Redoine Faid, 46, broke out of the prison near Paris with the help of two accomplices who used smoke bombs and angle grinders to make their way into the
facility's visiting room where Faid was talking to a brother, who was later taken into custody, according to prison unionist Martial Delabroye and a judicial source.
The men quickly made good their escape in the helicopter in an operation lasting just 10 minutes, Delabroye told AFP at the penitentiary in Reau in the French capital's southeastern suburbs.
It is the second time Faid has pulled off a spectacular escape — in 2013, he blasted his way out of a prison in northern France using dynamite.
Some “2,900 police and gendarmes have been mobilised” for a nationwide manhunt, a police source told AFP.
On Monday French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told Europe 1 radio that she had sent a team of inspectors to the jail “to see whether the security measures were defective so that we can rectify them”.
She suggested that leaving Faid in the same prison for “a few months” had been a mistake.
“We must be careful not to leave the same people in the same places for too long, when we're dealing with this type of individual,” she said.
“The rotation probably needs to be more frequent,” she said.
The French helicopter Alouette II abandoned by French armed robber Redoine Faid after his escape from prison in Reau. Photo: AFP
The helicopter — hijacked from a terrified flight instructor — landed at around 11:15 am (0915 GMT) in the prison yard.
The two black-clad men armed with assault rifles set off smoke bombs before breaking their way into the prison's visitation room using the power tools.
The wardens, who were unarmed, fled to safety and raised the alarm.
The helicopter was later found in a northeastern suburb of Paris about 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the prison, one source said.
A police source said the helicopter pilot was a flight instructor waiting for a student when he was seized by Faid's accomplices. He was forced to fly before being later freed in a state of shock.
The men apparently went on to use a car that was later found torched in a shopping mall car park, police said.
French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, who arrived at the prison in Reau on Sunday evening, said the commandos most likely “used drones to survey the location… the inquiry that's under way will tell us.”
The escape came after an appeals court in April sentenced Faid to 25 years for masterminding a botched armed robbery in 2010 in which a policewoman was killed.
A court sketch shows French armed robber Redoine Faid during his trial at the Assise courthouse in Paris. Photo: AFP
Faid has been behind bars since mid-2011 for breaking the terms of his parole over past convictions for bank robberies and brazen heists of cash-in-transit vehicles.
In his 2013 jailbreak, he briefly took four guards hostage with a pistol before escaping in a waiting getaway car. All the hostages were released unharmed.
Faid was recaptured six weeks later at a hotel in an industrial area on the outskirts of Paris.
A woman working at the hotel told AFP at the time that Faid's accomplice had paid for the room in cash and that the two men had been there for several days.
Faid had earlier been released from a 10-year stint behind bars after convincing parole officers that he regretted his criminal past and was determined to start afresh.
Police nicknamed him “The Author” for two books he co-wrote about his delinquent youth.
Faid, who has a cult following in the tough immigrant suburbs outside Paris where he grew up, has made several television appearances.
Police investigating the site where French robber Redoine Faid abandoned a French helicopter Alouette II after his escape from prison. Photo AFP
'He's very polite'
At a Paris film festival in April 2009, Faid approached Michael Mann, director of the 1995 gangster film “Heat” starring Al Pacino and Robert Niro, telling him: “You were my technical adviser.”
He wrote that he had watched the film dozens of times to perfect his bank-robbing prowess.
One of his prison supervisors said that Faid had never had any disputes with staff, “but we must always be wary”.
“In the corner of his mind, he never lost the idea of escaping. Behind all his manners — he is very polite — he always hid his game,” the supervisor said.
Delabroye, the prison union rep, said the yard where the helicopter landed is the only area not equipped with anti-aircraft netting because inmates never use it — “except to leave the prison”.