The Gift of SAR

Story and photos by Skip Robinson

Safika partner company Trakka plays an important role in US rescue efforts.


Technical high altitude hoist rescues are a large part of Two Bear Air’s operations. Here, its Bell 429 shows what it can do.

Flathead County, in Northwestern Montana, contains some of the most ruggedly beautiful land in the United States. More than 94 percent of its over 5,000 square miles are national or state forest land, wilderness, or used for agriculture or timber, and its soaring mountain ranges and expansive lakes create a natural playground and are an irresistible draw to residents and visitors alike.

But what makes the county particularly special is the unique form of aviation support it receives, in the form of Two Bear Air. The operation has been providing lifesaving search-and-rescue (SAR) services, as well as flying law enforcement missions, since its launch just two years ago. For those living in or visiting the region, the mere fact that there’s a SAR aviation unit at all is something for which they’re hugely thankful. And the fact that it’s operating a brand new hoist-equipped Bell 429, as well as an MD 500E, would make it the envy of many SAR aviation units around the country. But for an outsider, the most noteworthy aspect is how the service is funded — at no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer. And those who are rescued never have to pay a cent. All costs for the operation, from the acquisition of the aircraft to the associated training for the aircrews and maintenance, are covered by local philanthropist Mike Goguen. Thus far, Goguen has spent well over $10 million on Two Bear Air — his gift to the people of Flathead County.

The program’s origins can be traced back to former Flathead County Undersheriff (now Deputy Sheriff) Jordan White’s efforts, in September 2011, to raise funds for SAR equipment to enhance the region’s capabilities. Goguen learned that there was a need for a hoist-equipped SAR helicopter (ALERT Air Ambulance serves the region with a Bell 407, but it doesn’t have a hoist), and Two Bear Air was quickly created. The initial crew consisted of White (who was appointed executive director of the operation), chief pilot Jim Pierce, and Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry. White and Curry were designated to be trained as the rescue flight crew. With a Bell 429 on order, Two Bear began operations with a Bell 407 in August 2012.

With many lakes and rivers in the region it supports, Two Bear needs to be prepared to conduct rescues over water.

With many lakes and rivers in the region it supports, Two Bear needs to be prepared to conduct rescues over water.

The range of missions Two Bear flies is as vast as Montana itself. In addition to its SAR work, it conducts a broad range of law enforcement operations for local, federal, and state agencies, and its missions have taken it across Montana and into Idaho. The helicopters, operated as public use aircraft, are flown under the authority of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, which also provides the aircraft’s rear crewmembers. Two Bear also works in close partnership with Kalispell-based ALERT Air Ambulance.

“Many times ALERT will call Two Bear Air when a hoist rescue is required, and Two Bear Air will call ALERT when a medical response is required,” said White. “It’s a good relationship and helps everyone involved.”

The type of calls Two Bear responds to will vary according to the season. During summer months, hiking and climbing accidents are common, requiring technical hoist rescues at higher altitudes that tax the performance of the aircraft. Watersport accidents are also common, requiring the crew to train for water rescues with rescue swimmers. The winter brings more searches and less hoist work, with snowmobilers, skiers and hikers at risk of getting lost in bad weather. According to White, night operations in either season are never routine, and require an in-depth risk assessment before launch. “Everything around our base is very remote, so when we’re called out, it’s to very dark places,” he said. “That’s when our infared camera, NVGs [night vision goggles] and crew resource management comes into play — and we use them all.”

Choosing the Right Tools


The combination of an MD 500E and a Bell 429 supports Two Bear’s mission profile perfectly.

Two Bear’s Bell 429 (designated “Air 1”) and MD 500E (“Air 2”) are based at Glacier International Airport in Kalispell, Mont. And while the organization always planned to add the 429 to its fleet, the 500E was brought in when Two Bear’s Bell 407 was damaged while servicing a remote radio repeater site. White said the decision to replace the 407 with the 500E — rather than another 407 — was a practical one. “We felt a 500E would suit us better. It’s a smaller, more economical helicopter with a footprint that allows us to get into tighter places,” he said.

