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Those familiar with Whirly-Girls, the international association of women helicopter pilots, may have noticed the name of Valérie André in its website’s historical section. Women in the French military — and probably elsewhere in the world — owe her a lot.
André pioneered the use of helicopters in medical evacuations and was the first woman to become a general officer in France. Now 95, she has a vivid memory of her key role in the First Indochina War in the early 1950s and unfaltering convictions about the place of women in the armed forces.
André has lived in Issy-les-Moulineaux, less than one mile from Paris heliport, since the 1950s. This proximity almost happened by accident, but the location of the apartment, on the top floor of a six-story building, did not. “I wanted a lot of sky,” she told Vertical during a recent visit. André’s passion for flying has spanned her entire life.
Before joining French forces, she logged a few hours in fixed-wing aircraft at a flying club. She also was a parachutist. “At the end of my medical studies, the dean of the faculty of medicine told us the military in Indochina did not have enough doctors; he suggested us to join the army under a fixed-term contract to see whether we liked it,” she recalled. She was taken with it.
She trained as a war surgeon, and as a parachutist, she was used in advanced surgical units. However, a helicopter demonstration in Saigon during the spring of 1950, changed her life. Two Hiller 360s were configured as air ambulances. She took a flight in one of the external stretchers.
André was not the first to realize it would be better to go and fly the patient back, rather than being dropped with heavy equipment and a battalion for protection. But she strongly supported the idea and, as a surgeon, wanted to make the most of it. She wanted to become a helicopter pilot. “I besieged my superior,” she said.
The superior eventually sent her back to France, where a civil company, Helicop’Air, provided the training. Paradoxically, she never received a military pilot certificate during her career, yet logged over 4,000 hours in helicopters and flew almost 500 war missions. She was symbolically awarded certificate number 001 during a tribute ceremony in 2010.
André has a determined nature. In a book where she describes her experience between 1949 and 1953 during the First Indochina War, she does not sound impressed by fire; rather, she expresses sadness about all the destruction the conflict caused. However, she still thought of the warzone as a normal workplace for her.
As a pilot and surgeon, she would fly to an assigned combat area and, once there, triage casualties. Sometimes, she would do the surgery on site. In Indochina, she would heal both the French and the Vietnamese, she emphasized. The Hiller’s limited engine power sometimes presented a challenge. The engine’s 178 horsepower had to lift the aircraft, one pilot and one or two casualties. “We were happy when we had to carry skinny ones!” André said. Locals gave her nicknames. One was “The woman who comes down from the sky.” The other one was “Quekat” — Vietnamese for “Mrs. Ventilator.”
André also flew during the Algerian decolonization war. She was the head physician of a squadron of H-19s, H-34s, (both Sikorsky types), Alouettes and Alouette 2s. “In addition, I was a pilot in my own right,” she added. She was flying not only for medical evacuation purposes. There were assault missions, too, with eight or nine commandos — “all armed to the teeth.”