The Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama is a rare sight in U.S. skies these days — so if the opportunity to photograph one on an air-to-air shoot arises, it’s hard to turn it down. In its day, the Lama’s altitude performance was unmatched, and it was famed for its reliability. But once the Airbus AS350 B3 and B3e (H125) AStar entered the market, matching and then exceeding the Lama’s hot and high performance, the older aircraft’s fate was sealed.
Dwight Jones, owner of Mountain Air Helicopters of Los Lunas, New Mexico, flew Lamas in his fleet for 17 years. But while the Lama was still certainly capable of the tasks it was assigned, Jones found his utility customers were increasingly asking for the Airbus H125 instead. Add to this the Lama’s high operating cost and the difficulty of obtaining parts in a timely manner, and Jones said it was clear its time as part of the Mountain Air fleet had come to an end. But before the company’s two Lamas were sold, Jones invited Vertical to join him on one of his last flights in the aircraft for a special photo shoot — the results of which you can see here.
Birth of the Lama
The Lama program started in the late 1960s, following a request from the Indian and Nepalese militaries for a helicopter that could operate in the extreme mountain ranges of both countries. The aircraft mated the lightweight five-seat SA 313 Aérospatiale Alloutte II airframe with the dynamic components of the larger and heavier seven-seat Aérospatiale SA 316 Allouette III. The goal was extreme hot and high performance, with the ability to lift a useful load well beyond 10,000 feet. Aerospatiale engineers hoped that by combining the best from these two aircraft, they would be able to accomplish this.
On March 17, 1969, the SA 315B Lama, powered by a Turbomecca Artouste IIIB turbine engine (de-rated to 550 shaft-horsepower), lifted off on its maiden flight. It achieved certification on Sept. 30, 1970, and entered service in July 1971. The Lama quickly became popular around the world for high altitude mountain operations, including for oil-and-gas exploration, long line equipment placement, lift work, firefighting, and search-and-rescue.
Due to its superb hot and high performance, the SA315B is particularly suited to working in mountainous areas, and it soon proved it could lift slung loads of up to 2,205 pounds (1,000 kilograms) to places a much more powerful medium helicopter could not venture. In the extreme mountain ranges of India and South America, the helicopter could lift heavy loads and rescue people in places that were not previously possible.
It secured its most notable high-altitude achievement on June 21, 1972, when Aérospatiale test pilot Jean Boulet took the aircraft to 40,820 feet (12,442 meters) — an absolute altitude record (for its class of helicopter) that still stands to this day. Soon after it reached its peak altitude, the engine flamed out — and Boulet brought the Lama to an unpowered landing, setting another record for the highest altitude autorotation.
Pilots loved the Lama because of its strong engine, stability in the hover, and — in the firefighting mission — the ability to lift a bucketful of water almost anywhere asked of it. For oil-and-gas support in the Colorado mountains, pilot Steve Ricks told Vertical: “We put a full load of fuel in it, four passengers, and their equipment — and even during the summer months we never ran out of power. Today, in comparison to an AStar, it is high maintenance, but . . . other than speed can do anything the AS350 B3e can do. The Lama was a high altitude powerhouse — we slung a lot of cargo with it and it was an amazing platform for scouting line and reconnaissance. You could remove the doors and have a great view.”
Since entering service, the Lama has flown almost every possible mission around the world. It has flown mountain rescues throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and North America; it has completed oil-and-gas exploration support in the U.S. mountain states, proving it can lift heavy loads on the warmest days; and it has performed firefighting work throughout the U.S. from the 1970s to the present day. (During fire operations the Lama was used as a command and control platform, for personnel transport, and as a direct fire attack aircraft using a Bambi Bucket.)
But after nearly 45 years of service, the Lama is slowly being retired — and it is being left to the H125 to continue the fine high-altitude tradition the Lama established, performing a vital array of missions in the most extreme conditions in the world.