It’s the time of year when the only bicycle race that most people pay attention to is at hand. The Tour de France began on July 6 and with it an intense competition that circles the country and ends in Paris with a yellow jersey presented to the winner. But for millions who watch it on TV, the race is secondary to the scenery. The Tour de France has been referred to as a travelogue for France, luring viewers worldwide with picturesque scenes of the French countryside and culture. The race began in 1903, and today the Tour is the third-largest sporting event in the world after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.

Many of the best views of the three-week-long competition come from video provided by helicopters that follow and shoot the action from overhead. Beyond the cyclists, the aircraft of Hélicoptères de France (HdF) capture jagged mountain slopes, ancient French castles, fields of sunflowers and the wide boulevards of Paris. Founded in 1991, HdF provides helicopter services from passenger transport and tours to cargo and medevac operations. But the company, which is based in the town of Tallard in southeastern France, is best known worldwide for its work as the official aerial film and support unit for the Tour de France, a status it has held since 1999.

Flying squirrels?

HdF uses a trio of AS355 and AS350 Écureuil (Squirrel) helicopters to film and relay live images of the Tour. Built by Eurocopter (now Airbus), the AS355 is a light, five-passenger helicopter powered by a pair of 566 shaft-horsepower (shp) Safran Arrius 1A1 turbine engines. The AS350 is basically the same helo with a single 732shp Safran Arriel 1D1 turbine. Écureuils are in civilian use around the world, including the US, and with numerous military/government operators.

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