FAI Celebrates Anniversary Of 50-Year-Old Altitude Record


There aren’t many aviation records that have withstood more than a few years, but half a century? The World Air Sports Federation (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale or FAI) made note that today (June 21) marks the 50th anniversary of the absolute altitude record for helicopters, set on this date in 1972 by Jean Boulet of France. Boulet took his Turbomeca Artouste III B turboshaft-powered Aerospatiale SA315 Lama (serial number 001) to 40,820 feet (12,442 meters).

The flight, which launched from the airfield in Istres, France (now home to Dassault Aviation’s flight test facility) might also hold a record for the longest-ever autorotation, as the engine flamed out in at -63 degrees Centigrade (-81 Fahrenheit). Boulet, who died in 2011, trained as an engineer in France and then as a fighter pilot in the U.S. He joined SNCASE (later to be absorbed by Aerospatiale Group) in 1947. Among his other flying accomplishments were first flights of SE3000, SE3101, Alouette, Frelon and Puma helicopter models. His logbook recorded more than 8,000 hours of rotorcraft time, dominating his 9,000 hours total flying time.

He also authored the 1982 book, “History of The Helicopter.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. My dad Paul M. Smith was a British born Aerospace engineer trained at Westland Aircraft and was hired by LTV from Canadair to develop LTV XC-142 Tilt-Rotor. He was LTV Helicopter’s Employee of the Year in 1972. We lived in Marseille, France during the same time. I have color Super 8 movies of Jean Boulet flying my family through the French Alps in a Aérospatiale Alouette III. I remember my Dad telling me he had set the World Altitude record. Thanks for the article, it brought back some great memories from my childhood.
    Kevin Smith
    Elgin, TX

    • There is a margin between power available and power required called excess power. The minimum power required occurs at Max rate of climb speed – a speed significantly higher than 0kts hover speed. It is possible to fly forward at that max rate of climb speed on the limit of power available. There will be insufficient power in order to hover. If he then picked up a climber, the power required would be further increased for any speed. You will note that he flamed out (so was on the absolute limits) and recorded the longest autorotation as well.

  2. I think it’s been done, but not at the top:

    ‘Lars Eriksson documented the evacuation of a climber on Mt. Everest from the highest possible point reached by helicopter at 20,833 ft. above sea level. It’s unclear as to why the climber had to be evacuated, but it must have been serious to warrant a helicopter landing at 20,000+’ for rescue.’