FEATURE: She’s Heli-Good

By on March 1, 2016

Daring ace brings nerves of steel to air rescue missions.

(Photo: sargent schutt)

(Photo: Sargent Schutt)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – “Do rescue helicopters have a hover button?” asked Billy G., an online blogger in response to a scene in the action movie “San Andreas” where Dwayne Johnson puts his chopper in auto-hover and performs his own short haul rappel rescue.

Yes, Billy, there is a “hover button.” In the Bell 407, used by Teton County Search and Rescue (SAR), it’s called the Nicole Ludwig. And she says don’t believe everything you see in Hollywood movies.

Ludwig, 45, is the heli pilot on contract with SAR for the past six winter seasons. If the search and rescue helicopter had a “hover button” SAR team members wouldn’t trust it. Instead, they choose to put their confidence, their lives, in the skillful hands of the Swiss-born ace who can hold 3,000-pounds of aircraft in place at the edge of a cliff. In howling winds. In a whiteout. At 10,000 feet above sea level.

Imagine a crackerjack trucker who hauls a payload thousands of miles across crowded interstate highways and then must back an 18-wheeler into a tight loading dock. Now multiply that by a hundred. One mistake up here and someone is not coming home to their family.

“I don’t fly on luck. In the Tetons, there is no playing around. You get one fatal mistake in your career,” Ludwig said. “Pilots in rescue operations always want to help but you have to weigh that with risking your life and the team’s lives. It’s happened where we’ve had to turn around and leave someone out for the night. I don’t like to do that. I don’t sleep well that night. I’ve also pushed the envelope to a degree, but I always have to be able to answer to myself: Can I bring everyone back home safely? I know I want to come home.”

Rescuers like Tim Ciocarlan, Chris Leigh, and Jenn Sparks have abiding faith in Ludwig. They use words like “precise,” “reliable,” and “devoted” when describing their top flyer. Ludwig’s calm demeanor instantly abates any uncertainty over a difficult or dangerous mission. As team members scramble at the hangar after receiving a distress call, they work through a “go/no-go” checklist. It’s organized chaos and they’re rolling heavy. Gear is assembled and loaded. Radios squawk. Ludwig makes a last minute check of the weather, studies satellite imagery of the terrain, and locks in GPS coordinates.

When lives are on the line, SAR members fall back on their countless hours of training. The urgency and adrenaline have to be managed. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. As the chopper warms up on the helipad, Ludwig will ask each member one question: “Good to go?” But it’s her answer team members hang on. Can she do it?

“Yeah, let’s go,” Ludwig will say in her Swiss-German accent. Just about every time. “I don’t remember a time when I was on the pad with rotors spinning and decided not to go. I will always try,” Ludwig said. “But I check with everybody. Any member of the crew can say no to flying. We are always looking at the big picture. How serious is the injury? How many people will we put in danger?”

To the rescue

May 17, 2015. The call came in early that Sunday morning: Avalanche.

Four skiers were caught in a wet slide on Mount Moran’s Sickle Couloir. It was bad. That’s all Ludwig and the crew knew when they lifted off the pad. Ludwig fought high winds and snow squalls just to get to the Jenny Lake Rescue Cache in Lupine Meadows near the base of Teewinot Mountain. She set down there and waited for an update.

“We finally received word from dispatch: At least one critical. Time was a factor,” remembered Leigh who was flying spotter along with short hauler Jake Urban. “We had marginal flying conditions due to snow, sleet, squirrelly winds and low clouds. Our window of opportunity was tight, and we were looking at a 10-minute flight up to 9,500 feet. IC (Incident Command) said it was our call.”

Everyone looked at Ludwig. When Leigh and Urban assured her they were OK with whatever she decided, Ludwig checked her fuel gauge, glanced at her watch, and peered out through the bubble window at a dropping ceiling of dark gray clouds. “Let’s go,” she said, “swoop and scoop.”

