Tony Reece on a mission photo © Jeff Clark
  Rescue Pilot
Tony Reece
  Part 2, by Jeff Clark  


he demands of his job have led Tony Reece to develop a broad set of special skills to deal with the hazards unique to aircraft operation in an alpine environment. “Landing on snowfields where you don’t have any definition is probably the most treacherous thing,” Reece said. “If your skies are overcast, everything’s flat and you can’t tell what the terrain looks like or exactly where it is.”

Interestingly, Reece says that strong winds present less of a danger than light breezes. “If they’re strong enough you can tell easily which way they’re blowing and you can use ’em to help you. But when the winds are light and variable — that’s when it’s really bad,” Reece said. “I mean, it seems like it’s nice weather to fly in, but it’s bad weather to fly in.

“One time at the ten thousand foot level on Mount Rainier, I came in to a landing on a little ice ridge, and the wind was obviously from behind me, because I didn’t quite make it there without using power in the transient range. We’ve got red lines we can exceed for six seconds, sometimes fifteen seconds. I try to stay out of that power curve. But on that landing on Mount Rainier, I had to use that transient engine exhaust temperature to make a safe landing. You can’t see those little winds that are only five miles per hour, or three miles per hour, but they’re treacherous.”

“Camp Muir is about 10,000 feet, but I was going clear to the top with the Geological Survey, so I was going up to 14,410. So what I would do is fly in at about 8,000 feet, offload, and go in about 12,000 feet and offload another person, take the last person and his gear up to 14,410, come back, get another person, bring him up, go back down and pick up another person — and this was probably at the 12,000 foot level rather than 10,000 feet. It was broken-up glacier, and there was a flat place where I could land that was maybe fifteen feet wide. You had a crevasse here, and a crevasse here, and a deck that was level that you could land on. I worked down there for two months and only had to go into transient power that one time. Really pretty fortunate.”

The difficulty of mountain rescue work in the summertime often arises from issues around time of day and the availability of light. Rescues are frequently launched late on Sundays, when reports of injured climbers come in after weekend climbs. If enough daylight remains, a helicopter is dispatched with the hope that the injured party can be brought in before nightfall.

One such rescue on Mount Baker on Labor Day weekend 2001 threatened to turn into an epic. A storm was approaching, and conditions were deteriorating. “Kelly and I went in on Mount Baker one night when we had a fatality up there, another guy with a broken neck, a broken back, ... and the Coast Guard or the Navy flew up all the daylight hours,” Reece said. “So we went in there in the evening and I aborted three times before I could finally land. It was really treacherous. I let them off, and I think I left Galen [Galen Stark, Wilderness District Ranger] up there because of the darkness.”

“We brought the guy off there and they wanted me to take him to the hospital, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that at night,” Reece said. “The transmission was brand new and noisy, and just everything seemed to be against me. And so I went down below where a hiker was camped, and I went and talked to him, gave him one of my radios, and told him that I needed to bring a guy off with a broken back and that if he would catch that stretcher for me, and set it gently on the ground, then I could go back up and get the other people. Well, I brought the doctor and Kelly down but by that time it was dark enough to where I didn’t feel comfortable going back after Galen. There was no sense. He was fine up there. He could walk out in the dark if he wanted to or he could stay up there.”

Recalling that rescue, Bush described standing beside a gaping crevasse trying to catch a wildly swinging litter as the storm winds rose and the daylight faded toward darkness. “I didn’t think we were going to be able to grab it,” Bush said. “It was slamming against the wall of the crevasse. Finally, we got it and sent the patient out of there, and then Tony came back and one-skid landed and the doctor and I climbed in. Dr. Slack and I spent the night in the camp and tended to [the patient] through the night. Twenty people from Bellingham Mountain Rescue were needed to carry him down the next day.”

Helicopter 8612Foxtrot – Unloading gear on Challenger Arm. Photo © Jeff Clark.
Helicopter 8612Foxtrot – Unloading gear on Challenger Arm. Enlarge Photo © Jeff Clark.
Potentially risky maneuvers such as one-skid or toe-in landings require special certification, and are regulated by the Department of Interior’s Office of Aircraft Services, headquartered in Boise, Idaho. Pilots are restricted from performing the landings unless they have earned special certification from the OAS. “When Bill and I were doing these toe landings, or one-skid landings, they were illegal except in emergency situations,” Reece said. “Same when we started out with Kelly, but then they realized that we could do them safely and evidently word got back to Boise some way and they decided to start certifying us, like they do in the Grand Tetons. For the last six or seven years they’ve been coming up and certifying us for one-skid, toe-in, and step-out landings.”

Kelly Bush has also been working to get their rescue program certified for another specialized application known as the “short haul.” In this application a rescuer or perhaps a litter with a patient is flown while suspended from beneath the helicopter. “Kelly has put in an awful lot of work to get it to the point that soon we’ll be certified for short haul,” Reece said. Currently only larger parks such as Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon, all of which have full-time helicopters based at the parks, have short-haul programs in place. One requirement in the licensing process is to develop an on-call contract for a helicopter certified to perform short-haul and step out landings. This will not represent a significant change in the park’s relationship with Reece, because, according to Bush, Reece has always placed a high priority on responding when climbers need his help. “He’s been in Eastern Washington on a fire contract,” Bush said. “He’ll find a way to break loose and show up within the hour if I call him. Some days in the summer no helicopters are really close. But he is willing to finagle himself loose and fly in. So that has been to the benefit of quite a number of people who’ve been flown out in his helicopters.”

At 69 years of age, Reece is starting to talk about retirement, and is considering selling Hi Line helicopters. However, Reece’s loyalty to his friends at North Cascades factors into his plans.

“When I told Kelly I was gonna sell the outfit in the next couple of years, she was worried about this short-haul program she’s got going,” Reece said. “I told her ‘Kelly, don’t worry about it. I’m gonna be here throughout 2006, and probably up into 2007.’ That’s the plan at least.”

Known for setting a rigorous pace, Reece describes his post-retirement plans as involving even more work. “I got probably forty years’ work to catch up on around here,” Reece said, laughing. “Occasionally I’ll go fishing and hunting when I want to, but recreation will be secondary. Sue thinks she’s gonna get me to travel, but I can only travel for about two weeks and I’m traveled out, so I’ve gotta come back and go to work at various projects that should have been done a long time ago.”

Hughes 500D Helicopter

Maximum Gross Weight: 3000 lbs
Empty Weight: 1414 lbs
Useful load: 1586 lbs
Max External Load: 2000 lbs

Service Ceiling: 15,000 ft
Hover Ceiling: 8,500 ft
Horsepower: 550

Rotor Blades
Main: 5
Tail: 2

Maximum Air Speed: 152 knots
Cruise (Efficiency): 130 knots

Maximum Fuel Range: 261 nm
Endurance: 2.8 hours

Fuel Capacity: 64 gal
With Auxiliary: 109 gal

Manufacturer: Allison
Model 250-C20R

Three Ring Circus
A “Three Ring Circus” is a bellyband around the fuselage of the helicopter that makes a second anchor to which the short-haul rope can attach (a belay of sorts). So if the short-haul main attachment should come loose, or be accidentally punched by the pilot, the belly band will catch it. But if the short-haul rope gets entangled in something, the pilot needs a way to let both anchors go. The “3 ring circus” is a rigging that allows him to pull, collapsing the rings and dropping the second anchor.

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