KALISPELL – It wasn’t long ago that an aerial search for someone lost or missing, and potentially injured, ended about the time the sun set.
Many still do. They usually come with the promise that the search will “resume in the morning,” hours later when searchers know minutes can count.
But when the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a teenage hiker who went missing outside Whitefish on the night of March 11, Sheriff Chuck Curry didn’t just mobilize search and rescue ground forces at 10 o’clock at night.
He also called in Two Bear Air Rescue.
As far as Curry knows, there is nothing quite like Two Bear Air anywhere else in the nation.
A private citizen has spent millions of dollars of his own money to buy Two Bear Air’s helicopters, and pays every dime spent operating them on search and rescue missions.
“The resource provided to us, tax-free, is priceless,” Curry says. “The county could never afford a program that provides these resources.”
They include a $6 million twin-engine Bell 429 helicopter with $2 million worth of extras, including thermal imaging, night vision and infrared camera systems that allow searching to continue when it’s dark.
“It’s one of the best, if not the best, equipped aircraft in the western United States,” Curry says. Two Bear Air makes it available for search and rescue missions across western and central Montana, and in Idaho, 24 hours a day, at no cost to anyone except the part-time Whitefish resident who foots the bill for it all.
His name is Mike Goguen. He’s spent more than $11 million of his own fortune putting Two Bear in the air.
The darkness once dreaded by all searchers is now the optimum time to locate someone from the air, according to Two Bear Air’s chief pilot, Jim Bob Pierce of Bigfork.
That is, if your search helicopter is equipped like the Bell 429 is. In addition to the systems that allow it to search for people in the dead of night, it’s got a hoist that can lower rescuers to the ground, and lift them and victims back into the helicopter, when rescues occur in terrain where there’s no place to put a bird down.
It brings to $8 million the total cost of the Bell 429. And that doesn’t count the cost of Two Bear Air Rescue’s auxiliary helicopter, an MD 500E. It doesn’t include the finances of flying, maintaining and housing them.
Such state-of-the-art search and rescue equipment is a luxury few places, especially rural ones, can afford.
But the man who pays for everything said if having the aerial firepower Two Bear Air adds to search and rescue operations in the region helped to save just one life in its first two years of operation, he’d consider that $11 million well spent.
Curry is confident it’s saved more than one.
Goguen is a New England native who has made his fortune as a venture capitalist in California’s Silicon Valley.
He discovered Whitefish a decade ago, loved it, and built a weekend and holiday home between Whitefish Lake and Beaver Lake.
Goguen, in his early 50s, is a managing partner of Sequoia Capital, the California firm that was the original financial backer of Apple, Google and YouTube, to name just three. He holds degrees from Cornell and Stanford, and is a regular on Forbes’ “Midas List,” which ranks the world’s smartest tech investors.
Last year, the magazine noted Goguen “guided Virident Systems to a $685 million exit” and said his “biggest win came as part of Sequoia’s team effort to take FireEye public.”
FireEye, a computer network security company, is now worth more than $6 billion.
“Goguen spends much of his free time in the quiet town of Whitefish, Montana,” Forbes told its readers, “and is an active philanthropist.”
“Active” is right. Goguen has paid for more than helicopters since landing in Whitefish.
“I make my money in California and spend it in Montana,” Goguen has said. His philanthropy in the community that has become his home away from home extends far beyond the millions he’s invested in Two Bear Air Rescue.
The Whitefish Trail, the Wave Aquatic and Fitness Center, the North Valley Music School, the Whitefish Review, the Alpine Theatre Project and a local skateboard park have all benefited from Goguen’s generosity. Casey’s, a fixture on Whitefish’s Central Avenue for 110 years, got a new lease on life because of him. Goguen wrote a check for the last $500,000 of the $1.5 million needed to build a new home for the Whitefish Food Bank.
So it’s no wonder his name came up when, in 2011, then-Flathead County Undersheriff Jordan White went looking for donors to help him add better air support to local search-and-rescue operations.
