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Two Bear Air Rescue: Working Together to Save Lives

Posted 3 years 271 days ago ago by Admin

Started as a philanthropic project by venture capitalist Michael Goguen and an innovative group of pilots, Two Bear Air Rescue is a unique air support service bridging the gap between local law enforcement and helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operators. Covering an area larger than 120,000 square miles, their operations provide a critical lifeline to the millions of tourists who visit the breathtaking outdoor scenery from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park. Primarily performing search and rescue (SAR), they are an invaluable asset to local law enforcement.

On the north end of Glacier Park International Airport, sits an unassuming hangar with an American flag flying out front. Inside lies the operations hub for Two Bear Air Rescue. The team is quite small for the impact that they have in the region. Consisting of a dispatcher, director of maintenance, three pilots, two full-time rescue specialists, and nine volunteer rescuers, they are all united by a common goal: saving lives. “As Mike would say, if we can save one life, then all of this is worth it,” says Flathead County Sheriff and Rescue Specialist Brian Heino. That attitude shows in the mindset of every team member.

In 2013, saving one life would have seemed like an ambitious goal. Never before had a fully funded, private SAR operation been established. It takes the right kind of ambition, and the right mentality from a philanthropic billionaire to make it work. Lightning struck when the team met with Goguen, who had an intense desire to give back to the community. Undaunted by the cost of the undertaking and believing in the team of pilots and crew, Goguen set out to make sure that the team had everything that they needed to save lives in unpredictable and often unforgiving circumstances. “Mike (Goguen) came in and said that I will fund the program, I will buy the aircraft, but it needs to be first class. Having private funding allows us to stay ahead of the curve and test new equipment that will help save lives,” says Jim Pierce, chief pilot and executive director.

The aircraft that the team chose was the new-at-the-time Bell 429 light twin. With a service ceiling of 20,000 feet and more than 2,700-pound useful load, the aircraft has the performance to tackle the mountainous terrain that surrounds them. “Without all the toys on it, it’s just a cool helicopter,” says Pierce, running through some of the equipment that they use during various rescue scenarios, some of which is still in the testing phase.

The aircraft is equipped with an infrared camera, NightSun spotlight, four-axis autopilot, and a suite of tactical radios and navigation equipment to communicate with law enforcement and search and rescue personnel on the ground, a vital piece of the puzzle for any SAR operation. “Without the people on the ground, we can’t do our job. Some people think that the helicopter just shows up and saves the day, but the people that do the real work are the people on the ground, we’re just there to help,” reflects Pierce.

The 429 is also single-pilot IFR certified. This makes a big difference to their operations, allowing them to launch in almost any weather to proceed towards the scene. The weather in the mountainous terrain of Glacier National Park can be unpredictable at the best of times, with 10,000-foot peaks and low valleys. They may have no trouble hoisting someone out of a ravine, and then have to make an IFR approach to minimums to return to the airport not more than a few miles away. Needless to say, the aircraft has been performing to their expectations.

Under the nose of the aircraft sits the housing for the L3 WESCAM MX-10 camera. Compact and lightweight at under 40 pounds, the MX-10 adds a lot of capability to the search aspect of Two Bear Air Rescue’s mission. “We were called in to look for two girls who were missing for two days and two nights in Glacier National Park,” reflects Pierce. “We finally found something with the IR camera nearly two miles away up on a cliff. We got closer and could clearly see the two girls at the top of the ridge. We have no idea how they got there.” Just a day before they had tracked bears in that same location. “They were very, very lucky,” he adds with the satisfaction of a successful rescue: another two lives saved.

When they are not rescuing lost hikers off of cliffs, the crews keep proficient with the advanced features of the camera by locating bears and other tagged wildlife in the wilderness for the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Service. It’s a conservation effort offered at no cost to the researcher while allowing camera training for the crews. The WESCAM’s daylight fusion mode combines the benefits of IR with a daytime picture to allow accurate tracking through dense foliage even in bright daylight conditions.

