It is March of 2013. The newly elected Pope Francis is on his way for his first papal helicopter flight. Once aboard the AW139 Helicopter of the Italian Air Force—with his seat belt fastened—he makes a thumbs-up gesture to the pilot, which signals “Everything is okay, I’m ready!” He is on his way to Castel Gandolfo for a historic visit to his good friend, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
The papal helicopter is usually used for short-term pastoral visits. It was used by Pope Francis when he went to Naples and to Cassano allo Ionio in Calabria. According to Engineer Paolo De Angelis, coordinator of the Vatican Fire Brigade, “the helicopter is fast; it can travel 600-700 km in less than two hours. It consumes and costs less than a plane, does not need large runways, and can even land on a sports field or the terrace of
a building—like what we see in the movies.”
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The Vatican Heliport
The Vatican heliport, in fact, is nothing more than a reinforced concrete platform that measures 32×26 meters. “It entered regular service in the summer of 1976,” explains Paolo. It was Pope Paul VI who first used the heliport (as the bronze plaque near the platform recalls) while Pope John Paul II has so far been the one who used it most.
“It meets all the security and aesthetic requirements. In fact, it does not in the least alter the wonderful frame where it stands—between the tower of San Giovanni and the Vatican Walls.”
The heliport is also equipped with conventional daytime and nighttime signs. It has fire- fighting assistance on standby, as well as safety and maintenance work. There is also an emergency vehicle complete with health personnel on the ground.
“The heliport does not have permanent employees because it is not used every day. When in use, however, the directions involved in ground handling employ about 30 people,” says Paolo. These safety precautions might be the reason why it seems that no pope has ever been afraid of traveling by helicopter.
Special Aid for Children
Because the Pope does not use the helicopter every day, there has only been a total of 177 take-off and landing operations recorded in the heliport since 2000. However, this will soon change as the helicopter will now be used to transport seriously ill children from Italy to the Bambino Gesu Children’s Hospital in Rome.
Pope Francis has also made spaces available for helicopters to land day and night in case of emergencies. He said that the agreement between the Vatican and the hospital “will be of great help to children and parents.”