About 80 miles of the Yellowstone River run through Yellowstone County, but when conditions turn treacherous, the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office is now taking to the skies with its new helicopter to keep people safe.
And they also have a message for criminals: You can run, but it’s a lot harder to hide.
About a month ago, four hunters were trapped in the middle of the Yellowstone River when they became trapped on thin ice.
"They managed to get themself up on ice so that water wasn’t trying to drag them down. We talked to them on the phone, told them what the plan was. We took a door off the helicopter. I strapped in the back seat and (pilot Gary Blain) flew down and basically hovered above the ice right next to the raft. And one at a time we brought them into the back seat and I grabbed onto them," Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said.
It's like a scene from an action movie, repeated dozens of times during the past 18 months, since the county secured the 1971 military surplus chopper from California.
"You don’t know if you’ve saved a life when you go out and do some of this stuff. Could have been these guys on the ice, but even if you saved one life or brought one person home to their family, it's paid for itself," Linder said.
The startup cost to the county: $67,000 to fly three free military surplus helicopters back to Montana and outfit them with radio equipment and new paint. Ongoing costs are $15,000 per year for fuel at an average of $200 to $300 per mission and zero dollars for pilots as the Blain family’s flying service are all volunteers.
"I think that we have probably— if not the most, one of the most cost-effective aviation law enforcement programs in the country," Linder said.
Budget aside, it's moments of closure after intense search and recovery mission that this program gives families, such as the loved ones of missing hiker Tatum Morell, whose body was found in the Beartooth Mountains in 2021.
"I know for a fact it was helpful as I was there when the dad accepted her body," Linder said.
And criminals beware: the aircraft can zoom across the country quickly, catching fugitives crossing state lines, hiding in canals and homes, such as in a 2021 situation on Billings West End,when a man committed a homicide and barricaded himself on a Billings West End home.
"We stayed with the guy that was driving so we could find out where he was going. We got close enough we could see he had a gun in his hand. He was actually pointing the gun at himself. We just stayed with him as he went through backyards. I was not aware that he had fired a round at a house. We stayed with him until we actually watched him walk into the garage of the house he was ultimately barricaded in, which was probably really critical as if we had not found him or not been able to see that we wouldn’t unknown what house he was in, we wouldn’t of known if anyone was in danger," Linder said.
The bird's eye view from the helicopter is saving lives and keeping the public safe in a geographically expansive county of 2,600 square miles.