“Once on scene, Jake did a hot hookup with the patient,” Leigh said. “Nicole had to hold the hover within 1 or 2 feet for almost a minute. We bounced like a cork in the ocean but Jake never had more than a foot of slack in that line—dangling 150 feet below us! It was incredible precision flying considering the winds, flat light and low ceiling.”

Ludwig flew out the bodies of Luke Lynch and Stephen Adamson that day, returning to rescue Brook Yeomans and Zahan Billimoria minutes later.

The long and short of an air rescue

Short hauling is the most dangerous operation a rescue team performs.

“Short haul is a nice tool to have but it is almost like our last resource because it is somewhat high risk,” Ludwig said.

The procedure involves a short hauler hooked to a 150-foot line below the helicopter, attached via what hot shots refer to as a “God” ring. Some situations call for a 250-foot rope. With help from a spotter, who covers the pilot’s blind sides by sticking his head out a doorless frame in the back, Ludwig flies half on visual/instruments, half on gut instinct, listening to the short hauler’s radio communication as she lowers him into place.

With a downdraft blast of swirling, wind-blown snow obscuring visibility, the radio exchange is crucial. A short hauler keys his radio when he’s an estimated 50 feet from the ground. “Five-zero,” he reports.

“Copy, five-zero,” Ludwig responds, coolly.


“Unhook,” Ludwig says.

When she gets the all clear, Ludwig can pull away and circle at a safe distance while members on the ground attend to injuries or package a patient for transport in a litter. She remains in a circular holding pattern, watching for hang fire, or heads back to a makeshift landing zone to pickup more gear or people. When time is short, like it was on the Sickle Couloir rescue, haulers stay “hot,” remaining tethered to the line while they administer to a victim’s injuries. It’s rarely done because it requires Ludwig to hold a steady hover while her team performs first aid in 60-mph winds created by the rotors’ downwash.

Conditions on the ground under the aircraft are hellacious.

“The wind is bad for the rescuers on the bottom,” Ludwig acknowledged. “Something like 60 mph. It can get interesting down there, even if I’m 150 feet above them.”

Things aren’t much calmer in the cockpit, either.

“It’s hard, it’s a difficult challenge,” Ludwig said of holding hover. “We have to pass a test: holding hover, keeping a load within 10 feet of a spot for three minutes. After three minutes of that I’m normally worn out.”

“These are some of the most challenging conditions known anywhere.” —Chris Leigh, SAR member. (Photo: dirk collins, oneeyedbird)

“These are some of the most challenging conditions known anywhere.” —Chris Leigh, SAR member. (Photo: Dirk Collins, One Eyed Bird)

Law of gravity

A helicopter may be designed to hover but it doesn’t want to. Not without a lot of coaxing. It takes a flurry of activity to hold a ship still. Heli pilots operate a cyclic, which tilts the rotor discs to the sides, front and aft. In the other hand they clutch a collective—a two-piece thrust controller that lifts or lowers the whirlybird. Finally, a pilot’s feet are busy operating pedals that control the tail rotor, without which a helicopter will spin out of control from the torque of the main rotor.

Heli pilots don’t like hovering any more than their ships do. Stationary aircraft, even helicopters, are accidents waiting to happen.

“We don’t like to hover. Hovering, you are in the dead man’s curve,” Ludwig said, referring to the manufacturer’s chart of suggested airspeed, elevation, and possibility of successful recover should the engine shut down for any reason. “Airspeed is your friend in an emergency. The helicopter needs some forward airspeed to increase the possibility of a successful set down in case of an engine failure. But either way, when the engine quits, you go down. You might go slower or faster, but you are going down.”

Down at 1,500 feet per minute. Ludwig has never crashed a helicopter but she has torn up stuff. A rock hidden beneath snow bent a landing skid earlier this winter season. She also over-torqued a transmission early in her flying career.

There have been a few hard landings during her six years in the Tetons. “She might give an apologetic, ‘oops’ on the radio after a hard set down,” Leigh said.

