Werner Donau was the first aviation inspector expressly appointed by the Federal aviation office to supervise the rotary-wing activities in Switzerland. For this reason he was also among the first to obtain a helicopter pilot license and among the first to transport members of the Swiss Federal Council and other VIP’s. Among other activities he had been charged to organize and manage the first search and rescue service to localize missing aircraft in Switzerland.
Werner Donau was born in Lucerne on March 6, 1918. Since his childhood he had a strong interest in aviation and after the compulsory and commercial schools he obtained his glider pilot license.
After completing the basic compulsory military service, he proceeded with a three years course and qualified with the rank of lieutenant in a motorised vehicles company.
He was then selected as candidate aeroplane pilot and followed a series of training courses obtaining on October 3, 1942 the licence as military pilot.
During the Second World War he flew with the "Fliegerkompagnie 16" piloting the two-seat reconnaissance biplane EKW (Eidgenössische Konstruktionswerkstätte - Swiss Federal Construction Works) C-35.
Even if civil flights were not allowed during WWII in Switzerland, on 27 November 1944 the Federal aviation office (nowadays Federal Office of Civil Aviation - FOCA) granted him the “licence as tourism aerodyne pilot" nr. 1032. This document enabled him to perform private flights with light aeroplanes with a maximum of four seats. The same license allowed private aerobatic flights (without passengers).
In 1946 he took part in one of the first courses for civil flight instructors organized by FOCA after which he began intense activities as a flight instructor at the Locarno and Courtelary airports, sometimes training classes with 30 student pilots! Often the flying activity began early in the morning and continued until late evening.
Air traffic controller
In 1948 Werner Donau decided to embark on a new job and became one of the first Swiss to receive a license as an air traffic controller. He learned this new profession from Dutch instructors during one of the first courses organized in Switzerland. For about a dozen years he then worked at the Zurich-Kloten Airport control tower. Meanwhile during his free time he continued to act as civil flight instructor and as a militia (military) pilot.
On June 23, 1955, the Federal Aviation Office granted him the professional airplane pilot license nr. 422. Just a few days later on July 1, 1955 he obtained the qualification to fly with the Dragon Rapid DH-89, while the following year, on February 1, 1956 he obtained the qualification to train professional airplane pilots.
Air inspector on behalf of the Federal Aviation Office
On March 1, 1960 Werner Donau was hired by the Federal Aviation Office. Initially he was charged to supervise the sector of the instrument flight operations. However since in that period aviation activities in the Swiss mountains were rapidly expanding, Donau was asked to take charge of that sector.
From various locations in Switzerland, especially from Valais, there was a growing request to open up new mountain landing sites and heliports to be used by airplanes and helicopters to supply alpine refuges as well for transportation of building materials and equipment.
Deciding on a new challenge, in Spring 1962 he began the flight training to obtain his private helicopter pilot license. It was the start of a new and important chapter in Donau’s aviation career.
Trained by Heliswiss’ flight instructor Leonard Kunz, he started training on April 12 at the airport of Belp/BE.
On May 9, with only 9h 24min of flight experience under his belt, he completed his first solo flight at the controls of the Bell 47G2 HB-XAT.
On June 2, 1962 after having completed just over 21 hours of flight training he passed the final test with flight examiner Max Kramer and obtained his private helicopter pilot license nr. 63.
That same year on November 14, he obtained the commercial helicopter pilot license.
Despite his limited flight experience with only 57 flight hours on January 25, 1963 in the region of La Chaux-de-Fonds/JU, he took part for the first time on a search and rescue mission at the controls of the Bell 47G2 HB-XAT.
New helicopters, new experiences
During the annual compulsory course for militia (military) pilots from March 25 to April 6, 1963 Werner Donau learned to fly the SE 3130 Alouette 2 in service with the Swiss Army since 1958.
Between May 6 and May 17 he also had the opportunity to fly at the controls of the SO 1221S Djinn.
The next May 27, with a total flight experience of 111h 43min he began a new training course at the end of which he was qualified to train new helicopter pilot canditates.
