Funded through a local philanthropist, nonprofit operator provides air rescue services and law enforcement support using a Bell 429.

Since 2014, Whitefish, Montana–based Two Bear Air Rescue has provided free aviation support for search-and-rescue (SAR) operations in western Montana, northern and central Idaho, and eastern Washington and Oregon. Operating a hoist-equipped Bell 429, the nonprofit service is supported 100% by Whitefish resident and philanthropist Michael Goguen.

Serving a Community Need
Two Bear Air Rescue is the brainchild of pilot Jim Bob Pierce and a group of SAR technicians who pitched the idea of a full-time emergency service to Goguen. Pierce, who owned Red Eagle Aviation at Kalispell City Airport in Flathead County, was regularly donating his helicopter, fuel, and time to assist on SAR missions while ferrying resources to ground crews. However, Pierce was only able to help when a helicopter was available; otherwise, crews had to hike on foot to find the lost and injured. Goguen agreed to fund the operation, with the condition that the service would be world class and free to the public.

Gearing Up for SAR Operations
In 2014, Two Bear Air Rescue launched operations with a twin-engine Bell 429 helicopter equipped with a hoist, an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera, a tracking system, wireless intercom, night-vision goggles (NVG) capability, and other SAR tools. While the service is privately funded, the helicopter is associated with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) and displays the police unit’s emblem.

While Two Bear Air Rescue crews respond to missions regularly in Flathead Valley, they also fly across the state and to remote areas of Idaho, Washington, and eastern Oregon to assist with SAR missions that range from responding to climbing accidents and finding missing hikers to performing river rescues.

Two Bear Air Rescue chief pilot James Heckman says the helicopter frequently makes the 1.5-hour flight to the remote mountainous area flanking McCall, Idaho, for rescues that include snowmobile accidents and injured hikers. But the crew has visited no region more often than their own backyard: Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana near the US–Canada border. The park welcomes 3 million visitors annually from around the world.

Assisting Law Enforcement
The Two Bear Air Rescue crew often uses the EO/IR camera to find missing hikers in the backcountry as well as to locate people evading law enforcement officers. Using NVG, the Bell 429 crew helps authorities find suspects in hard-to-reach areas—especially in the woods.

In January 2023, two people stole a pickup truck in Kalispell and led FCSO deputies on a pursuit through the Middle Fork Flathead River corridor. After deputies failed to stop the vehicle—choosing to terminate the pursuit in West Glacier due to wintry weather conditions—they dispatched a Two Bear Air Rescue crew to track the suspects by air.

When the truck ran out of fuel, the suspects ran into the forest. The flight crew found them 100 yards from the truck and directed deputies to their location to make the arrests.

Over the past decade, Two Bear Air Rescue has completed more than 1,000 missions, increased the size of its staff by six people, and continued to advance its use of new technology and specialized equipment, including Recco SAR helicopter detectors.

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Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer is the principal of her own firm, Flying Penguin Communications. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and holds commercial, instrument, flight instructor, and instrument instructor ratings in helicopters and a private rating in airplanes. She has worked as a professional journalist and marketing communicator in the aviation industry since the early 1990s.