The Gendarmerie Air Forces: A strong air force with a great future perspective

The Gendarmerie Air Forces: A strong air force with a great future perspective

Colonel DRY has been the Group Commander at the Gendarmerie Air Forces since August 2021. He has been in service with the Gendarmerie Air Forces since 2006 and has about 4000 flight hours on various types of helicopters, and he still flies for about 180 hours per year. He tells us about the history, organization, and training within the Gendarmerie Air Forces.


The history of the Gendarmerie Air Forces goed back to 1953. In 1953, the French National Gendarmerie decided to acquire an air formation for both performing tasks as a military force involved in the military theaters of operation and undertaking its public safety at every point in the national territory. That same year, the first pilots from the Gendarmerie were taught and sent to Indochina. The first helicopter was the Bell 47G, and in May 1954 it landed in Versailles-Satory. The helicopter section of the Gendarmerie was officially established between 1956 and 1957. The first medical evacuation in the national territory took place in July 1956 in Reims.

The Algerian uprising forced the Gendarmerie to participate in the conflict. The Gendarmerie grew to twelve aircraft in 1957. Eight of the twelve aircraft were assigned to maintaining order and medical evacuation on what were the departments of French Algeria. The crews and aircraft involved in the conflict did not return to the bases in mainland France and the overseas departments and territories until 1963. In 1957 the Alouette II entered service within the Gendarmerie at Bron. Since this date, it was often used during mountain rescues. The helicopters were outfitted with skids for use in the mountains and floats for use on land and water, and in 1959 a winch was added. That year, new Alouettes were ordered to reach the North African continent. The usally bad weather on these DOM-TOM islands, Martinique, French Guyana, Guadeloupe, Reunion Island and New Caledonia benefit from the use of the helicopters.

The first Alouette III was delivered in 1963 and was assigned to escort the French president. They were fitted with a stretcher, which was widely for mountain rescue. Subsequently, these helicopters also participated in the GIGN intervention missions. In 1982, the AS350B ëcureuil was selected to replace the aging Alouette II helicopters because of its easy and economical maintenance. A total of 30 helicopters were ordered by the Gendarmerie. The Alouette II was definitively retired in 1991. In 1997, a study to replace the Alouette III with a new generation twin-engine helicopter was launched. The choice was clear and subsequently the Eurocopters BK117, alias EC145, was ordered and delivery began in December 2002 at BA107 Villacoublay Air Base. It is equipped with an almost entirely digital instrument panel and allows the use of night-vission goggles (NVG). In 2009, another new type of helicopter, the EC135, also produced by Eurocopter, joined the fleet. This helicopter was equipped with a camera, a search light, and a winch and was better suited for policing assignments. It was planned to replace the aging AS350 with additional EC135s, but lack of funding prevented this renewal, leading the Gendarmerie to cancel this order in 2014. A service life extension program on the Écureuils was carried out to allow them to operate until 2025. However, new European regulations prohibit these single-turbine aircraft from flying over urban areas, confining them to missions outside these areas. In France, the National Gendarmerie is the only homeland security force that operated as an air force. In fact, this Gendarmerie Air Forces intervenes for the benefit both the Gendarmerie and the police and it competent throughout the national territory including oversea



Brigadier Emmanuel Josse was appointed chief of staff of the French Gendarmerie Air Forces in August 2020. His career has comprised postings in both territorial ground units and gendarmerie air units. Student at Saint-Cyr, the French Army’s military academy and a graduate of the French War College, he is also recognized specialist in air safety issues after two assignments ast the BEA-E (Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for State Aviation Safety). First as an investigator and subsequently as deputy director. The Gendarmerie Air Forces (FAGN) has about 500 people, which compared to 100.000 Gendarmerie personnel means that they a mere of 0,5% of the total Gendarmerie. They have about 150 pilots which are based at the 30 bases, training center and headquarters.

Besides this, the pilots have a 24/7 duty. That means that they have to run shifts on a frequent basis. Next to the 150 pilots, the Gendarmerie Air Forces have about 200 mechanics, flight engineers, officers, and non-commissioned officers. And they have about 450 drone instructors. The headquarters of the Gendarmerie Air Forces is based at BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay near Paris, which houses an operational unit. This unit is specialized in all types of operations, and is responsible for the planning, supervision debriefing of all helicopter missions of the missions throughout France and overseas departments. At the headquarters, there is also a special group of people, and their work has everything to do with logistics and implementation of this like buying for example the uniforms and computer equipment. But they also prepare all the external maintenance contracts. There are different levels in this system, and everything ius about getting the most capacity of the equipment from helicopters, the camera system and other smaller equipment for the missions.