“I might say, ‘Oh, shoot, that could have been smoother’ or ‘Sorry, that was sure a seven-point landing,’” Ludwig admitted. Crewmembers are in the habit of giving Ludwig compliments after a gentle touch down. They don’t say anything on the rare occasion when she pummels the ship into the snow a bit too roughly.

The crash that killed SAR member Ray Shriver in 2012 highlights the potential danger of flying missions in mountainous terrain. Pilot Ken Johnson lost control of a rescue chopper while responding to a snowmobile heart attack victim in the Togwotee area. The aircraft went into a violent spin and crashed into trees. The tragedy sickened team members with grief and they lost their nerve for flying. “After Ray, people didn’t want to fly anymore. For a long time, like the rest of the season,” Ludwig remembered.

While the helicopter that Ludwig flies tops out around 140 knots, she  transports haulers at a max 40. “It’s very cold for them,” she said. (Photo: chris leigh)

While the helicopter that Ludwig flies tops out around 140 knots, she  transports haulers at a max 40. “It’s very cold for them,” she said. (Photo: Chris Leigh)

The right stuff

Pilots have a short memory. They have to. And one word you don’t often catch them saying is “crash.” Ludwig refers to air mishaps as a “bad day.” As in, “If the helicopter has to peel off and you are still attached to the line, that would make for a really bad day.” Or “If I get my line caught in a tree or the rotor strikes a cliffside, that would be a really bad day.”

But a search and rescue callout to Ludwig is a bad day by definition. She flies when no one else will. Preparation is the key. Ludwig can find most any drainage on a map or from the air. She checks weather and avalanche activity every day with her morning coffee. When it comes time to lift off, Ludwig said she “flies by the seat of her pants.” But it’s not what you think.

The cockpit’s instrumentation panels are a dazzling lightshow read-out of fuel levels, GPS coordinates, engine temps, airspeed, RPMs, and a host of other vital information. Audio warning systems screech in their automated voice—referred to affectionately by Ludwig and other pilots as “Bitchin’ Betty”—and a careful eye is always on the fuel gauge.

But when it comes to flying, Ludwig is all feel. It derives with experience, for sure, but much of the magic can’t be taught. You either have aeronautic guile or you don’t. For the best pilots, the aircraft becomes an extension of themselves. It’s alive.

“The helicopter talks to you. It tells you what it wants to do and what it doesn’t like to do,” Ludwig said. “Through the seat or in the controls and pedals; it might be a shudder or something not normal. I listen to the wind in the rotors to hear how the engine is straining. Maybe it wants to push a little or the nose wants to come around 30 degrees, and you almost have to let these things happen rather than fight the ship. As a pilot, you can force an aircraft into doing something it doesn’t want to do. That’s when accidents happen.”

Ludwig also talks about wind as if it were as seeable as water current. Windsocks, smoke flares, even tree branches help a pilot judge wind speed and direction, but Ludwig is usually keenly aware already of what gusts are blowing and why.

“I do believe that comes with experience,” Ludwig said. “Wind flows pretty much like water. If you can imagine water flowing over the ridgeline, down the mountain, into bowls, that really helps.”

A smoother updraft is the general rule for west-facing slopes in eastern Idaho. A prevailing jet stream out of the southwest is the typical pattern. This wind bumps into mountain ranges, blows upward to the top, and spills over into a more volatile downdraft on the eastside slopes of the Tetons.

“There’s more turbulence on the leeside, the Jackson side of the Tetons where we do most of our rescues. It creates a ‘roller’ over the mountains that then rotates back to the slope of the mountain,” Ludwig said. “When it’s really windy in the Jackson area I have learned sometimes the air isn’t as bad very close to the mountains. There is a sweet spot.”

It’s this savvy sixth sense that separates good pilots from great ones. Team leader Tim Ciocarlan sees it in Ludwig.

“There are many good helicopter pilots out there, but not so many great helicopter pilots. Those who can work in mountainous terrain at high elevation, in poor weather and winds, perform deep snow landings, and work in urgent rescue situations,” Ciocarlan said. “[We] are fortunate to have such a pilot. Nicole is calm, thoughtful, prepared, and makes good decisions. She is also conservative. She usually finds a way to make even our most difficult missions successful.”

