Walter Hügel, second son of Erich and Maria Hügel, was born in Wiener Neustadt, a small town in Lower Austria south of Vienna, near the river Leitha, on July 29, 1941. His father Erich, a colonel in the Austrian army, had been an aeroplane pilot.
From an early age Walter wanted to discover the world and decided that the best way to do so was by becoming a pilot. After completing his compulsory schooling, he decided to undertake military training, becoming first a corporal and then a sergeant. In December 1959, he began his training as an aeroplane pilot in a Piper PA-18 in Zeltweg, one of the main air bases of the Austrian Air Force.
On September 15, 1960, with a flight experience of 38h54', he received his aeroplane pilot's licence.
On September 27, 1960 together with instructor Helmuth Hugl he made his first training flight as a helicopter pilot in Zeltweg at the controls of Agusta-Bell 47G2 3B-XJ. On November 21, 1960 after 7h48' of dual control flights he made his first solo flight. Training of the young pilot was completed in the following months with specific courses such as mountain landings and night flights, later qualifying as flight instructor. During his military career he mainly flew Agusta-Bell 47G2 and Agusta-Bell 204B and only rarely SE 3130 Alouette 2.
During his career as a military flight instructor he had the opportunity to fly with Franz Astner, Franz Giakomini and Erwin Schafrath. All four were later employed by Eliticino.
In autumn 1965 he became fed up with military life and decided to resign. On December 6, 1965 he made his last flight as a military helicopter pilot and on December 31, 1965 he took his leave from his fellow soldiers.
Up to that moment he had logged a total of 1'578 hours of flight time under his belt.
Pilot on behalf of Autair Helicopters Ltd
On January 26, 1966 the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) issued Walter Hügel the Swiss commercial helicopter pilot license nr. 95. A few months later on behalf of the Swiss company he went to North Africa where he started to work for Autair Helicopters Ltd under the supervision of chief pilot Jacques Fages.
At the controls of Bell 47G and Bell 47J Ranger he was in charge of transporting geologists working in the mining industry. Later he went to the Greek island of Corfu to transport passengers. His childhood dream of travelling around the world had become true.
On his return to Switzerland, between November 21 and 23 1966, along with Heliswiss flight instructor Jean Seydoux he attended a high altitude aerial operations training course. At the controls of Bell 47G3B-1 HB-XBT he performed landings up to 10'000 ft (3'050 meters).
One week later Walter Hügel went to South America where he started flying for Autair Helicopter Services Ltd by November 30. At the controls of Bell 47G3B-1 he was tasked to ferry a group of geologists in the region of the Aconcagua (province of Mendoza), close to the Chilean border at an altitude of over 15'000 feet (4'550 meters).
After a six months stay he returned home for some time before leaving again for Greece. There, between July and August 1967 he made spray flights at the controls of Bell 47G2 HB-XAX to various locations which included Chanta, Sparta and Poros.
Higher and higher
On October 11, 1967 the 26 years old pilot, who had just reached 2'000 flight hours, started to fly again in Argentina. From Mendoza air base he made flights to supply groups of geologists and mountaineers located in various places such as Paramillos, Santa Clara, Jalguaras, San Benicio, etc. At that time landings at altitudes of more than 3'000 meters (10'000 feet) at the controls of Bell 47G3B-1 N7897S had become for him a daily routine.
On March 31, 1968 Walter Hügel landed with the same aircraft at 5'180 m (17'000 ft) in the region of Mercedario (Argentina). Very likely this was the highest altitude landing that he ever achieved.
After his stay in Argentina he returned to Europe. On 9-10 August 1968 in Cascina Costa (Italy) he attended an Agusta-Bell 206A Jet Ranger pilot training course.
During the following months he went to Bangladesh and then to Sierra Leone. In the autumn of the following year he ferried Bell 206A Jet Ranger G-AXJC from Caen (France) to Wologisi (Liberia) on behalf of Autair Helicopters Ltd. In January 1970 he flew several flights in the mining town of Lumwana (Zambia), then moved to South Africa, first in the big safari parks of Hluhluwe and Sangande (he was in charge of the wildlife census at the controls of Bell 47G5 helicopters) and later in Cape Town where for some time he flew Sikorsky S-55C ZS-HCM used to resupply ships with bizarre name such as Orissa, Sibota, Ardtaig, Isidora.