Another office in the headquarters is a special department with dedicated staff, and for them the most important subject is that air safety always comes first in all the helicopter operations. This means that for anything that doesn’t meet up to requirements , these issues are brought directly to this office, and here they create safety reports and the follow up feedback to all units. “For them, air safety is something which is very important,” Colonel DRY stated. He goes further: “It is a key point for them. It is a shame if the mission cannot be conducted completely, but the most important thing is that the helicopter and the crew come back in good condition.”


Initial pilot training for the Gendarmerie Air Force is centralized at one central training facility. All helicopter pilots of the French Army, airforce and Navy start their flying training in the South of France at Dax, and the Gendarmerie is no exception. After this initial training they go to their environment training for the Gendarmerie. In this case, these pilots will go to BA120 Cazaux, and start practicing over there to work on the Gendarmerie missions. Another very important mission for the Gendarmerie Air Forces is mountain rescue and for this they have a Mountain Flying School in Briancon in the French Alps. This school is very famous because all Gendarmerie pilots receive tghis specialized part of training there.

“This dedicated flying mountain school belongs to this main academy,” Colonel DRY explained. “So, every pilot that comes to the Gendarmerie has to train in the mountains to improve their flying skills even if they don’t want to be stationed in the mountainous environment. There are also a lot of companies from different countries that send some of their pilots to this school to fly and train in the mountains ans to see how the pilots of the Gendarmerie Air Forces are doing this”.


The Gendarmerie Air Forces has about 24 locations in France and six overseas (see the map below). The location that you don’t see on this map is Calais. Since the migration problems and the 32 people that drowned in November 2021, the French authorities have decided to station one Gendarmerie helicopter over there.

When you are deployed to one of these six overseas locations, you stationed there for about three years. “For the people that are working at once of these six overseas locations, it is very special. This is because they are very far from their home base in France. So, they have to be versatile, and they have to do almost everything by themselves. Their is a very important point for them and that is, sovereignty overseas,” Colonel DRY stated.


The missions carried out by the Gendarmerie Air Forces can be divided into four different groups. The first mission is observation. This is because they have to be able to assist all the Gendarmerie and police on the ground, with special camera equipped helicopters to assist them do their jobs whatever the conditions. The second type of mission is counterterrorism, which is a support mission but with the specialized units, the GIGN for the Gendarmerie and RAID for the police, two specialized units in the vicinity of BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay. Within ten minutes of the call, they can be in helicopters to go everywhere in France. “We will fly the GIGN and RAID forces when they need to go faster or to be dropped on inaccessible places like rooftops, in a forest, on a ship or when they need sniper overwatch,” Colonel DRY commented. “We use the EC135s for observation and the EC145 for transportation and hoist operations. We can take about four or five of them with them depending on their equipment. 

The third type of mission they do is the intervention in a specialized environment which basically means that they have special capabilities. Flying in the mountain is very special work for pilots and for the flight engineers. So, they have dedicated training and a dedicated unit for this environment. The fourth type of mission is protection, which means that with each helicopter they are able to send a special unit to the appropriate location in France. For example after the crash with the Germanwings Airbus in 2015. All the special police officers and air crash investigators were in paris, and they had to be transported to the crash site as quick as possible. So, from BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay they had to bring them to the site in the French Alps. The crash site was only accessible by foot or with helicopters because of the remote location within the mountains. 

The life of a unit

At the 30 locations, the duties are 24/7, 365 days a year. One unit exists of one helicopter, three pilots, four mechanics including flight engineers, and one additional Gendarme. This means that eight people have to keep one base operational and they do this very well. This is the way they have organized it in all thirty locations. Most missions are conducted with only one pilot because they have only three pilots per location. So, most they are flying with one pilot and one mechanic to spread the workload. The mechanics have two jobs. They are the technicians on the ground, but they wear different clothing during the flight, and they are not on board for technical matters but for operational work during the flight. The manage the hoist and the camera system and assist the pilots during the flights. 

As example, in 2021 they have made about 18.000 flight hours and more than 15.000 missions. And about 30% of these missions were used for training including the SWAT teams (RAID/GIGN), while the other 70% are real operational missions. During these flight hours they have arrested more than 377 criminals. And only in 2021 they have rescued more than 5100 people. “We have rescued most of them in the mountains and some of them in the shore at sea”, Colonel DRY added. “Therefore, we train a lot with the crews in the mountains because it is difficult and also dangerous.