The aircraft began operations in July 2013, and has a Garmin 500H glass cockpit, is fully NVG-compatible, and has an extended range tank. Due to Two Bear’s desire to keep the aircraft as light as possible, the 500E does not have an infrared camera or searchlight. It’s considered the operation’s “worker bee,” and is routinely used to lift equipment and conduct searches, or for missions where the 429 is considered more than the organization needs. “We recognized early on that having a backup or support aircraft would save flight time on the Bell 429, and having two aircraft allows us to conduct multiple missions simultaneously, which is not uncommon,” said White. “Because of its size and rotor diameter, the 500E is a great aircraft for searches. It’s able to get into riverbeds and tight canyons, and do ‘toe-ins’ and ‘one-skids’ during insertions.”

The 429 was delivered in October 2013, and crews soon began hoist training with Priority 1 Air Rescue, based in Mesa, Ariz. “Once Mike Goguen made a commitment to this, [we] started looking for a company able to develop and train the flight crews,” said White. “Priority 1 rose to the top on the list and showed it had a training strategy to get Two Bear Air in operation quickly.”

Checking out a rancher after a search mission. With Two Bear lending a helping hand, local law enforcement agencies now have the air support they once could have only dreamed of.

Checking out a rancher after a search mission. With Two Bear lending a helping hand, local law enforcement agencies now have the air support they once could have only dreamed of.

The training of the first crew was conducted over two intense weeks, with additional crews taking part in subsequent sessions in Kalispell. The initial crew then completed an advanced training curriculum, allowing them to perform night hoists, high-angle and swift water rescues, hoisting to vessels, and rescue swimmer deployment.

According to White, Two Bear also looked at the MD 902, Airbus Helicopters EC145, and the AgustaWestland AW109 during its initial research. “The 429 had new technology engines, a very smooth rotor system and a spacious and usable rear cabin,” said White. “We also liked the cockpit and its avionics package. . . . and it hasn’t let us down.”

Pierce, the 429’s primary pilot, said the aircraft’s power was impressive. “It exceeds the charted performance at our airport and up to altitude,” he said. “We perform missions up to 10,000 feet AMSL [above mean sea level] without any problem, even during the summer months.”

In particular, Pierce praised the 429’s smoothness, its lateral stability during hoist missions, and  its tail rotor authority. “If a rescue requires hovering with a tailwind, there is plenty of control, and it flies without vibration up to its max airspeed,” he said. “The only issue we have had is the tail rotor pitch links wearing out too fast. Bell is working on a solution, and the last set seems quite a bit better.”

The 429’s cockpit is fully NVG-compatible, with night vision configuration completed by Bell, and goggles and training provided by Aviation Specialties Unlimited.

Mountain hoisting can take place over 10,000 feet, but normal operation occurs between 4,000 to 8,000 feet.

The aircraft is equipped with an Aerocomputers 3D- mapping system, Avalex monitors and video recorder, a TrakkaBeam searchlight, and an L3 Wescam MX-10 camera system. “The IR [infrared] camera is really nice with excellent picture quality,” said Pierce. “We find the reference points unbeatable — we use the IR from -30 F to 100 F and the contrast and clarity is amazing.”

Two Bear uses a Goodrich high-speed hoist on the 429, and Pierce said it works well and maintenance is low. Along with standard survival gear, other rescue equipment carried on the aircraft includes a collapsible rescue basket, a collapsible litter, a screamer suit, a plastic backboard, a pep bag and rescue strops — with the majority supplied by Priority 1. The crew also carries sidearms and rifles if needed, as coming across a bear is not unheard of.

Looking ahead

Following an intense year of development at Two Bear, the next 12 months will see the organization continue to refine its operations, while expanding its relationships with nearby jurisdictions in both Montana and Idaho.

“We travel and do presentations on our capabilities with anyone who asks,” said Pierce. “Our philosophy is using the resources we have to help save lives.” In this vein, Two Bear is currently working with the Glacier National Park and the US Forest Service to establish hoist insertion training programs for their staff. Further training in high-angle and swift water rescues is planned, and the organization’s crew continues to expand, with four new rear crewmembers recently joining.