“Never in any of our wildest dreams did we think it would turn into this,” Curry says.
For everything else Goguen has donated to, White says the philanthropist considers Two Bear Air Rescue his legacy project.
The name comes from two bear cubs Goguen saw playfully wrestling on his Whitefish property. They reminded him of his daughters, White says, and Goguen named his property – where he reportedly built a 32,000-square-foot home with a 12-sided swimming pool – Two Bear Ranch.
White, who served as search and rescue coordinator when he worked for the sheriff’s department, wanted to at least upgrade the personal helicopter that Pierce – the owner and manager of Red Eagle Aviation in Kalispell – volunteered for search and rescue missions.
The county itself budgeted just $10,000 a year to pay for aviation support in such operations, an amount that could be spent rather quickly hiring private aircraft.
“We used aviation as a last-ditch effort,” White says, “while realizing the value of being able to bring it in earlier.”
White and others discussed a campaign to raise money specifically for incorporating more aerial resources in search and rescue missions.
“We’ve dealt with things from the South Fork of the Flathead to Glacier National Park,” White says, “and a consistent theme was how long it took us to get to rescues.”
On the other end of missions in mountain country was the time it sometimes took to get injured people to hospitals when rescues occurred in rugged and remote areas where Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s ALERT helicopter couldn’t land nearby.
“There were some where we would have to carry people all night long to get them to help,” White says.
White also looked at obtaining a government surplus helicopter for search and rescue teams to use.
“They usually give you two,” he says. “One you’re supposed to fly, and one is for spare parts. But you have to have the funds in place to operate it before you can get one, and there was no way we could stretch $10,000 into getting a surplus helicopter up and running. Besides, we already had Jim and his Jet Ranger.”
Whether they upgraded Pierce’s helicopter for night vision, or went the surplus route, White figured they would need to raise approximately $500,000, and that it could take five years to do so.
Before taking the campaign public, the group discussed who might financially back such a project.
“A few names came up,” White says, “but the one that came up the most was Mike Goguen. So I sent a blind email to a work address I found for him online.”
Goguen responded immediately.
“He scheduled a meeting right away, and we talked about problems we faced in search and rescue missions, and the benefits of adding aerial support,” White says. “I didn’t know the level of commitment he was considering, but he seemed intrigued.”
In fact, White says, subsequent conversations with Goguen often included Goguen bringing technical questions and ideas to the table. It demonstrated to White that the venture capitalist was doing his own homework on what aerial support could mean to search and rescue missions, and how aircraft should be equipped to best help.
“His passion is to apply what he’s learned in business back into community projects, either with technology or philanthropy,” White says. “He takes what he’s learned, and figures out how to benefit people.”
Two Bear Air Rescue got off the ground in 2012 when Goguen purchased a used Bell 407 helicopter out of Miami to start the program.
He also offered White a job, managing some of his Whitefish-area interests and becoming executive director of Two Bear Air.
The 407 was replaced by the McDonnell Douglas single-engine copter in the summer of 2013. That fall, the Bell 429 was added.
Pierce, the chief pilot, says that in addition to the night vision, thermal imaging and infrared camera systems, the 429’s twin engines allowed the addition of the hoist system. Hoists require two engines, which enable the pilot to maintain flight in case one engine fails.
“We did 1,780 hoists in one year, most of them in training exercises, but it was the most hoists in the world in a 429,” Pierce says. The hoist is also used only as a last resort in actual missions, he adds.
Even though its sophisticated equipment keeps it from flying into Canadian airspace – federal regulations prohibit it, apparently to keep the technology out of the hands of foreigners – Two Bear Air Rescue has “a ridiculously large response area,” White says.
“We’re willing to go wherever we can get to, on short notice, and stay for extended periods if necessary,” White says. Outside agencies go through the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office to request Two Bear Air.
