucket next to it. I personally wasn’t brave enough to go very close, due to some extent to respect for its Army green colour. We youngsters were quite used to military movements, as the woods around us were often the scene of the major military exercises that were held in Norrbotten in the 1980s. We trailed after them with a certain amount of terrified delight, and if any adult we knew was called up to a unit that happened to be on exercise in our area we would most likely venture out to visit them.

But just there and just then it was more serious. Even if I didn’t at that time really understand the full consequences of what could have happened, if the Air Force Type 4 helicopter from 21 Wing had not arrived to support the firemen.

Angels dressed in green

My own little story shows exactly how flexible the Type 4 was in that role. One talks today about how much water a water-bomber can carry, but less well known is the fact that these aircraft need very large areas of open water to be able to scoop up that water. Sweden certainly has many lakes, but how many of these, particularly in the northern regions, that are large enough is debatable. Therefore water bomber aircraft must all too often fly long distances to “reload”. Hence they are not able to stay close by and change tactics in case of a sudden development. Although a helicopter may not be able to carry the same amount of water, it can lower its bucket in the nearest lake or water course and repeat the procedure several times in the same time that a water bomber would need to shuttle between the burning area and the nearest large expanse of water.

That particular fire did not generate headlines, even though it could have turned out differently. However the fact that it didn’t burn down half the village is definitely thanks in part to the helicopter’s intervention. It arrived rapidly and could use the lake near the village to quickly refill with water and come back. This meant it was available all the time and could co-operate effectively with the firemen on the ground. Also, whilst an aircraft would have depended on radio contact to be able to work with the ground crew, a helicopter could if necessary land, so that its crew could discuss the situation directly with the local co-ordinator. The time factor is of utmost importance in respect of how a forest fire develops and how difficult it could be to extinguish. Many cases of forest fires that could develop into something much worse could be smothered at birth by a helicopter quickly arriving on site, while a water bomber would have needed much more time to get there, by which time the fire could have had time to grow into a monster.

A Type 4 Helicopter releases its load on to a burning Swedish forest.

Both the Air Force and Navy Type 4s became therefore an important addition to the Civil Defence arsenal in order to deal with some of the worst natural disasters that could arise in Sweden, namely widespread forest fires. In the trackless Norrland the helicopter is even more valuable since it can be a long distance to the nearest fire brigade, and that can find it difficult to cross overland.

It is perhaps just that, the ability to get there quickly and strangle the fire before it could spread, that made the difference concerning the enormous forest fires that Sweden suffered in recent years. As a Defence Forces helicopter pilot said “We just got on with it!” The crew knew that the time factor was critical and that the faster they got into place the better. They didn’t always wait for the local authority to formally request help from the Defence Forces, as the latter were already on their way with their green-painted angels.

The success factor for firefighting in the case of the Defence helicopters was not the amount of water they could release each time, but instead the time factor, and that they could refill with water virtually anywhere. This allowed them to fight fire almost continuously and quickly knock down new fire sources before they could expand. The greatest success lay not in how large were the fires that helicopters could snuff out, but how many small fires they could stop before they managed to grow to enormous size, such as a particularly notable one in Västmanland province. Once a fire grows to monster size it takes far more resources to stop it and incredible monetary value goes to waste.