. Jagged peaks, tumbling icy mountain rivers and expansive, unblemished vistas attract the hikers, nature lovers and hunters. But for search and rescue teams based at Malmstrom Air Force Base in picturesque central Montana, those attractions are also barriers to finding and rescuing the wounded hunters, fallen climbers, downed aircraft and wandering children which accompany every tourist season.

"It's important to understand how rural this area is," said Captain Rhonda Kelly, chief pilot and chief of standardization and evaluation for Malmstrom. "Sometimes when we're on a mission we might land our helicopter to get assistance or direction and we may be talking to only one person. When you ask if they have a map of the area they hand you something that looks like a coloring book. For more than half the state there are no aeronautical maps."

That wildness poses possible dangers to hikers and tourist pilots alike. Private planes are lost every year in the mountains because the pilots aren't experienced with flying the wilderness. One such pilot was in an antique British Spitfire on his way to an air show when he inadvertently traveled into bad weather, became disoriented and flew into the ground. Although disorientation can happen to any pilot when flying without visual clues -- they literally lose track of which way is up and which is down -- instrumentation usually gets them through. In this case, however, the Spitfire didn't have modern instrumentation.


Malmstrom Air Force Base is located outside Great Falls, a town of about 80,000, with mountains and wilderness to the west. The primary purpose of its helicopter flight group is to provide support to the 341st missile wing located there. Because part of this responsibility is to handle any military-related medical emergencies, the base maintains search and rescue teams. Although these teams are prohibited by law from competing with any commercial or civilian search and rescue company, they can be dispatched to support civilian efforts when no civilian team is able to respond.

"We have rescue capability of some kind at almost all Air Force bases," said Colonel Gladys Young, M.D., 341st Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander. "There is a rescue control out of Langley Air Force base in Virginia that coordinates their efforts. If you are a sheriff in California and would like to get some help from the Air Force, you could call the number at Langley and they would figure out which units are available, what their training is and what other priorities they have."


To keep pace with modern developments, and improve their ability to successfully carry out searches and rescues, the Malmstrom team has been adding new technology to its toolset. For example, within the last year the team became hoist-certified, allowing them to do rescues that would have been difficult, if not impossible, in the past.

"I had the opportunity to do the first hoist rescue in Air Force space command," said Captain Kelly. "A gentleman who went hiking on his own was lost. The area he was in was very rough. In fact, one of the sheriffs on the ground pointed out that if the hiker had slipped into one of the fast-moving streams in the area we were searching, that we should probably be looking for parts. Nonetheless, we continued to search from the air and spotted him clinging to a downed tree in the middle of a stream. We lowered our doctor about 150 feet and got him."

The hoist has also proven invaluable for mountain rescues. In the past when someone was injured on a mountain side, the helicopter would put the medical team down at the nearest landable spot, which could be a mile or more away. A team then hiked into the injured person and then had to get

David Aden  | 
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.