His instructor license was released on August 5, 1963 and a few days later he began the flight training of Jean-Pierre Freiburghaus and Gilbert Kammacher at the airport of Lausanne-La Blécherette and Josef Hengartner in Belp.
On September 18, again in Belp he had the opportunity to carry out some training flights on the Hiller UH-12B HB-XBS along with flight instructor Max Kramer. A few days later, on September 21, this helicopter was damaged beyond repair due to mechanical failure, but fortunately none of the occupants were injured.
Part-time pilot on behalf of Heliswiss
In the following months Donau started to fly occasionally on behalf of Heliswiss. At that time this helicopter company was largely financed by public funds and therefore Donau was allowed to carry out commercial flights in order to familiarize himself with the rotary wing world on one side and add flight experience on the other.
Moreover it must be considered that at that time there were very few helicopter pilots in Switzerland. The training of a pilot was prohibitively expensive.
In addition to pilot training and the transportation of people and building materials he participated in occasional search and rescue operations.
He carried out the first rescue on September 29, 1963 at the controls of the Bell 47G3B-1 HB-XBT. On that occasion he transported to the hospital a wounded German tourist who had fallen into a crevasse in the Engelberg/OW region.
The next day he miraculously escaped an accident that could have cost him his life: while he was transportating building material at the controls of the HB-XBT in the Suldtal valley (Berne Oberland) he did not notice the presence of a cable (which was not reported in the charts). He passed underneath the cable, and only later realized that it had been a matter of good fortune to be still alive!
At the end of its second year of activity as helicopter pilot he had logged a total of 229h 43min under his belt.
Between 1964-1965 he carried out various activities both as air inspector on behalf of the Federal Air Office and as Heliswiss pilot.
During that period he often flew with Agusta-Bell 47J3B-1 HB-XBX purchased by Heliswiss in 1964 thanks to a credit obtained from the Swiss Confederation.
Alongside his civil flying he also carried out several flights with the SE 3130 Alouette 2 in service with the Swiss Army during his annual term as militia helicopter pilot.
In 1965 he obtained the qualification to fly the Pilatus PC-6 Porter often used for the transportation of people, goods and building materials especially in Valais.
On 10 January 1966, Heliswiss’ chief-pilot Walter Demuth trained Werner Donau on the Agusta-Bell 204B. The following days Donau carried out several trasnportations of building materials in the Männlichen and Riffelalp region using this aircraft.
Unfortunately on June 2, 1966 while he was landing on the Tsanfleuron glacier at the controls of the Pilatus PC-6 Porter HB-FAO he had an accident caused by whiteout conditions (lack of reference points). Nobody was injured but the aircraft was severely damaged.
On June 10, 1966 in Belp/BE Werner Donau had the opportunity to fly with the new Hughes 500 N9000F which was performing a series of demonstration flights around Europe.
Between August 30 and September 1, 1966 along with flight instructor Jean Baer he made a series of training flights logging a total of about 6 hours at the controls of the Hughes 269B HB-XCC in service with the AeCS Section Genève.
On October 18, 1967 the Boeing-Vertol CH-47A Chinook was officially presented in Berne, and on that occasion Werner Donau had again the possibility to fly as co-pilot with this large helicopter.
A few weeks later, on November 14, 1967, in Sion/VS Fernand Martignoni trained Werner Donau to pilot the SE 3160 Alouette 3.
The Federal Office of Civil Aviation purchase its first helicopter
On April 18, 1968 at Marignane (France) Werner Donau took delivery of the SA 318C Alouette 2 with the registration mark HB-XCN purchased by FOCA for its various tasks which included: inspections of flight schools, helicopter companies, heliports, surveillance of mountain landing sites, examination of pilot candidates, search and rescue operations, location of missing aircraft (Donau became the head of this service), courses for flight instructors, VIP transport, police operation/support, inquiries in the aviation field. HB-XCN was the first helicopter in Switzerland to be equipped with an antenna-localizer to identify the signals emitted by emergency location transmitters (also known as ELT), a device whose purpose is to instantaneously report in any part of the planet, the position of an aircraft sending an emergency signal.
