Helicopter Heroine Cover

Helicopter Heroine

Valérie André—Surgeon, Pioneer Rescue Pilot, and Her Courage Under Fire

Charles Morgan Evans

Stackpole Books, Essex, Connecticut, 2023, 464 pages

Book Review published on: January 5, 2024

Historian Charles Morgan Evans presents the history of France’s first woman to fly helicopters in combat in the book Helicopter Heroine: Valérie André—Surgeon, Pioneer Rescue Pilot, and Her Courage Under Fire. Evans came across Valérie André’s story by chance while working as a curator for the Hiller Aircraft Museum in Redwood City, California. His research led to this book that presents an intriguing history about André who became a surgeon after surviving Nazi Germany’s occupation of France, and then flew helicopters in support of combat operations in Indochina and Algeria.

At first glance and for many people, André didn’t look like someone who would serve several years in combat zones with soldiers, paratroopers, and legionnaires, as she was a petite woman who stood just over five feet and weighed less than one hundred pounds. However, she learned to cope with living in a hostile environment at an early age when Nazi Germany occupied France during World War II. Under considerable risk for violating the Nazis’ travel restrictions, she left her home in the Alsace-Lorraine region to pursue a medical degree and attended the University of Paris to achieve her goal. After France’s liberation, André completed her medical education in 1948 and volunteered to serve as a doctor with the army in French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). In Vietnam, she worked in forward medical treatment facilities and even parachuted into Laos while serving with a medical unit that specialized in deploying teams by parachute to support army units at remote locations.

In addition to becoming a skilled surgeon, André desired the opportunity to be a pilot and she saw her chance when the French air force deployed several Hiller H-12 helicopters for evacuating wounded soldiers. After convincing several key leaders that she was an ideal candidate for piloting air medical evacuations, she completed helicopter training in France in 1950 and returned to Vietnam. André completed additional training in country and eventually flew her first air medical evacuation mission in 1952. By 1953, she had flown numerous missions, evacuating wounded soldiers out of combat zones, while also carrying on with her duties as a surgeon. Years later, she flew the more advanced Allouette II, and the larger and heavier Sikorsky H-19 and H-34 helicopters in support of combat operations in Algeria. André also experienced the Algerian Putsch in 1961, when approximately twenty-five thousand personnel of the French army rebelled against President Charles de Gaulle’s intention to allow Algeria to become an independent country. By the time she completed her service with the French Army in 1981, she was a general officer.

Evans’s book is an opportunity to read about one of the pioneers of women in aviation. While Marie Marvingt, also a French woman, preceded André as the first woman to fly an airplane in war (World War I), André is recognized as the first woman to fly a helicopter in combat. The book is a unique work for readers interested in military aviation history because André is not well known in the United States and her memoirs, Ici, Ventilateur!, Madam le general, and La pathologie du parathuisme, have not been published in English. André’s history is presented in chronological order from when she was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1922 to when she reached the age of one hundred, living in Issy-les-Moulineaux, which is a suburb of Paris. While Evans covers most of the significant events in André’s life, a substantial portion of the book is focused on her tour in Indochina. Her service and personal thoughts are conveyed in detail as she learned how to work as a surgeon in a combat environment, and later when she flew air medical evacuation missions in early model Hiller H-12s, which were primitive aircraft in comparison with today’s modern air ambulances. Readers will be impressed with André’s exceptional courage, determination, and resilience during her service in Indochina.

In addition to Valérie André’s endeavors, Evans provides ample historical context regarding France’s wars in Indochina and Algeria. Readers will learn about the challenges that France faced in Indochina and will gain an understanding about how the French Army was unsuccessful in defeating the Viet Minh deep in North Vietnam. Similarly, Evans explains general events in Algeria and addresses the extraordinary rebellion by soldiers in the French Army who opposed their president’s decision to allow Algeria to determine its future.

Helicopter Heroine: Valérie André—Surgeon, Pioneer Rescue Pilot, and Her Courage Under Fire is an excellent book. Evans conveys Valerie André’s exceptional character and service that broke paradigms about women in the French military after World War II and during the Cold War. As well, Evans’s work presents interesting narratives about France’s wars in Indochina and Algeria, and the early development of helicopter operations in these conflicts.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas