"Air Zermatt is the safe way in and out of the valley", says Gerold Biner. "The Valley" is located in southern Switzerland, bordering Italy, in the canton of Valais at an altitude of 1,610 metres. "The Valley" is named after the highest peak here, the 4,478 metre high Matterhorn: It is the Matter Valley (Mattertal) that Gerold Biner is talking about. In addition to the Matterhorn, Air Zermatt's area of operation also includes the other 22 main peaks that rise around the municipality of Zermatt in the Mattertal. 6,000 residents, 30,000 hotel beds and innumerable day visitors. During the season, up to 50,000 people can be in the village, in the valley, on the slopes and on the rock faces putting themselves in danger. Air Zermatt protects the entire region with its helicopters.
Until the end of the 19th century, Zermatt was a mountain farming village that could only be reached on foot or by mule. At the beginning of the 20th century, Zermatt became a Mecca for mountaineers. The small community of Zermatt is connected to the big wide world with the railway line to the Rhone Valley. The place is growing. But avalanches and ﬂoods often make the roads and railway lines impassable. And the power supply also often interrupted for days. Making the houses cold and dark, and food sometimes scarce. Nevertheless, more and more visitors come to the Mattertal. Many of them get injured while doing mountain sports. Two physicians base themselves in Zermatt and care for the visitors like locals. In the past, mountain rescue was slow: often the sledges and mules bringing only the deceased back into the valley. Injured and sick people mostly left the village by train. In the 1960s they could be picked up by a pilot in his helicopter that was stationed a long way away.
In 1960 Beat H. Perren returned to his home village of Zermatt. After completing his studies, he became involved in the local council, was responsible for health care and ran a pharmacy. He fought for the community's first ambulance and – with another "chauffeur" – picked up patients from the valley stations. He would take them to one of the two physicians in the village or to the nearest hospital in Visp. Beat H. Perren wanted to change the rescue of mountaineers in alpine terrain. Zermatt was the place with the highest number of mountain accidents in Switzerland. Despite political and social opposition, he founded an initiative with some fellow allies.
Their goal: to establish a “helicopter company and build a heliport”. He made the down payment for the new company's first helicopter with a private loan. On August 7, 1968, the company was founded in Zermatt, a board of directors was appointed and Perren was appointed as President. In the company's statutes, the founders stipulated that “rescue, evacuation and other relief flights should have priority over all other activities”. Even before the company was founded, just after Easter 1968, current Honorary President Perren started rescue flights in the Mattertal with the company's first pilot.
This first helicopter crashed in 1969. The company needed a replacement machine. They acquired the first helicopter in Switzerland to be equipped with a rescue winch. From then on, they had the opportunity to drop mountain rescuers on steep rock faces and evacuate injured people. The Swiss became pioneers with the winch: An Air Zermatt crew member managed the first direct rescue via helicopter from the “extremely steep” north face of the Eiger. They succeed in the first winch rescues at night and in the snow, and they manage the world's first rescue from a cable car. The team also developed extinguishing buckets for fighting forest fires and rescue equipment for crevasse rescue. Over the years, the Zermatt team has developed into specialists whom are in demand around the world. In 2010 they carried out the world's highest direct rescue with a helicopter: At 6,950 metres on Annapurna in the Himalayas during a training session with their Nepalese colleagues.
"In the high season we fly 25 to 30 rescue missions a day with three helicopters", explains Gerold Biner, pilot, Managing Director and CEO of Air Zermatt. “With his foresight, Beat H. Perren recognized the importance of founding us as a service company. Connecting the Valley with the world is why we do what we do”, says Biner. In addition to the rescue missions, Air Zermatt also takes on commercial flights: “Our air rescue is in high deficit. We invest the profits from the commercial jobs as subsidies within the company so that we can maintain the rescue service. We don't receive any tax revenue for air rescue, but we bill the insurance companies who want to pay less and less for our services”, explains Biner.
“We treat the commercial work as training in order to be able to fly difficult rescue missions. This helps give us faith in not only our own abilities, but the technology too”, he explains. The crews fly skiers to the slopes, transport cargo loads and offer sightseeing flights. "When everything is cut off, we fly people and supplies for the community in and out", says the pilot, who came to Air Zermatt in 1983. “At that time the company was 14 years old and had 25 employees”, recalls Biner. Almost 40 years later there are 78 employees. “Our roots are local. Many of our pilots and employees are from the region. People from all over are invited to work for us. That creates a good mix. It is even more important that we always encourage our employees when they feel the urge for further development”, says the CEO. Air Zermatt's entire management "grew up” in the company. This enables the team to better assess the risk of innovations and to be more conservative.
Today's eleven red helicopters emblazoned with red and white stars take off on around 2,000 rescue missions a year from two bases. “Everyone from Valais knows when they see a Heli with the stars, it's one off us. The 13 stars stand for the districts of Valais and can be found on our canton's coat of arms”, explains CEO Biner. One heliport is located in the north of Zermatt, the second in Gampel, 35 kilometres away and further north in the Rhone Valley. From the third location in Raron, which is used for maintenance and commercial flights, additional machines can start if required. In addition, the company mans an ambulance for the Mattertal around the clock. Every year Air Zermatt trains colleagues from all over the world in rescue operations in their own training centre.
“In the mountains, the helicopter is often the best and most economical tool for building mountain huts or cable cars or for supplying the people up there without having to build a road. In doing so, we also contribute to sustain-ability, instead of building roads and transporting goods with trucks. The helicopters are so technically advanced that they can also keep up economically with the – at first glance, cheaper – modes of transport.”
Sustainability is an important issue for Air Zermatt. The company can, and likes to, contribute. The safety of his colleagues and employees is just as important to CEO Gerold Biner. “Attention to and maintaining a high level of awareness of safety is a huge challenge. Humans are not made to fly and this therefore poses a great risk." It's a balancing act between safety and earning money. "Every employee must be able to say 'No' if they feel uncomfortable, as nothing should happen to anyone because they have placed themselves in unnecessary danger. We need trust each other and respect each other in order to be a good company."
Corona hurt Air Zermatt, but Biner hopes that the pandemic will settle down and that visitors from the United States, China and around the world will find their way back to Zermatt and the jobs will regain momentum. Before the crisis, there were up to 50,000 visitors per day on the slopes and hiking routes around Zermatt – the Mecca of mountaineers. “It remains to be seen whether it will be the same as before the crisis, but I believe that everything will recover. We have significantly fewer rescue missions because the region still lacks the international clientele. The Swiss, Germans and Europeans simply ski better and fewer accidents happen."
from Johannes Kohlen