Ludwig grew up skiing in the Swiss Alps where she cultivated a need for speed on the ground. Leigh said there aren’t too many SAR members who can keep up with her on the slopes. As a child, Ludwig remembers seeing air rescues being performed in the backcountry and was fascinated by the skill and courage displayed by heli pilots. “Since then, I’ve always wanted to fly,” Ludwig said.

While most onlookers wondered about the injury and gawked to get a better look at the victim, Ludwig studied the air ship’s maneuvering—the precision and team effort of first responders in caring for and extracting a patient. “That’s what I’m going to do,” she thought. She earned her pilot’s license, flew one time in a fixed-wing plane and thought it boring. She wanted to float and hover and set a helicopter right in the middle of the action.

Ludwig said she has always battled a gender bias in the aviation world since she started flying in 1996, and later moved to the U.S. in 2002 from her native Switzerland. While some female pilots are valued for their perceived conservatism in the face of overly macho male aces, whose risk-taking decisions might sometimes push the envelope too far, Ludwig said she hasn’t seen much of that. In fact, she’s had to do everything twice as well as her male counterparts to receive half the recognition.

“I think it’s ingrained in people’s minds that a pilot should be a man,” she said.

Left behind

Rescuers aren’t always on time. Even when they are, it’s sometimes too late. Ludwig doesn’t enjoy bringing the deceased back in a Bauman bag. That was the case April 24, 2011, when she exhausted just about all of her 850 pounds of Jet A fuel searching for skiers Walker Kuhl and Gregory Seftick. More than 35 rescuers and four canine teams spent six days combing a massive debris field in Garnet Canyon Meadows where the pair was last seen camping. Ludwig made several trips hauling out the bodies and then rescue personnel.

It just eats at Ludwig when she has to leave someone behind. It doesn’t happen very often. But if night is falling and Ludwig doesn’t think she can make it back before dark, or if there is something about the LZ she just doesn’t feel comfortable with, she’s not going to risk it. At worst, she is usually able to fly by and drop a care package—food, water, sleeping bags, tent. Now and then, when she picks up an injured party, it’s a SAR member’s seat they take.

Ludwig remembered one time when she responded to a call in Sublette County.

“This person in Green River Lakes had something going on with his leg or knee. Tip Top couldn’t reach him by snowmobile so they called us in,” Ludwig recalled. “The problem was we topped off with fuel before we left (the helicopter normally leaves the pad with a half tank, enough for about 1.5 hours of flight time) because I didn’t know where we were going and thought we’d have to look around for him. Then, wouldn’t you know it, we find him right away.”

Ludwig did the calculations. With the added passenger she was borderline too heavy to take off. Someone had to stay behind.

“All the crew members have a 24-hour pack. They know there is a chance they won’t be coming out with us,” Ludwig said. Still, she felt bad. When the injured passenger thanked the rescue team for the lift, especially because he saw a mountain lion prowling around his camp all night, Ludwig was mortified.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I just left Flip [Phil Tucker] back there with a cougar.’ I just watched him getting smaller and smaller as I flew away.”

Ludwig said she flew as fast as she could for the next 15 minutes to get her patient to a staging area and a waiting ambulance. Then she bee-lined back for Tucker.

“Obviously nothing happened. He was fine,” Ludwig said. “But he never lets me forget it. That was two years ago and everybody knows the story now because he can’t stop telling it.”

Jenn Sparks, an 18-year veteran with TCSAR, is not the only one who appreciates Ludwig’s Euro-dry humor. At the hangar or en route to a backcountry mission, Ludwig keeps things light with amiable chatter.

One of my all-time favorite radio transactions was when Nicole yelled out to the team in her Swiss accent, “Where’s my friggin’ door and who left it in Rock Springs?”

But when it’s “go time,” Ludwig is all business.

