Tony Reece piloting a mission on Mount Baker. NPS Photo courtesy Kelly Bush.
  Rescue Pilot
Tony Reece
  Part 1, by Jeff Clark  


Ohe approaching helicopter sounds like a junebug on steroids. The aircraft comes in and lands nearby, discharging a ranger in a green flight suit. An injured climber is going for a ride, as soon as a preliminary check ascertains that he’s conscious, not bleeding much, and doesn’t need broken bones stabilized. The patient is trundled into the back seat of the helicopter and buckled in. The ranger climbs into the front passenger seat and gives a thumbs up to the pilot grinning at her from the other side of the cockpit.

For the past twenty-six years, Tony Reece has plucked countless climbers off North Cascade peaks. He has also ferried trail workers and scientists, filmed movies, and — using a long line cable hanging beneath his helicopter — delivered sling-loads of gear and supplies and dumped buckets of water to suppress wildfires in the North Cascades National Park. He recently photographed the first documented wolverine den in the State of Washington. To the NPS professionals that depend on him, Tony Reece has built a legendary reputation as a pilot, a professional, and an essential member of the wilderness management team.

Tony Reece grew up around planes. His father helped build the Darrington airstrip just after World War II, when some Darrington area veterans bought small airplanes after returning from the war. “That would make me about nine years old,” says Reece, “and every time there was an empty seat in those airplanes I was in it.” Later, after completing his own stint in the military, Reece earned an airplane pilot’s license in October of 1956.

Darrington was very much a logging town and Reece was raised in a family of loggers. He and his two brothers, Clayton and Alden, had their own logging operation in the early 1970’s, and in 1972 Reece decided to learn to fly a helicopter with the goal of using it in their business (a third brother, Monte, had been killed in a horseback riding accident while Tony was in the service). Knowing that the steep terrain he would be operating in would require special expertise, Reece sought instruction from renowned mountain pilot Carl Spee, owner and operator of Alpine Helicopters in Maple Valley. “He was available, he was the best I could find, and I planned on flying in a risky environment so I figured I needed the best training I could get in order to survive, and so far it’s worked,” Reece said.

Among other things, Spee taught Reece how to land and take off from steep hillsides. “What we done,” Reece said, “is put the right skid down and chopped the throttle, then the aircraft would drop. The tail would come up and turn between the rotor blades and you’d slide downhill until you got enough pressure on it to stop sliding. To take off you had to wind the rotors up and just take right off from the hillside. I’ve never seen that technique used with anyone else.”

After Reece completed his flight training, the brothers purchased a Bell 47 helicopter in 1974. Reece used the aircraft to deploy cables and rigging from the yarding machine, as well as to transport workers to the job site. “I had to be landing on stumps, logs — no terrain to land on other than what I could land on with one skid,” Reece said.

Reece also flew cedar blocks, production work that required him to hone his skills flying with loads suspended beneath the helicopter at the end of a long steel cable. In order for this type of helicopter work (known as “long lining”) to be profitable, the pilot has to work quickly ferrying multiple sling-loads, and must be able to precisely control the placement of the hook hanging beneath the aircraft.

Reece soon found that he could make a living solely as a helicopter pilot by combining logging work with flying contracts outside the timber industry. In 1975, one year after he bought the Bell, Reece was hired by the United States Geological Survey to fly research scientists studying glaciers in the North Cascades. His long-line experience gained in the logging industry came in handy as he flew in sling-loads of scientific equipment. The goal of the work was quite different from production-oriented logging operations, and the timing and demands for efficiency were different as well. Reece tells a story of how, shortly after he started flying for the USGS team, his focus on getting the job done as quickly as possible led him a little astray. “There was a snow storm while I was putting that equipment in, and being young, I just kept flying the stuff in, because I could see where the last load went. I’d stay above that until my load hit the snow and then I’d stop, let that one down, and go back and get another one. So I just strung that stuff out, but it snowed about fifteen feet and they had to dig down to find it,” Reece said, laughing as he recalled the experience. “It wasn’t too smart. I got an education there.”

Not only did Reece find new challenges in this line of work, but the work of the scientists fascinated the young pilot. “We drilled, with a steam drill, seven hundred feet deep out in the middle of that glacier to perfect the ice radar,” Reece said. “What we done is put the wires out for the ice radar, sent the signal down in a place that we could actually take a measurement so that they could fine tune… That was a pretty exciting thing.”