The helicopter fleet of the Gendarmerie Air Force


The Gendarmerie Air Forces has about 56 helicopters in its inventory. First is the AS350 Ècureuil in two variants, the BA (15x) and the B2 (11x). The B2 is an updated and stronger version of the BA. The main reason is the stronger engine and some updated avionics, the airframe and gearbox are pretty much the same. This results in an increased performance of additional weight of about 100kg. “When they want to operate them in the mountains, they need the B2 version, and also at sea to rescue people”, explained Colonel DRY. “They fly this helicopter for example in Cayenne in French Guyana. Because it is very hot and wet over there it’s not the funniest place to fly”, he stated. “But this type of helicopter is doing very well in these circumstances. It’s like a Swiss knife for us”. He continues: “The pilots can do almost everything with this helicopter. For the people, this helicopter is very easy to maintain, and easy to fly but they are getting pretty old now so there is a sort of decision to take in the coming years. Now they have 26 AS350s and most of them are based overseas.

Next to the AS350s, they operate the EC145s. These helicopters are currently about 20 years old. In the Gendarmerie they are used in two different environments. At BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay they are mainly used for the transportation of the RAID and GIGN, but most of the time they are used in the mountains. Because they are bigger and more powerful. Last but not least is the EC135 and is the youngest of the fleet. The main feature used by the Gendarmerie is the Wescam MX-15i camera system. “When the first helicopter arrived with the Gendarmerie in 2010 it was a major gamechanger for the Gendarmerie”, stated by Colonel DRY. For the first time time they had a camera system which was already fully integrated into the helicopter. That means that they can use them for surveillance, criminal investigation, and assist the ground units in their daily operations. When introduced 10 years ago it was a state-of-the-art camera system, with a good infrared camera for night operations. Although superseded by more powerful cameras, the Gendarmerie is still happy to work with these. Another part of the equipment is the searchlight. Once again, something that is quite common now, was something very new twenty years ago, and it was the beginning of their night operations. Before the night missions started, there were only the ferry flight from point A to point B. With this kind equipment, it started with the air support of the policeman on the ground. 

Last major piece of equipment, which was developed specifically for the Gendarmerie, is a way of mapping very quickly. For example during floods. The map is constantly changed by the rise of the water. When you put this kind of equipment on the helicopter, there is a pattern to follow with the helicopter and it autonomous makes a lot of pictures and takes all the data and sends this to a big computer and less than four hours later (depending on the area) they have a map of the area from max four hours before. Then the print is and give this to the Chief, to the operators, and the authorities. So, it means you can add layers and you have the precise location of each point. It is not only the map but has also the GPS locations. So, it is very useful in terms of crisis for flooding or another type of crisis. You can make a map in less than a half day. You can see very well the differences between the day before and the day you took the pictures. Especially for the policeman or the fireman on the ground. They give them the updated map so they can work with the preparation of this equipment. 

“One thing which is important to remember is that the helicopter is very important to us but more important is the equipment installed, like the camera on the EC135. The camera system is useful to conduct our missions which makes it expensive and requires maintenance and requires also training from the crews. It is a key point for us”, Colonel DRY states. “on the right side of the helicopter we have a hoist system, and in the mountains without a hoist system, the job is not the same. Every year we conduct more than 15.000 hoist operations with our helicopters. We have to keep training on this because it is so specific and complex, that we have to keep repeating this training for the pilot and hoist operator.



The main maintenance center (GMCO – Continuous Airworthiness Management Organization) is located at BA123 Orlèans/Bricy. The workforce here is about ninety Gendarme and about seven civilians. The maintenance organization is divided into two sections. The main section is based at BA123 Orlèans Air Base and the other one is based at Nimes-Garons Airport where they source out the EC145 maintenance with the Securité Civile which is the main base for the Securité Civile. We interviewd Major WNK, whom is the head of maintenance since 2021. The maintenance of the helicopter is based on two qualifications. The first is ground mechanics and second are the engineers. This allows this organization to provide the best maintenance for the helicopters. They fly on the aircraft which they maintain every day.

There are tow opportunities for the mechanics. The first opportunity is airframe and engine specialities, which is about 80-85%, and the second one is avionics for the rest. The mechanics cannot or should not be qualified on three different airframes such as the AS350 Ècureuil, EC135 and the EC145. This because it is relevant to realize as a mechanic that you have to maintain your skills at any time, and three types is just too much. At the GMCO at Orlèans, the mechanics are both qualified on the EC135 and the AS350. If you want to be a mechanic on the EC145, you must do your job at Nimes-Garons. On the Gendarmerie’s air section (the 40 territorial locations of the FAGN are called Gendarmerie’s air sections), you can’t be qualified on another type than the type(s) based, although you can retain your qualification if you previous base operated a different type. “You want to know the difference in maintenance between the three types of helicopters (AS350, EC135 and the EC145)? “Major WNK explains: “We have two types of programs; it goes by time or a calendar (first step reached). For the AS350 it is 1200 hours or four years, for the EC135 it is 1000 hours or three years and for the EC145 it is 800 hours or three years”.

Two types of maintenance are carried out:

– Line maintenance: activities are mostly carries out during normal turnaround periods where the helicopter is on the ground and is usually at location because of the fewer mechanics and less time.

