Today two notable organisations provide mountain rescue services in Switzerland. Prior to 1946 mountain air rescue did not exist. Air Glacier SA is based in Sion in Valais, and Swiss Air-Rescue Rega in Zurich. Rega has twelve operational bases around Switzerland but does not operate in Valais. In Valais, Rega uses the services of Air Glacier or Air Zermatt.
Covering the costs of your air rescue
If you spend a lot of time in the mountains becoming a member of one of these organisations makes good sense and could save you a lot of money if you have an accident or get stuck. Even if you don’t, membership is a great way to support a worthwhile operation that regularly saves lives.
Membership is not an insurance policy
Neither not-for-profit company offers its members a contractual commitment to cover rescue costs. Instead they aim to cover the costs of rescuing their members within the limits of their resources. To be a member you need to make a minimum financial contribution. Rega says “as a token of appreciation for this support, Rega can, at its own discretion and within the bounds of its resources, waive the costs for the services for patrons, wholly or in part”.
The annual price of Rega patronage is CHF 30 for an adult and CHF 70 for a family. Air Glacier asks adults for CHF 35 and CHF 80 for families per year. Both Air Glacier SA and Rega cover rescue across all of Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
Swiss air rescue, born in 1946
Swiss air rescue began in November 1946 with the rescue of the passengers and crew of an American passenger aircraft stranded on the Gauli Glacier in the Bernese Oberland.
On 24 November 1946, two Swiss military pilots Victor Hug and Pista Hitz succeeded in rescuing those on the plane after landing two military planes on the glacier.
- Swiss avalanche deaths (Le News – 17.01.16)
- Guides are no guarantee of avalanche safety (Le News – 18.01.16)
In the early 1950s Fredy Wissel, a St. Moritz hotelier and Hermann Geiger, from the canton of Valais, begin various experiments to land airplanes on glaciers. After a few set backs they mastered the challenge. A Piper Cub with modified landing gear was the result.
In 1953, Swiss Air-Rescue used a helicopter, which it hired, for the first time in a rescue operation in the Netherlands after a dyke collapse flooded hundreds of villages.
The next leap forward was the purchase of the first light powerful jet-engine helicopters that could reach high altitude locations. The first of these was an Aérospatiale Alouette III acquired by Air Glacier SA in 1965.
In 1952 Dr. Rudolf Bucher founded Swiss Air-Rescue and started training rescue parachutists at the Royal Air Force base in Abington in the United Kingdom. Swiss Air-Rescue would later change its name to Rega. In 1965 it became an auxiliary wing of the Swiss Red Cross. In 1966 it became clear that it was spending more money than it was generating. After failing to secure government support, founder Fritz Bühler appealed to the public for help. He offered free rescue in return for donations of CHF 20 or more. A new funding model was born and this model is still in place today.
Air Glacier’s history
Air-Glacier SA was founded in 1965 after a group of friends pulled together finance to buy a French jet-turbine helicopter. Funding came largely from a farsighted Valais bank and a deferred payment arrangement with the French helicopter maker. Until then rescue operations were hampered by the limitations of low-powered heavy piston-engine machines incapable of landing in many high altitude places. Air Glacier SA adopted the same donation based funding model as Rega that it still uses today.
The video above shows the progress and set backs of the exciting but frequently dangerous pursuit of air rescue in the mountains.