“When Two Bear Air was being developed, no one could have guessed there would be over 100 missions in the first year with the 429,” said White. “We have the proper aircraft for the mission, we have highly motivated and focused crews, and our plan is to continue to utilize these assets to provide the highest quality of care and support to our citizens.”

Having to operate in all conditions, the Bell 429 is fully equipped for both the law enforcement and rescue missions. Two Bear Air’s initial flight crew (from left): Sheriff Chuck Curry, Deputy Jordon White, and pilot Jim Pierce.

When Two Bear took delivery of the Bell 429, the man funding the entire operation, Mike Goguen, spoke modestly about the investment he was making on behalf of his community. “You can’t put a value on saving even one life,” he said. “Montana is a place where we help our neighbors, and I feel privileged to be able to give this gift to the Flat-head Valley community.” And with such an immediate and dramatic impact made in the 429’s first year in operation, the enduring value of the gift of Two Bear to those in Northwest Montana over the coming years will be truly immeasurable.

Siyabonga Gama. Visions of a visionary.

Transnet Freight & Rail Chief Executive Siyaboga Gama cites Safika’s Saki Macozoma as in inspiration.

The definition of a visionary: “Thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.” A long list of synonyms follows “inspired, imaginative, creative, inventive, insightful, ingenious, enterprising, innovative, perceptive, intuitive, farsighted, prescient, discerning, penetrating, sharp, shrewd, wise, clever, talented, gifted, resourceful”. The 2014 BBQ Visionary Award winner, Siyabonga Gama, Transnet Freight & Rail’s Chief Executive, ticks most, if not all, these boxes.

Being taken completely by surprise winning the award, Gama says he believes that his role at the organisation is far from some of the portfolios which are usually celebrated by the mainstream – and the recognition is a huge boost for his existing burning passion for what he does. To head up an organisation as instrumental as Transnet Freight Rail to support and help grow South Africa’s economy requires an extraordinary amount of focus. The BBQ Visionary Award solidifies the fact that Gama is steering his ship, or train for that matter, in a progressive direction.

“I was not expecting to win an award because what we do as a company is far from the public eye. To receive the award was an amazing experience because it meant that, somehow, what we do is highly appreciated. The award is a sign that there is a level of awareness of the work we put in everyday. Awarding a leader for me qualifies as also awarding the organisation he/she is attached to — and I am glad that the transformation we have brought within the company is being recognised,” he modestly says.

Talking about leadership, Gama, who started his career with Transnet in 1994, says first and foremost, a leader is someone that most people would aspire to follow. “It is an individual that people identify with because they feel that the individual represents everything they stand for. It is an individual that possesses a strategic clarity of vision and values. In many cases, you will find that people often want to be associated with the ideas of this individual.”

He says when an individual has ideas that are seen to have the potential to create a positive change within a particular context, that individual is often looked upon as a leader.

“One has to be lofty in order to represent the ideals of a community or an organisation. How those ideals are treated will determine whether it is possible to move from one point to another in pursuit of the desired change.”

According to the popular proverb: “Where there is no vision, people perish.” It means that a fruit is a direct interpretation of its tree. Gama believes: “People (in a community or a business context) look to follow and be guided. As a result, this positions the person they look up to as a leader in a very powerful position. They put their livelihoods in their leader’s hands.”

“That is why it is very important for a leader to create self-belief in people. Once your people have achieved that, the next step is to make them believe that the vision at hand is meant for their well being.”

Gama’s core belief is that a leader who is able to instill optimism in his team is able to push them towards owning the vision — and lead that vision forward by themselves under the guidance of a leader.

“There’s an unimaginable sense of drive in the knowledge that many people look up to you as a visionary. There is a natural burst of energy that comes from understanding how your team perceives you as a leader. Transnet Freight Rail is a big Division within Transnet that has around 38 000 staff members. As a leader, knowing that you have such a big team that depends on you always serves as sufficient fuel to drive one.”

