Photo: Valérie André poses in front of a Hiller helicopter at Lanessan Hospital, Hanoi, Vietnam, 1952. André also served as a surgeon at Lanessan. (Photos: Valérie André. Used with permission.)

 

She broke through barriers to become a military pilot and neurosurgeon.

At a remote French Army outpost near Nam Dinh, Vietnam, in November 1952, a group of soldiers waited with one of their wounded for a helicopter on its way from Hanoi, roughly 57 miles away. Though helicopters had been introduced to the war in Indochina earlier, the soldiers had never seen one. But they knew it could save lives and meant they no longer had to transport their wounded by truck or jeep across almost nonexistent roads, exposed to ambush, to reach a distant airstrip.

As the Hiller 360 made its approach, its strange, somewhat delicate, insectlike appearance caught the attention of the soldiers first. Then, the men noticed its pilot, a young woman, who self-assuredly made a precision landing at their compound. Time was of the essence when loading the wounded onto the Stokes litters on each side of the helicopter. The pilot urged the men to quickly help her secure the wounded soldier. She knew the enemy Viet Minh could be lurking nearby and wouldn’t hesitate to fire on them, even with red crosses painted on the Hiller’s fuselage.

The pilot then made her way back into the cockpit and signaled that she was ready to lift off. The men stood back in awe, wondering who this angel of the battlefield was. To them, the helicopter and its female pilot seemed to come from a futuristic fantasy. But the pilot, Valérie André, and the aircraft weren’t figments of anyone’s imagination.

André, a captain and a surgeon in the French Military Medical Corps, was one of the founding members of France’s then recently inaugurated military helicopter rescue squadron. By the time she picked up the wounded soldier at Nam Dinh, André had already served five years in Vietnam. Flying rescue helicopters would make her a legend.

Hooked on Aviation

André was born in Strasbourg, France, on Apr. 21, 1922. Her destiny as a pilot was set at the age of 10, when she met acclaimed pilot Maryse Hilsz. Hilsz had just completed a nearly 13,000-mile journey from Paris, France, to Saigon, Vietnam, and back. That meeting hooked the young André on aviation. She regularly visited the Strasbourg aerodrome after that, eventually taking her first fixed-wing flight lessons at 17 years of age in the summer of 1939.

“Boys were trained to fly free as part of national defense,” she says. “I had to pay for my lessons.”

André commands a Sikorsky H-34 helicopter in Algeria, 1959.

André’s love affair with aviation was put on hold, however, with the onset of war. Germany declared war on Poland in September of that year, and France, in turn, declared war on Germany. André’s world was completely upended. She would begin attending university the following year to fulfill her other life ambition to become a doctor. When Germany defeated France in 1940, her medical education nearly ended. To continue her studies, André defied the Germans and left Strasbourg, despite protests from her family.

Her life was immediately in danger. The Germans had forbidden Strasbourg residents to leave without authorization. In Clermont-Ferrand, the Gestapo raided André’s university, searching for Resistance operatives, saboteurs, and Jewish students and faculty. André narrowly evaded arrest. Afterward, she fled to Paris, where she lived in hiding and under threat of arrest until the summer of 1944. When the Free French liberated Paris in August 1944, André compared the exile army to an incarnation of modern knights.

Surgeon on the Front Lines

After graduating medical school in 1947, André enlisted in the French Military Medical Corps and volunteered to serve in French Indochina as a doctor. The region, which comprised Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, had been under French rule since the late 19th century.

In the 1940s, a group of Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh sought independence for Vietnam, and war broke out between France and the insurgents in 1946, lasting until 1954 and the withdrawal of French troops. The French Army suffered massive casualties, and doctors were in short supply. Trained in neurosurgery, André performed more than 100 procedures per month after her arrival.

Still, her intense interest in aviation endured. When given the opportunity to be part of a medical team parachuting into remote French military outposts throughout Indochina to treat the wounded, she jumped at the chance. On one mission to Laos, where she was airdropped into a French fort, André treated both military personnel and civilians who lived near the outpost. Her skill and compassion became legendary among the villagers, and she became known as “the woman who came from the sky.”

First Air Ambulances Arrive in Vietnam

In 1950, English pilot Alan Bristow, who later founded the global helicopter operation that still bears his name, came to Saigon believing that the French government wanted to buy a Hiller as a gift for Vietnam’s on-again, off-again emperor Bao Dai. When that proved not to be the case, Bristow asked the company’s French distributor to ship him one of the innovative Hiller UH-12/360s so he could demonstrate its utility to the French Air Force. The demonstration convinced the air force to try the helicopter as an air ambulance because of its ability to land at even the remotest outpost, hours from the nearest airfield or days from the nearest hospital.