“She is devoted, knowledgeable, and always willing to share her passion for flying,” Sparks shared. “Out of the ship, she can laugh with the best of them. But once she’s in ‘pilot mode,’ she’s serious, straightforward, and sets extremely high standards of conduct for her team.”

In addition to flying, Ludwig has to handle communications from her own team, law enforcement, park rangers, interagency dispatch, or the airport tower.

“There are moments when I’m thinking it would be nice if it were quiet right now,” Ludwig admitted. “I may not say it that nicely at the time because I’m really stressed out in the moment. I think they hear it in my voice. People always say I sound very, very relaxed. But when it gets tense and it’s a challenging situation and difficult to maneuver, that’s normally a cue for them to zip it.”

Valued asset

As a team leader, Ciocarlan chooses who flies a mission. In the back of his mind he knows there is a chance his short hauler or spotter might not come back, and that’ll be on him. But he said his decision is made easier knowing his crew is in Ludwig’s capable hands.

“Conversation between the short hauler, spotter and pilot is pretty light. Maybe a witty comment or two just to break the tension a bit,” Ciocarlan said. “But as the helicopter approaches the scene it is ‘game on.’ Radio chatter is reduced to a minimum and we do what we have been trained to do.”

Ludwig said most of her skills come from experience.

“I think there’s a lot of younger pilots and people I fly with that get into a helicopter never thinking about anything bad happening to it,” she said. “As a pilot, I wouldn’t say I’m constantly thinking about it as I’m flying, but I am always taking steps to minimize any problem. Mechanical problems, weather, whatever; I am always looking for my ‘out,’ or a place to set down. You don’t want to have an incident within an incident.”

Ludwig is under contract to fly for TCSAR from Hillsboro Aviation, based out of Portland, Oregon, where she lives. When she is not rescuing cliffed-out skiers and lost snowmobilers in Jackson Hole, Ludwig is assigned to various wildfires in the western U.S.

Choppers are versatile aerial tools for any wildland fire manager. They can perform a variety of tasks from dropping ‘ping-pong balls’ filled with fire starter on prescribed burns, to cargo hauls for strike camps, to water bucket suppression. Ludwig has done it all.

In fact, Ludwig became the first pilot in North America to place an O’Bellx gas exploder via helicopter when she plopped one in place in the Hoback Canyon for WYDOT’s avalanche control efforts in December 2013.

Leigh, who has flown dozens of rescues with Ludwig, hanging hundreds of feet below her airship, sums it up best. “Teton County is very fortunate to have such a skilled, experienced pilot who is comfortable with high-altitude winter mountain flying conditions,” he said. “We have a very trusting and dedicated relationship. It’s an honor to fly with such a skilled professional.” PJH


Getting rescued by Teton County Search and Rescue.

TCSAR Rescuing Crew: Nicole Ludwig, Jessica King, Phil “Flip” Tucker and Mike Nelson

By Bree Buckley

For me, one of the allures of backcountry skiing is feeling primitive and enjoying some distance from the everyday commotion of a ski resort. But on this day, it was my distance from modernization that created the chaos.

Our plan was set. We were going to traverse over the Teton Range by climbing up Avalanche Canyon and skiing out Teton Canyon. As a fledgling backcountry skier, I was facing an unquestionably challenging day. But the plan was seemingly straightforward enough—we intended to ski away from our Subaru in Wyoming and out a dirt road in Idaho, where a ride would be waiting to shuttle us home.

With synchronized steps into our ski bindings and a combination of over-caffeination and excitement, we three skiers initiated our procession across the frozen tundra into the abyss of the mountains.

Bree Buckley makers her final ascent toward Hurricane Pass, just 45 minutes before her descent and subsequent injury.

Bree Buckley makers her final ascent toward Hurricane Pass, just 45 minutes before her descent and subsequent injury.