In a corner of the hangar sits two bright red Recco locator devices on charge and ready to be deployed. Two Bear Air Rescue was the first operator in North America to receive Recco locators and have since used them to good effect. Weighing in at 170 pounds, the Recco locators are designed to be slung, or in more practical use, hoisted outside of the aircraft. The locator emits a signal that is reflected off of Recco reflectors that are becoming more common on ski-jackets and backpacks for back-country adventurers. The reflector bounces the signal back to the locator and emits an audible ping to the crew. As they get closer to the source of the reflector, the ping gets louder, until the aircraft is positioned directly over the source of the reflection.

In January 2020, Two Bear Air used the Recco for the first time to locate a missing skier after an avalanche in Idaho. “Once we were in the vicinity, we cleared out all of the personnel that were using Recco reflectors and hand-held locators,” says James Heckman, one of Two Bear Air’s pilots. “We flew over the avalanche area until we were over what we believed was the source of the reflection, but we couldn’t see anyone below. The rescuer dropped a flag out of the back with a washer on it to mark the location of the signal. The ground crews then set to work digging at that location. Sure enough, they found the skier within a foot of our flag, but buried 26 feet below the snow.” Despite finding the body of the skier, the twinge of melancholy in James’ voice underscores the desire that the team has for a more positive outcome next time. Technology like Recco can only help in that mission.

In the rear of the aircraft is a whole host of rescue equipment from harnesses to trauma kits. It is immediately evident that this is not an HAA aircraft. “Almost all of our calls are for the hoist,” says Wil Milam, chief rescue specialist for Two Bear Air. The hoist itself is central to Two Bear Air’s mission. It takes 100 hoists for a rescue operator to be sent out on a mission, and at least 10 hoist operations every 60 days to stay current. With 11 rescue specialists, that is no small feat to keep everyone current. “Managing everyone’s schedules is one of the more difficult parts of my job,” says Milam, a Coast Guard veteran with more than 30 years experience. Even benefactor Michael Goguen became certified as a rescue specialist and contributes 10 shifts a month to help the team out. “When he’s in the back, he is just one of the guys. You’d never guess that he’s a billionaire,” says Milam with a smile, praising Goguen’s humility and desire to save lives.

Also in the rotation are sheriff’s deputies, and the sheriff himself, Brian Heino. It’s a unique and symbiotic relationship between the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and Two Bear Air Rescue. All search and rescue calls go through the sheriff’s office first. From there, the office makes the call on the assets to deploy. When the taxpayer is footing the bill for an air asset, it is unlikely that the helicopter will get dispatched unless the situation is really critical. That is not the case with Two Bear Air. “If the weather allows us to get in the air, we would prefer to get the call right away,” says Pierce, who requires that the on-call crew are positioned so that the aircraft can be in the air in under 40 minutes. Cost is not a motivating factor with a fully funded operation. That gives the region a unique advantage of having critical life saving assets in the air at short notice, even if they may not be required for the successful outcome of the mission.

It makes a huge difference. On one wall of the Two Bear Air hangar is a sectional chart that is littered with push pins from the Canadian border, to Idaho, all the way to Yellowstone National Park. Each one represents a rescue in the relatively short history of their operation. Pierce has been working with other sheriff departments outside of the Flathead Valley as well to encourage them to utilize their unique assets with no cost to their department. That word is slowly getting out, but there is more work to do. “If we’re the best tool, the best resource to help we will go there,” says Pierce. With greater than a 350 nautical-mile range, they can take the aircraft where it is needed in their immediate vicinity. “We’re just there to assist the operation and help get that person out of a bad situation.”

That still leaves entire areas of wilderness and outdoor adventure uncovered by aerial search and rescue. While they have no intentions to expand with other locations, the team is hopeful that they have paved the way for others to replicate what they are doing. “We always thought that if anybody else could do this, we would come in right alongside them and help them set up the exact same program.” Imitation is the best form of flattery for Pierce and his team. “We’ll know we have really made it when someone else does exactly what we’re doing.”

What they are doing is saving lives, one mission at a time.