Taking from his learning at a number of international institutions such as the University of Swaziland, Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, New York University and the University of Singapore, Gama believes that although people could be ‘born’ visionaries, they can also be nurtured, learnt and taught — it can even be acquired through observation. “By observing leaders such as Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton and many others, one can observe exactly what it takes to be an effective and influential leader,” says Gama.

BBQ’s Visionary Of The Year believes that the important lesson that one can learn from observing established leaders is how they translate vision into execution. “In addition to that, by combining the different elements, you can pick up how they manage to create a powerful picture the future for their teams. It is also equally important to observe how those leaders position themselves to take the necessary action needed to make the vision a reality, and the necessary steps they take to ensure that their teams are tagged along — while executing their work,” he says.

Gama, who was also voted the 2008 National Business Leader of the Year, as well as the BBQ Young Business Leader of the year in 2004, is of firm belief that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step — and that the vision by itself is never enough. “One must face the necessary challenge that comes with fulfilling that vision. The bigger the vision, the more intense the challenges! It is important to break down a vision into bite-sized chunks. Create milestones and celebrate each one as you go along but don’t celebrate for too long.”

Gama emphasises that it is important for a leader to listen to his subordinates and be open to criticism, as valuing everyone’s input is one way of creating a positive energy within a team. “In order to have a deeper influence on people, you have to be able to acknowledge their views even if they are far removed from yours. This way, one can be able to use all diverse elements to unite the team instead of being divided by it.”

People the world over often perceive visionary leaders as people who are immune to the challenges that everybody else face. But despite their successes, leaders and visionaries also find themselves facing personal obstacles to overcome. And it is in situations like these that they find themselves having to take the lead in their own personal lives and overcome individual struggles. Gama’s view on overcoming personal obstacles: “Obstacles, even on a personal level, are merely opportunities disguised as challenges. Obstacles give one an opportunity to have a different perspective of the landscape. It is important to embrace them because that is the only way one will understand where they are coming from.”

Transnet’s top man, who had his fare share of challenges in 2010/2011 when he faced harmful publicity surrounding false charges of corruption and/or dishonesty, believes that when obstacles are managed properly they can yield highly valuable lessons as they are a normal part of progress. Similarly, it takes fire to sharpen an iron.

“As a visionary one needs to have a deeper knowledge of the self – and a well-founded belief system. One needs to completely master one’s personal values in order to pull through the most trying times.”

It is viewed that understand the importance of tenacity in order to be an effective visionary, and Gama believes that people tend to trust visionaries who show tenacity when situations require them to do so. “Tenacious people do not stop pursuing their ideals in the face of turbulence. Instead, they come up with much more creative ways of dealing with their situations.”

With a strong management pedigree in transport, logistics, operations and finance, Gama believes that no man is an island and that we all learn from others as we go about our business.

He sites Giovanni Ravazotti (the founder of Italtile), Saki Macozoma (prominent businessman and President of Business Leadership South Africa), the two Drs Johan Van Zyl at Sanlam and of Toyota, Mafika Mkwanazi (Transnet’s Chairman) and Brand Pretorius (renowned businessman and author) as some of South Africa’s to visionaries he looks up to. What attracted him to their excellence is the enduring vision that they all possess for organisational pursuits. “I look up to many business leaders, for various reasons, but if there is one thing that they all have in common it is that they have all achieved great things in the world of business; quietly and with little aplomb! These individuals have a wealth of knowledge, which they have put in practice and when you study their achievements, it is impossible not to get inspired by them. More importantly, regardless of what they have achieved, they have managed to maintain their humility.”

Gama, a leader that believes in a quiet commitment to vision realisation, sees empowering subordinates as a way of allowing them to take the lead.

“It is important for one’s vision to be heard — and to turn a thought into a heard vision. Learning how to let go of control is important for a leader — and this is one of the most undervalued traits of authentic leadership and leading from behind sometimes, while ensuring that the vision is not lost. Leaders need to know when to learn and unlearn things, and letting others lead your vision is just as equally important as having one,” he wisely concludes.

Levi Letsoko (

Tshipi é Ntle – Making Vision a Reality

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