In 1978, Reece got out of the logging company and purchased a Hughes 500 helicopter. Reece found the new helicopter perfectly suited for flying external loads as well as for jobs that required landing in mountainous terrain. “That was a Hughes 500C model, and we had the bigger engine in it, so it had more power than normal, same as this one,” Reece said, indicating his current aircraft. “I had it enhanced so it gives me 550 horsepower so we can work up at Mount Rainier at 10,000 feet fairly comfortably.”

In addition to having the lift necessary to operate at relatively high elevation, the Hughes 500 is a quick and agile helicopter with a tall rotor system that provides clearance for landing on steep terrain and clearing high brush. The rotor blades, too, are ideal for this type of flying: with five blades, the diameter of the rotor disc overhead can be less than other helicopters of similar size. This helps it get into tight places.

Reece knows exactly where the end of those rotor blades is. “I can see the end of the blades,” Reece said. “There’s been times when there wasn’t room to land, and we’ve set down places where we knew we was going to touch some limbs. You can hear ’em. You don’t feel ’em, but when you get back home the blades are green on the end.”

In flight, the Hughes 500 is very responsive to the touch on the controls. “On a Bell two-bladed system, your rotor blades have to turn ninety degrees before you feel the effect of a change in their orientation. On a Hughes 500, the instant those five blades are putting that pitch in, that tilts your rotor disc and moves you sideways, stops you — gives you the control you’ve got. You’re just balanced on top of a column of air.”

In 1980, Reece began to fly for North Cascades National Park after the park’s prime contract pilot was killed in a tragic accident. Reece had been the second lowest bidder on the park service contract, and so the park called him after the accident. As visitation to North Cascades National Park increased in the eighties, the number of search and rescue missions also increased. As a result, Reece became a critical member of the mountain rescue team. “Once I started flying with them, they became very comfortable with me.”

Reece also became very comfortable with the people he flew with at the park, including Wilderness District Ranger Bill Lester. Together, along with the seasonal climbing rangers, the pair developed creative strategies to carry out rescues in challenging circumstances. In one such case, two climbers became stranded on the Northwest Face of Forbidden Peak after one of the pair fell and injured his elbow. Unable to find a landing site, Reece had Lester tie a radio and a backpack containing bivouac gear to a climbing rope suspended from the aircraft’s belly hook. Hovering over the climbers, Lester directed them to pull the rope free of the belly hook rather than untying the backpack from the rope. Unfortunately, the climbers were unable to hear the radio due to the noise of the hovering helicopter. One of the climbers untied the backpack, leaving the light nylon rope hanging from the aircraft. Reece feared the rotor wash would suck the rope up into the blades. “I didn’t have any choice,” Reece said. “I had to weave that rope around in the rocks until I got it hung up on something strong enough to pull it off the belly.”

Tony Reece piloting with suspended “Life Net” rescue device with a climber inside. Photo © Jeff Clark.
Tony Reece piloting with suspended “Life Net” rescue device with a climber inside. Photo © Jeff Clark.
Reece has a special regard for Bill Lester. “I’ve got Bill on about the highest pedestal there is,” Reece said. “He was so knowledgeable, had such a vast background. And we didn’t worry about how far out on a limb either one of us was going. We done what had to be done to get the job done safely and efficiently. Bill just always had experience in that field and he passed an awful lot of it on to me and Kelly [Kelly Bush is the current Wilderness District Ranger], and everyone else he worked with. Bill always said if I ever quit flying, he was going to retire right then, but unfortunately, it went the other way.” Bill Lester died of cancer in 1996.

Despite amassing a total of 23,000 hours flying helicopters, including 19,000 in the Hughes 500, Reece has had only one minor flying mishap that resulted in damage to his helicopter. In 1981 Reece made a hard landing on Mount Baker, breaking a landing strut. But, like any seasoned pilot, he has had a few close calls.

One dicey incident occurred during a rescue in the Picket Range near McMillan Spire. After landing to pick up a climber with an injured ankle, a cloud bank rolled in, reducing visibility to about ten feet. Standing in the fog, Reece and Lester watched the clouds roll over the side of the ridge. The pair debated whether they should try to fly off the side of the ridge where the cloud bank seemed to dissipate twenty to thirty meters below the crest.