Between September and October 1970 he was introduced to piloting Sikorsky S-62A (ZS-HCW), an amphibious helicopter used by Autair Helicopters Ltd for off-shore flights and ships resupply.
In spring 1971 he went to Australia and then to Malawi where he was tasked with ferrying a group of geologists using Bell 206A Jet Ranger ZS-HDF. In autumn he exceeded 3'000 hours of flight time.
On December 17, 1971 after taking off from Southhampton he ferried helicopter S-55C ZS-HDG to Malta via Lydd-Reims-St. Valence-Pisa-Rome-Catania-Malta.
From the end of December 1971 until July 1972 Walter Hügel stayed in Malta for off-shore flights with Bell 206A Jet Ranger G-AVVH and Sikorsky S-55 ZS-HDG for the oil platform "Louisiana".
Between 7 and 10 July 1972 he ferried Bell 206A Jet Ranger G-AVVH from Malta to Belp/Switzerland (routing Malta-Tunis-Cagliari-Ajaccio-Nice-Lyon-Berne). This was the last flight he made on behalf of Autair Helicopters Ltd.
After being hired by Heliswiss in September 1972 he moved to Suriname for one year. Here he flew with Bell 206A Jet Ranger and Agusta-Bell 204B helicopters, transporting people, materials and equipment.
He returned to Switzerland in September 1973 and after a break of a few months between January 27 and February 4, 1974 he ferried Bell 206B Jet Ranger II HB-XCV from Belp to Morocco (tracking Belp-Perpignan-Barcelona-Alicante-Malaga-Casablanca-Agadir-Villa Cisneros). Until April 13, 1974 he was on board of the vessel "Interpeche" where he was employed as a “fish spotter”.
On his return to Switzerland, on May 1, 1974 he obtained in Locarno the type-rating on the SA 315B Lama after having completed 3h17' of training together with the already mentioned Franz Giakomini, who in the meantime had become pilot-instructor for Eliticino. On May 3, FOCA granted him the qualification for mountain landings.
A few weeks later he went to Ethiopia, where he stayed for about a month. There he transported building materials with SA 315B Lama OE-EXA to Arba Minch.
From August 1974 Walter Hügel started to work more or less regularly in Switzerland and was initially based in Domat-Ems (Canton Grisons) where Heliswiss had stationed one of its Agusta-Bell 204Bs.
Between September and December 1974 he made several flights transportating construction materials in the Aosta Valley with Bell 206B Jet Ranger HB-XCF and Agusta-Bell 204B HB-XCQ.
On October 1, 1974, while flying on behalf of ENEL (Italy’s national entity for electricity) in Roisan (Aosta valley/Italy) after having transported some sections of a pylon, the main rotor hit one of the pylons during the landing due to some miscalculation. The impact caused severe damage to Agusta-Bell 204B HB-XCQ. At that time the pilot had a flying experience of nearly 4'000 hours.
After having moved to Ticino from December 12, 1974 he started his activity as a commercial pilot for Eliticino. Unfortunately on January 22, 1975, SA 315B Lama HB-XEU, which he was piloting, was damaged while he was rescuing some workers who were stranded in the snow on the San Bernardino pass (Canton Grisons). After take-off the pilot lost his visual references (white-out) due to snow flurry. No one on board was injured, but the helicopter was seriously damaged.
On March 11, 1975 he went to Little Stoughton (England) where he made a test flight with Westland/Agusta-Bell 47G3B-1 HB-XFA helicopter. In the following days the helicopter was flown to Locarno airport where it was to be used as a trainer.
In addition to the transportation of people and building materials with the SA 315B Lama operated by Eliticino Walter Hügel resumed his activity as a flight instructor.
Between March 16-18, 1976 he attended a flight instructor course in Belp under the guide of FOCA inspector Werner Donau. On March 31, 1976, FOCA issued him a civil flight instructor licence. That same year, he obtained the Swiss citizenship. At the end of the year in which his daughter Larissa was born, his flight logbook counted 4'786 hours of flight time.
Between March 8-11, 1977 he participated on a new flight instructor course organised by FOCA. On the same occasion he obtained the type-rating for SE 3160 Alouette 3 (HB-XDE).
