Two Bear Air has stepped up its efforts to find backcountry travelers in peril.
The RECCO helicopter detector was unveiled in Sweden a little more than two years ago, and now the world-class search-and-rescue team based in Northwest Montana recently began using it for the first time in North America.
Two Bear Chief Pilot Jim Pierce said he was skeptical at first when the company was contacted by RECCO.
“There were issues with the range of the hand-held RECCO detectors that we use to help find people, but in the testing we’ve done the last few weeks in a variety of conditions, it works,” Pierce said. “We’ve hovered higher than 120 feet and our unit in the ’copter has detected the reflectors.”
The detector is a 170-pound device that is suspended from a cable outside the Bell 429 helicopter that Two Bear uses in its search-and-rescue missions. For those who wear outdoor clothing or gear with the RECCO reflector, the signal the detector emits bounces off the reflector and searchers can pinpoint the location of a person trapped in an avalanche slide, tree well or even people lost while hiking, biking or any other outdoor activity.
The unit’s radar signal is capable of scanning areas as wide as 656 feet in a half-square-mile area in three or four minutes with speeds up to 70 miles per hour.
While deep snow has been slow to accumulate in the Flathead Valley to date, once snow begins to pile up, training will continue on buried items.
Pierce said RECCO has detected victims in crevasses as deep as 30 feet.
Daniel “Howie” Howlett, who has lived in Polson since 1980, is the RECCO’s director of training and technical support in North America.
Howlett has been with RECCO since 1999, but until recently, he split his time between Montana and Utah, where he worked as a avalanche specialist at the Alta Ski area since 1979.
He is very excited for the new technology.
“The reflectors are just a little ingenious piece of technology that don’t need batteries and they never turn off,” Howland said. “They’ve been integrated in hundreds of top brands of outerwear, boots, helmets, and protection gear from around the world.
“But many people don’t even realize it. Many of the reflectors are integrated directly into the fabric and they aren’t very noticeable,” he said, “but any garment or piece of gear that has a reflector has a RECCO label.”
Howlett is asking skiers, snowshoers and other backcountry users to check their gear to see if it has a RECCO reflector.
“Knowing that can help if we need to perform a search, but we want to stress that it isn’t meant to replace avalanche beacons,” Howlett said.
Pierce agreed, saying it’s another tool in Two Bear’s arsenal to help find people.
“I’m real excited for the high mountain searches we do where people end in crevasses, rock piles or any of the myriad of places [where people] can get into trouble,” Pierce said.
While Howlett is pleased that the new technology could be used to find backcountry travelers, he doesn’t want them to neglect RECCO’s original message of avoiding trouble.
“For those that do get caught in an avalanche, after about 15 minutes, their chances of surviving go down drastically,” Howlett noted. “RECCO does a great job of promoting avalanche awareness. We want people to become better educated about mountain travel, no matter what time of year.”
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org