The farthest they’ve gone is Cascade Lake, south of McCall, Idaho, in February. The Bell 429, capable of speeds near 180 mph, covered the 250 miles in about an hour and a half, according to Pierce.
“There was a 19-foot aluminum jet boat that had become encased in the ice about two miles from shore,” Pierce says. “The local search and rescue team couldn’t get to them because of the conditions. We hoisted up the people from the boat and took them to shore.”
Two Bear Air flew 125 missions in 2014, or an average of one every three days.
“There was one period we flew four missions a day, four days in a row,” White says.
In one of the more unusual missions, the helicopter even rescued a rescue helicopter last September.
A 60-year-old Alaska man hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness had texted his son at 2:40 a.m. saying he wasn’t feeling well, and by 10 a.m. had sent out a distress call that launched a MercyFlight helicopter from Benefis Health Systems in Great Falls.
Using coordinates from the man’s text messages, the Great Falls crew established a 30-mile radius around the man’s possible location. It spotted a hunting camp in the area and landed.
When they learned the Alaskan wasn’t there, the crew re-boarded their helicopter – but it wouldn’t start. The Benefis crew was using a borrowed helicopter because its regular one was out of service that day for maintenance.
Eventually, the Benefis flight coordinator contacted the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, and Two Bear Air was dispatched.
It found the ill hiker and his dog and picked them up. Then stopped at the hunting camp and left two members of its rescue team there to make room for the Benefis nurse.
Pierce flew the hiker and nurse to the Great Falls hospital. There, a mechanic boarded the helicopter and Pierce flew him back to the wilderness hunting camp. The mechanic was able to repair the borrowed helicopter.
The night the teenage hiker from Whitefish was reported missing, White – also a pilot – climbed in the MD 500E and began searching roads and trails using a spotlight.
Pierce, meantime, took up the Bell 429.
“We like night searches,” Pierce says. “It used to be the dark brought aviation to the ground during a search, but there are so many advantages over a day search now. The thermal imaging works great with the cooler nighttime temperatures.”
The night systems can also pick up the tiniest flicker of light. Pierce tells of a search for a man in the Columbia Falls area whose cigarette lighter had run out of fuel.
“He kept flicking his Bic, maybe trying to get a fire started, and from a mile and a half away it looked like a flashlight” from the helicopter, Pierce says.
On his search for the teenage girl, Pierce says the first hit with the thermal imaging turned out to be a bear resting under a tree. He moved on.
The girl had been hiking with her grandfather late that afternoon, got out ahead of him and got lost. Curry’s best guess – the girl doesn’t remember how it happened – is that, after she wandered off the trail and was groping her way through the dark forest, she grabbed hold of a tree that had rotted at its base.
The tree tumbled over on top of her, pinning her to the ground.
“She said she could hear her grandpa yelling for her, but she was too weak to respond,” Pierce says.
He found her five minutes after coming across the bear. Pierce pinpointed the position, went to land and pick up a rescue specialist, and then returned and the specialist was lowered to the ground via the hoist to stabilize the 16-year-old.
“She said the one thing that kept her going was the sound of the helicopter looking for her,” he says.
Ground searchers were directed to the spot and she was taken out of the forest on a four-wheeler at about 1 a.m., “because the safest option was the ground,” Pierce says. “I don’t know if she would have been found any other way at night.”
Was it a life saved? There’s no way to be sure, Curry says, because there is no way to know the outcome had an $8 million helicopter capable of finding the girl in the middle of the night not been parked a few miles away at Glacier Park International Airport.
“It’s hard to quantify those things,” Curry says. “How do you know if someone would have died?”
Still, Curry is convinced that Two Bear Air has already saved lives, and many of them. So are White and Pierce.
“It’s happened several times in the last two years,” the sheriff says.
That means Mike Goguen must feel like the $11-plus million he’s spent on Two Bear Air Rescue to date have been one of the best returns on his money he’s ever seen.
After all, he was willing to chalk it up as a win if just one life was saved in the first two years.