Commercial pilot and rescuer
As a commercial helicopter pilot and until the establishment of the Rega base in Ticino Walter Hügel carried out many rescue missions using mainly SA 319B Alouette 3 HB-XHP which was put into service at Locarno cantonal airport in October 1978.
The date of July 6, 1979 was an unforgettable day for him. While he was flying in the Verzasca valley at the controls of SA 315B Lama HB-XDN, the Artouste IIIB-1 turbine suddenly shut down forcing him to make an emergency landing. Thanks to his great skill and a bit of luck he was able to land the helicopter in autorotation in a small clearing near the bridge below the village of Corippo. The mechanical failure was caused by the breakage of an axial compressor blade.
At the end of the year in which his son Alex was born his flight logbook counted almost 6'200h.
On October 31, 1980, Walter Hügel quit Eliticino and, together with Georg Wedtgrube, took over as pilot for the newly founded Rega base in Ticino.
From then on, he flew almost exclusively as a helicopter rescue pilot at the controls of SA 319B Alouette 3 HB-XHP and considerably reduced the number of flight hours he logged each year.
Occasionally he was called by Eliticino to perform some commercial flights and also some training flights. At that time he was qualified to fly the new AS 350B Ecureuil (HB-XMA) which had just entered service with Eliticino (later he flew the successive versions of the AS 350 - B1, B2 and B3).
He had again the opportunity to fly Agusta-Bell 47G2 (HB-XME and HB-XOP) and the Bell 206 Jet Ranger. At the end of 1984 he passed the threshold of 7'000 hours of flight.
From May 10-14, 1993 in Erstfeld he completed his training on the Agusta A109K2, which had just entered service with Rega. On June 1, in Belp he passed his flight test together with FOCA’s flight examiner Claude Vuichard. On June 5, 1993, he carried out his first rescue mission with the new twin-turbine.
For a long time he used both the SA 319B Alouette 3 and the Agusta A109K2. October 27, 1995 was almost certainly a special day for him as he made his last flight at the controls of HB-XHP which he had been flying for many years.
Exactly one year later (1996), he made his last flight as a Rega pilot before his retirement. At that time his logbook counted 8'680 hours of flight.
Pilot for pleasure
During 1997 Walter Hügel decided to devote part of his free time to his great passion for the rotary wing. After obtaining the qualification to fly the twin-engine AS 355N he made VIP flights all over Europe carrying wealthy businessmen.
At that time he was also able to devote himself to one of his favourite hobbies: fishing along the waterways. As some of these places were remote it was not uncommon for him to reach them by helicopter. It was an unforgettable time for him as his son Alex remembers.
Occasionally he also flew on behalf of Eliticino for the transportation of people and material. In fact he gladly took over the controls of some of his preferred helicopters such as the SA 315B Lama.
After the qualification to fly the Schweizer 300C he did a lot of flying for pilot training. In July 1998 he reached 9'000 hours.
On March 2, 1999 he qualified to fly the Agusta A109E Power while between May 24-26, in England he obtained the qualification on the EC-135 on which he flew during the following summer.
Many flights followed in the following years, mainly for pilot training and VIP flights.
On July 30, 2002 he had the opportunity to make a short ferry flight at the controls of SA 315B Lama HB-XDN: it was for him the last one with this historical model.
On December 15, 2002 his logbook shows the last entry: a local flight at the controls of AS 355N Ecureuil HB-ZCV. Ill health forced him to stop flying. Therefore he devoted himself to fishing and boating on Lake Maggiore.
Walter made his "last flight" on 3 March 2021 after his health deteriorated due to heart problems.
In more than 40 years of aviation, Walter Hügel flew altogether about 9,700 hours, including more than 1,100 hours as a flight instructor.
Those who had the fortune to meet him (like the author of this article) will never forget his voice with its strong Austrian accent, but also many other qualities such as his kindness and great helpfulness.
Many pilots have received valuable lessons from him, the result of experience gained in very different and extreme operational scenarios, including the rugged valleys of Ticino, which he knew very well.
He will be deeply remembered by all, especially by those who owe him their lives after being rescued during the years in which he worked as a rescue pilot for Rega.