Moving methodically, each step forward was a gentle glide across a crust of week-old snow and a deliberate movement uphill towards Avalanche Divide. As the angle of our ascent steepened, with it came my increasing sense of fatigue. Even with the frigid air, a layer of sweat coated my body as I huffed and puffed. Wind swirled the top layer of snow across the icy ground, covering our skin track, intensifying our sense of solidarity, and further distancing us from the now unseen parking lot. We were making progress, but the summit was still four sizable climbs away.

Upon our last climb to the summit, my sense of fun shifted to trepidation. Realizing we were nearly six hours into our tour, I pressured myself to summon more energy. I had to beat the low winter sun before it set. But my body wasn’t yet adjusted for this type of endurance activity. Frustration quaked through my arms and legs as I struggled to traverse over a sickeningly steep and icy section of the skin track. “This is what ski crampons are for,” I thought to myself. Still attached to my skis, I sat down, trying to find inner motivation, calm my nerves, and work up enough balance to regain rhythm and continue without slipping.

Naturally speedy, inexhaustible and robotic, my ski partners anxiously awaited my arrival on top of the wind-blown field of rubble that is Hurricane Pass. With a quick change of clothing to conserve heat, we exchanged muffled celebratory high fives. We were confident in our plan and now it was go-time.

It was one of those days when you’re not expecting graceful powder turns. Call it survival skiing at its best. A day where you laugh deep belly laughs in celebration for each turn you successfully make on the hellacious snow. Heavy winds coupled with a lengthy dry spell resulted in snow that mimicked what I imagine the surface of the moon to be like. Crusty. Audible. Punchable.

I had become too carefree in my skiing, gained too much speed and disrespected the horrendous sheet of crust the snow gods had planted. Then my skis affixed to the snow’s crust. My body wrestled to fight my fall, resulting in the distinct, audible pop that no athlete wants to hear. And just like that, I had become a wounded soldier. There I was, with a torn ACL and meniscus, isolated in the depths of Grand Teton National Park without cell service. The temperature was about 10 degrees and it was just a few hours before sunset.

The silence of our isolation was quickly replaced by the anxiety of drastic decision-making, for we were pressed for time and left with limited options. As one ski partner hurried out of Teton Canyon in search of a signal to call for help, I waited in the snowy void of the mountains worrying about the logistics of a potential rescue. All we could do was wait, and wait we did, until the last rays of the sun slipped behind the Western mountainside. My calm facade faded with the sun as reality set in: we were going to stay the night; unprepared, frozen, and injured.

To our luck, our prayers were answered just as our fear and uncomfortably low body temperatures began to mess with our minds. The sound of a helicopter reverberated throughout the gullies tucked between the mountains. Our lifeline, my saviors—Teton County Search and Rescue—had arrived.

Between night flying restrictions limiting my rescue window to a brief 10 minutes and the helicopter’s inability to find a clear zone to land, every minute mattered in the execution and completion of my rescue. The slope of the terrain was too steep for a snowmobile rescue, making it too steep to welcome a helicopter landing as well. My own confusion and tension escalated as I watched the helicopter attempt to land, disappear back into the darkening sky, and tiptoe around the backcountry in search of any acceptable landing zone. The pilot decided to discard two rescuers hundreds of feet above my resting zone, fly 400 feet south and hover over a relatively flat area to await my admittance. One rescuer wrapped me in an oversized down jacket (knowing my body temperature was dropping), while the other tethered together ropes and make-shift splints to prepare me for my transfer. The rescuers soon had my legs supported by an inflatable brace, my body wrapped in a tarp, and a rope fixed around my waist. Meanwhile, I could hear the pilot’s voice on the crew’s walkie talkie counting down how many minutes they had left to complete the rescue. Soon she would have to turn around and fly back due to night flying restrictions.

As the pilot counted down to two minutes, the recuers worked together to stabilize my leg and lower my helpless body to a location where the helicopter was able to hover low enough for me to grab the inside of the doorway and pull my way into it’s welcoming cavity. Deep gratitude for my rescuers and relief washed over me as we soared through the kaleidoscopic skies and returned to safe ground just as day became night.

About Jake Nichols

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