Folks who find themselves in trouble in the woods, mountains, rivers and streams can look to the friendly skies for help for the foreseeable future. The Two Bear Air rescue helicopter formed a foundation last fall and is now funded forever, chief pilot Jim Bob Pierce said last week during a talk in Kalispell hosted by the Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates.
Since its creation five years ago, the rescue helicopter and its crew have flown hundreds of missions from as far east as Red Lodge to as far west as eastern Idaho.
“We’re funded forever,” Pierce said, noting a private foundation was set up last fall by Whitefish venture capitalist and philanthropist Mike Goguen. Goguen completely foots the bill for the cost of the aircraft and the crew at no cost to the taxpayer, Pierce said. If Two Bear Air rescues someone, “no one gets a bill,” Pierce said.
In addition to search and rescues, the aircraft, a Bell 429, with a 600-pound capacity hoist, has flown missions for a host of government agencies including Flathead County Sheriff’s Department, Glacier National Park, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The helicopter does flights in support of law enforcement on the ground. In one case, its infrared cameras found a man hiding from police in the bushes at night.
About 38 percent of its missions are flown at night, Pierce noted.
“We love the night,” Pierce said.
In addition to infrared cameras, the helicopter and crew have night vision goggles as well as a visible light high resolution video camera that can zoom into and get a latitude and longitude of a subject from four miles away.
The night vision is so sensitive, on one rescue, it picked up a victim in Glacier National Park who was flashing her cell phone light on and off from two miles away. In the same footage, the woman, who was stuck on a cliff above Avalanche Lake, had a grizzly bear wandering around about 100 yards from her, Pierce noted.
Two Bear Air averages about 100 to 120 missions a year. It takes about 40 minutes to get a crew in the air. It has two paid pilots and a mechanic, but the “back crew” of 11 people, which includes Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry and a host of deputies, save for one, are all volunteers. Goguen is also a member of the back crew. They have medical training, but Pierce stressed that Two Bear is not an air ambulance.
“We’re looking to get you to a (ground) ambulance or an air ambulance,” Pierce noted. “If we’re treating you, you’re having a really bad day.”
Two Bear is also not a vehicle of convenience. If someone is just having a bad day hiking in the backcountry, but is able to get out on their own, the helicopter isn’t going to help.
“We don’t do convenience,” Pierce said.
The helicopter and its upkeep is not inexpensive. The twin engine craft cost $8.2 million fully outfitted and has an operating budget of about $1 million annually.
To replace it today, the cost is about $9.2 million, Pierce noted. The plan is to replace the helicopter every eight years. Since 2104, it has done 3,000 hoists — most of them training exercises.
While the sheriff of each county Two Bear Air flies to oversees search and rescue operations, the decision to fly is up to the pilots and staff.
“We don’t do things we don’t want to do,” Pierce noted. Weather is often the greatest consideration. But if they see a window, they will fly. The helicopter does have instrument flight capabilities.
If there’s an emergency, the best way to contact Two Bear is simple, Pierce noted.
“Call 911,” he said.