The air force initially bought two Hiller 360s, ushering in the first use of helicopters in Vietnam for medical rescue. André, who was among those who witnessed the demonstration of the Hiller in Saigon in 1950, immediately lobbied her superiors for a chance to become a rescue pilot.

André in a Hiller 360 at Helicop-Air, August 1950. Helicop-Air was the distributor at that time for Hiller helicopters in France.

“I had medical training to stabilize the wounded,” she says. “And I weighed less than 45 kilograms [99 lb.], which meant we could even carry an extra wounded man if necessary.”

It wasn’t easy to convince her superiors. André had already experienced significant prejudice as a woman in the French medical corps: some labeled her a threat to the “prestige of men.” Yet, André persevered, earning respect as a surgeon, and she would do the same as a rescue pilot. The commanding officer of the nascent helicopter squadron, Alexis Santini, was tough but fair-minded. He told André if she could hold her own with the men, he would put her into service.

Flying into Danger

Following helicopter flight training in France and several months of practice, back in Vietnam André flew her first rescue mission on Jan. 22, 1951. Danger stalked her on each of her 129 missions. Flying to reach a far-off French outpost often took more than an hour, and once there, André frequently had to be escorted by fighter aircraft strafing surrounding areas with machine-gun fire and dropping napalm to disperse the enemy Viet Minh, who targeted her.

The Hiller was often mechanically temperamental, once stranding André in a no-man’s-land when a cooling-fan gearbox failed. Fortunately, French troops found her before the Viet Minh did. On another mission, her wounded patient regained consciousness midflight and, in a panic, tried to wrest control of the helicopter. André was able to fight the soldier off and maintain control of her machine until he fell back into a coma.

André proved her mettle as a pilot in both health and sickness and earned the respect of all who served with her. She went on to serve in Algeria as both a medical rescue and troop transport pilot and chief medical officer for the Reghaïa air base near Algiers. By this time, she had graduated to piloting the more sophisticated Sikorsky H-34 and Sud Aviation Alouette II.

When she returned to France in 1962, André continued serving in the French Army as a medical officer assigned to air bases throughout the country. She never lost her fascination with helicopters. When inspecting the bases, André was assigned an Alouette II to cover the wide distances between locations.

In 1963, André and Santini married. Of the commander who first believed in her skills as a pilot, André says Santini was the man who “mattered most” in her life.

André with Alexis Santini at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, Vietnam, 1951. André’s future husband, Santini was the first commander to welcome her into the French Air Force as a helicopter rescue pilot.

A Distinguished Career

André received numerous commendations and medals of honor for her service. She remained in the French Army and rose through the ranks, becoming a colonel in 1970 and a brigadier general in 1975—the first woman to achieve the rank in the French military. In 1982, André was promoted to medical inspector general.

André in Paris, May 2017. André, the first woman promoted to the rank of general in the French Army, was awarded the Grand Officer Legion of Honor on Sep. 18, 1981. (Charles Morgan Evans)

During the latter part of her career, she lobbied for gender equality based on merit for women pursuing medical careers in the military. André garnered support from members of the French National Assembly to level admission standards that had favored male over female applicants. As a result of André’s effort, women now represent more than 50% of the medical corps’ personnel.

In April 2024, André celebrated her 102nd birthday. A modest and gracious person, she lives quietly in her adopted town of Issy-les-Moulineaux, near Paris. But she’s always fought fiercely for the causes she believes in.

“I have always been a rebel,” André says. “I rebelled against outdated injustices or outdated traditions. But I was always a rebel who liked order … and risks.”

Editor’s note: Charles Morgan Evans is the author of Helicopter Heroine—Valérie André—Surgeon, Pioneer Rescue Pilot, and Her Courage Under Fire, published by Stackpole Books, 2023. For ordering information, visit hai.rotor.org/WKLe6J.

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Charles Morgan Evans

Charles Morgan Evans

Charles Morgan Evans is the author of Helicopter Heroine—Valérie André—Surgeon, Pioneer Rescue Pilot, and Her Courage Under Fire, published by Stackpole Books, 2023. He is also the founding curator of the Hiller Aviation Museum in Northern California.