Unfortunately on May 11, 1968 as he was about to land on the Blümlisalp/BE at an altitude of 2,850 meters a sudden downdraft caused the tail rotor of HB-XCN to hit the ground. The helicopter which was transporting three passengers was slightly damaged, but fortunately nobody was injured in the accident.
After being repaired this aircraft was used for many years for the transportation of the Swiss Federal Council members and other important personalities or VIP’s anywhere in Switzerland and sometimes even abroad.
In Switzerland with the building boom of the 1960s new helicopter companies were founded and therefore Werner Donau was increasingly absorbed in his activity as air inspector. During that period new air inspectors were employed by FOCA, and some of them were trained by him to fly helicopters.
On July 15, 1969 while he was at the controls of HB-XCN in the region of Sihl/SZ lake he had a new mishap: he struck a 7 mm thick cable which fortunately only damaged the helicopter's cabin Plexiglas.
A new helicopter for FOCA
On October 12, 1970 Werner Donau went to Marignane/France to take over the new SE 3160 Alouette 3 HB-XDE purchased by the Swiss Government to be used alongside HB-XCN.
On October 14, the helicopter landed in Berne after a short stopover in Sion/VS.
The first VIP flight was made on October 23 when HB-XDE transported the Federal Counselor Nello Celio from Berne to Brig/VS.
During the 1970s Werner Donau continued his routine activity on behalf of FOCA.
A number of special events are recorded in his logbook. On July 5, 1972 for example he had the honor of having on board the American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
During 1975 he attended an IFR training course in France during which he had the opportunity to execute IFR flights on board of a helicopter.
On June 12, 1978 he did another special flight: he transported three terrorists from a prison in Berne to Porrentruy/JU where the trio was to stand trial.
Analysis of long aviation career
Werner Donau took the decision to go into retirement and therefore he concluded his activity as FOCA’s inspector on December 3, 1980.
During his long aviation career lasting almost 40 years he logged altogether over 3,700 hours on helicopters (3,100 hours on civil helicopter and 600 hours on military helicopters) and 6,500 hours on airplanes (4,950 hours as civil pilot, and 1,550 as a military pilot).
His flight licenses attest that he was authorized to fly with the following helicopters: Bell 47G and J, SE 3130/SA318 Alouette 2, SO 1221 Djinn, Hughes 300, Agusta-Bell 204B, SE 3160 Alouette 3.
Many more were the aircraft that he had had the opportunity to test, some of which hare mentioned in this article.
Werner Donau was also in possession of the extensions for night flights, landings in the mountains, instrument flights and as we have seen he was a flight instuctor and a flight examiner.
On the occasion of his retirement he narrated some hilarious episodes of his career.
One time while he was transporting Roger Bonvin, a member of the Swiss Federal Council, he was forced to land in the proximity of a camping site in Thörishaus/BE due to a thick layer of fog. Bonvin had an urgent meeting with the other members of the Federal Council and decided to hitch hike a ride but nobody along the road stopped. Apparently the car drivers were suspiciuos: why an elegant looking was trying to stop cars using his thumb? There must surely be a candid camera they must have thought!
Bonvin soon lost his patience and returned back to the helicopter where by chance he found an orange overall. He immediately put on the overall and shortly after a car stopped. By talking with the hitchhiker the car driver realized that the man who was supposed to be a mechanic was in fact Roger Bonvin, the Federal councilor!
Donau also narrated how fortunate he had been to miraculously escape several potential fatal accidents.
Unfortunately Werner Donau was victim of a hearth attack and passed away on September 30, 1983.
Even if years have since passed, many pilots still remember Herr Donau. All describe him as an extremely competent person, reliable, helpful, and eager to pass onto others his knowledge and his passion for aviation.
He not only had the opportunity to experience the rotary-wing development in Switzerland personally, but he contributed to its development, for example by developing the first training programs for private and commercial civil pilots.