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IRAM Newsletter 42(January 2000)

January 21, 2000

Note: this is the on-line version of the IRAM Newsletter. A Postscript version and a gzipped Postscript version are also available. You may also access previous issues ,or proposal forms and style files.

Helicopter accident on the Plateau de Bure

On December 15th, 1999, shortly after 16 hours, a helicopter with five people on board left from the Plateau de Bure with destination Montmaur (to the South of the Plateau). About 30 minutes later it became clear that the helicopter had not reached its destination. Unfortunately, the emergency signal that normally should have been transmitted from the helicopter in case of severe problems, and that would have helped to locate its position, did not go off. This fact together with the beginning of darkness and the rapidly degrading weather conditions made extremly difficult all search and rescue activities which had immediately been started, and which continued throughout the night.

It was not before about 11 hours the next morning that parts of the helicopter were sighted, on the northern side of the Plateau, in the vicinity of one of the pylons (P4) of the téléphérique. When the rescue team finally reached the site in the early afternoon, the terrible truth became clear: all four passengers and the pilot had lost their lives.

Two of the victims, Gerard CALVET and Jean-Claude SEMIOND, were engineers from the Technical Division of INSU (Institut National des Sciences de l'Univers), and the third, Marc RAMINA, was director of the engineering company E.R.I.C. (Études et Réalisations d'Installations à Cables). David LAZARO, technician at IRAM, came to the mountain as one of the staff representatives for the discussion of the new French 35 hours/week regulation. Michel GAUD, the pilot, had 10 years experience flying rescue missions in the mountains, and had been for several years chief of the S.A.F. base in Vars (Services Aériens Français).

The fact that so many lives have been lost, first in the cable car accident and now in the helicopter crash, in trying to operate and further develop the Plateau de Bure Observatory is raising a large number of questions, and there will be no easy answers.

Since the accident, the activities on the Plateau de Bure have been reduced to the minimum necessary for safeguarding the installations. All observations with the interferometer have been suspended. The telescopes are moved only to avoid sun and wind damage. The receivers have been warmed up. These safeguarding activities are carried out by groups of four, all volunteers, who stay for 7 days or longer, as weather conditions require.

When and how fuller operations can be resumed will be decided not before detailed risk analyses will have been made for several operational scenarios. Only such analyses can give us answers to the question of what technical activities can be supported under the circumstances, and how to solve the transport problem to and from the Plateau de Bure in the nearer future, and in the longer term.

The Plateau de Bure Interferometer has produced excellent science in the past, and we certainly hope that it will do so in the future again. It is too early to say when this will be.

Michael Grewing

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