– Base maintenance: activities which require the helicopter to be taken out of service for a longer period and which require special equipment and is carried out at the GMCO. They treat corrosion, cracks, etc. If necessary, implement RDAS (Repair Design Approval Sheet) directly on the helicopter. “This step of operation cannot be done directly on site in the field. It is too complicated, not enough people, not enough qualifications, and not enough space and tools. It is better to do this at the to do this at the GMCO”, Major WNK explained. 

When it is necessary to exchange a major component due to a discrepancy, we like to do it directly on the GMCO because we have the space, the tools and the most experienced mechanics. If necessary, they can do it at an operational base but not with the same conditions. Here they do eight hours of maintenance a day, but at an operational base, it is not the same. They need to share their time between operational missions and maintenance, so the helicopter can only be out of service for a very short time. At the GMCO, they do also maintenance at location. Major WNK explains: “We have a truck with all the required tools to transport mechanics everywhere on the territory when required. If the helicopter can’t fly for whatever reason, we can use this and bring it back to the GMCO. Where we can do the maintenance correctly and in accordance with our maintenance manuals and procedures. So, here at the GMCO we have the time, space and skills required for the job”. Depending on the situation, the GMCO can adapt the maintenance at every situation. They can deploy mechanics to the overseas bases if it is necessary. They do that regularly. Major WNK states: “We deliver to the mechanics team in place”. For the GMCO there are three domains. The first is maintenance. As said before, they do the base maintenance for the AS350 and the EC135. The second domain in the continues airworthiness. All the flight records from all the bases are checked and controlled to ensure that the system is correctly implemented with the correct data. The most important is to check the life of each part which are followed by hours/cycles or a calendar day of use. The GMCO must also schedule all the work orders for base maintenance , prepare and realize every three years for each helicopter the renewal of the airworthiness certificate. The last mission is logistic support. The GMCO delivers tools and some spare parts but less than the past because of the new tenders

It has been decided by the authorities to create, as they say, some vertical tenders with only one contractor. The contractor has full control during a period of up to ten years. It must have the capabilities to realize all the missions defined by the tenders and has to manage the sub-contractors. Due to this new position, the French Gendarmerie has transferred all their parts stocks to this new contractor. Ten to fifteen years ago, the GMCO assured the delivery of all the spare parts. And there were about 30.000 parts in stock, but today they have about 1000 parts in stock. The contractor does not have a fleet availability contract but a logistic contract with the GMCO. The only need to deliver parts on a scheduled time frame like, two days, seven days, or thirty days (depending on the emergency level of request). So. when the GMCO send an order, they have to deliver at the right time at the right place.

Reliability of the fleet

Major WNK goes further about the reliability of the fleet. The technical reliability of the helicopters is now 75-80% for the whole fleet. The GMCO participates in some data groups with Airbus Helicopters directly to share all the maintenance data to improve the state of some component, as others operator. It is very important for the GMCO to compare their data with civilian operators to compare how they perform.

“For example, all the French Gendarmerie’s helicopters are civilian models, unlike the Army’s NH90s. The AS250 is the same helicopter other operators use. It is just flown by a military crew; it has the same engine and avionics. Overall, we realize the same missions with the same means as the hoist operations as every operator does. Whatever you are, civilian or military crew, we are not so different in fact”, major WNK explains.

The future of the Gendarmerie Air Forces

In December 2021, the French Home Office places an order for ten H160s with Airbus Helicopters. They placed this order because they were looking for an omni-role helicopter. The first first H160 delivery for the Gendarmerie Air Force is expected in 2024. The goal for Airbus is to deliver the first H160 on time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. The ten H160s will be placed at their locations in Villacoublay, Lyon, Hyeres, and Bordeaux. For example, every time with the AS350, they must choose if they need the hoist or the camera system. But as the new H160 is an omni-role helicopter, they have a new state of the art camera system, a hoist system and the last fast rope system already installed. Even with all these options fitted , they can still perform their missions with a superb range, and they don’t have to choose.

For the moment, the AS350s remain to fly at the overseas locations. But the decision to replace them is now at the HQ. “It is an old helicopter, and we need to replace them. Maybe not with the H160 but probably with the new H145s”, Colonel DRY stated. He goes further: “Our EC145s are the C@ versions which is an old design with four rotor blades and rigid hub. The new version have five blades, and the performance has really increased compared to the ones we have. The key point of the Gendarmerie Air Forced are the people. Of course, we have good and sometimes new equipment, but the most important thing for us are people who prepare and conduct the missions. The people are making the organization”.

We would like to thank Colonel DRY, Major WNK, Captain Lahri and all the other people of the Gendarmerie Air Forces for their help to makes this possible.