After a few minutes of deliberation, Reece decided to gamble. The pilot, Lester, and the injured climber loaded into the aircraft and lifted off. Reece turned the helicopter to face the ridge and dropped over the side, backing down slowly. The remaining party of two climbing rangers and the injured climber’s partner stood on the ridge and watched helplessly as the helicopter sank into the fog bank below their feet. The sound of the helicopter was an angry clattering whine as it slowly descended under full power, and the smell of burning jet fuel exhaust rose in its wake.

“I thought we were probably going to die, but I wasn’t about to give up,” Reece said. “As I came off there, that fog bank just barely rolled over us, so I figured I’d drop out of it in fifteen or twenty feet at the most. I didn’t come out, and I didn’t come out, and I knew that if I went straight down I’d get into my own wake and I’d fall… so I just kind of went like this [sweeps hand back and forth laterally] and stayed inside that rock cove with just two or three feet of rotor clearance as I come down. If I’d backed away from it I couldn’t see nothing, because I could barely see past the end of the rotor blades. After I got down four or five hundred feet I began to realize that I was going to lower myself onto a snowfield and everything was going to be white, and I felt bad for Bill and the other guy that was with me more than I was concerned for myself. Here I was gonna take two people with me if it stayed the way I thought it might stay. But I couldn’t figure out anything better to do. This took a lot of years off my life, believe it or not. Fortunately, the fog cleared just as I got to that snowfield. I flew out of there and hey, I won’t do that again. That’s as close as I ever came to death without putting a scratch on anything.”

Reece talks of another near miss that occurred when he decided to fly over the top of a snowstorm. Needing to fly over the Cascades from Darrington to Oroville, in Eastern Washington, he looked east and saw a snowstorm over the Cascades. Reece thought he could see over the top of the storm, and figured it probably ended at the Cascade crest. He decided to take a chance, and flew up over the storm.

“But the further I went, the higher the clouds got,” Reece said. “It was down to thirty-five below zero, and the clouds were maybe a hundred feet below me, and I was at fifteen thousand five hundred. You’re supposed to start using oxygen at ten thousand. When I got to the crest, I couldn’t see anything but clouds in any direction. I’d gotten a weather report before and Oroville was clear. It was just as far to keep going as it was to come back, so I kept going and sure enough I broke out of the clouds. I was still above ‘em, but they didn’t crowd me up above my limits. I was terribly nervous for twenty-five minutes of flying on top of those clouds because I knew if I touched any of that fog, the blades would be instant ice, and there’s just no way out. If I had a failure and I came down into it I’d be iced up with no chance. I’ve never done that again.”

Tony Reese photo © Jeff Clark


“You’re just balanced on top of a column of air.”

“We’ve set down places where we knew we were going to touch some limbs. You can hear ‘em. You don’t feel ‘em, but when you get back home the blades are green on the end.”

“If I’d backed away from [the rock wall] I couldn’t see nothing, because I could barely see past the end of the rotor blades.”

“I knew if I touched any of that fog it would be instant ice, ... with no chance.”

“You can’t see those little winds that are only five miles per hour, or three miles per hour, but they’re treacherous.”

Hours Flight Time Amassed
• Hughes 500: 19,000
• Total: 23,000

Climbers/Hikers Evacuated
220+ by NPS estimate

Interagency Pilot Qualifications:
• Deep Snow landings
• Power-on landings
(One-skid, toe-in, hover)
• Short-haul w/ Human External Cargo
• Fire Suppression
• Aerial Ignition
• Long Line External Load (among others)

Farewell Missions
In addition to flying injured people out, Reece has flown terminally ill cancer patients on their last trip to the mountains, landing them at a spot on scenic Miners Ridge owned by Chelan County PUD. “We go in and land and they spend some time on the ground there. A lot of tears come to their eyes sometimes.”
Author Bio
Jeff Clark worked as a climbing ranger in North Cascades National Park from 1983 to 1992. During those ten years he flew many rescue missions with pilot Tony Reece. Clark is currently Assistant Principal at Port Angeles High School in Port Angeles, WA. He often wishes, however, that he was still working in the North Cascades.
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