Harrison Ford to the rescue

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Originally published in the Jackson Hole News, Aug. 9, 2000

Ford offers chopper for Teton County rescues

• Actor lifts sick hiker off Table Mountain free of charge.

By Jim Stanford

Teton County Sheriff Bob Zimmer said Monday he won’t hesitate to use Harrison Ford’s helicopter for future search and rescue missions after the actor-turned-pilot plucked a dehydrated hiker off Table Mountain on July 31.

Zimmer said Ford, who flew the mission free of charge, saved Teton County more than $2,000 when he volunteered to retrieve 20-year-old Sarah George of Idaho Falls, Idaho, from the 11,106-foot mountain. The cost of hiring a helicopter is about $1,000 an hour.

Ford, a longtime Jackson Hole resident, recently met with Zimmer and offered use of his $2 million Bell 407 chopper for emergency operations. Zimmer said the generous offer was too good to pass up.

“He came to me and volunteered this,” the sheriff said. “He said, ‘If we can be of any assistance to you, this will be my contribution to the community and the Teton County Search and Rescue unit.’”

Zimmer said the issue was one of fiscal responsibility. “I’m not out soliciting free resources,” he said, “but in this instance the resources came to us.”

With forest fires raging around the West, helicopter service is at a premium right now. Having Ford’s chopper at the county’s disposal is a valuable resource, Zimmer said.

When asked if rescuers might turn to Ford for help in the future, Zimmer replied, “Absolutely.” He added, “When he is not around or his ship is not available, we’ll use a contractor.”

Ray Shriver, a member of the Teton County Search and Rescue Team who flew with Ford and co-pilot Ken Johnson on the July 31 mission, gave the following account of the rescue:

George became ill from heat, dehydration and altitude after hiking up Teton Canyon to the summit of Table Mountain with friend Megan Freeman, 22, of Rigby, Idaho. Another hiker used his cell phone to call for help at about 4:45 p.m.

With the rescue team heading over Teton Pass to the Teton Canyon trailhead, Shriver and Sgt. Scott Hughes became worried about the young woman’s condition. He estimated the standard ground rescue — using a stretcher on a wheel — would take about five or six hours to complete. The rescue team wouldn’t be leaving the trailhead until about 6 or 6:30 p.m.

“We were looking at a midnight operation,” he said.

Shriver and Hughes decided to call Johnson, a former U.S. Army pilot who had flown rescue missions in Teton County for 15 years prior to retiring from the post in May. Johnson, who has been tutoring Ford on the nuances of mountain flying, contacted the actor, who was available and eager to help.

The two pilots picked up Shriver at the St. John’s Hospital landing pad and flew west across the Tetons to the Table Mountain area. After a short search, they located the sick hiker at the top of Teton Canyon’s north fork and touched down in an alpine meadow at about 10,000 feet.

Shriver said George was going into shock as he arrived. “I had to virtually carry her to the helicopter,” he said. “She wasn’t going to get off the mountain by herself — that’s the bottom line. The other woman did not have enough strength to rescue her.”

Shriver emphasized that the search team only summons a helicopter in grave circumstances. “We don’t take this lightly,” he said. “Helicopters are dangerous. The circumstances we felt warranted it.”

Shriver carried George to the chopper, where Johnson held the door open. Johnson asked the woman if she recognized her pilot, but she was too disoriented to respond. Later, during the short flight, George momentarily came to her wits and asked Shriver who the pilot was. Shriver told her that Ford was flying.

Before reaching the hospital, the woman — whom Shriver said was “quite ill” — began to vomit. “I was looking for barf bags, but there weren’t any,” Shriver said. “I really didn’t want her barfing all over his nice corporate helicopter with its nice leather seats. She barfed in my hat.”

Ford flew the woman to Teton Valley Hospital in Driggs, Idaho, where she was admitted but did not stay overnight. She allegedly refused treatment and instead took a ride home to Idaho Falls with her mother. After a few days of rest, she was healthy enough to fly to New York for television appearances, capitalizing on her brief moment of fame as the woman who barfed in Harrison Ford’s helicopter.

Ford, an aviation buff, has been flying choppers for about three years. In his movies he often has portrayed pilots, including rugged smuggler Han Solo, who boasted in the 1977 classic Star Wars that his spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, was “the fastest ship in the galaxy.”

Ford was out of town Monday evening and could not be reached for comment. A friend said the low-key actor wasn’t seeking the limelight by volunteering his services. “He’s not doing it for glory. He loves aviation, and he’s just trying to help people.”

Zimmer agreed. “He really is very, very down to earth,” Zimmer said. “He’s shy and soft spoken. I believe his heart is in the right place and that he’s just looking to be a member of the community.”

When news of the rescue broke, a swarm of international media and paparazzi inundated Shriver and Zimmer with phone calls. Headlines screamed that Indiana Jones had come to the rescue with real-life heroics.

Zimmer said he was amused by all of the commotion. “It’s great for the valley and the community to get the attention,” he said.

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