Get to Know TCSAR Short-Haul Team Member Chris Leigh


How long have you been on Search and Rescue and the short-haul team?
Chris: I have been on the team since 2010 and I got on the short-haul team probably my second year on the team, so about 7 years.

What compelled you to apply for the short-haul team?
Chris: I had a lot of time in helicopters in Canada backcountry skiing and just thought I could lend my skills to the team. It was also a good motivator to push my medical skills further and get my EMT done. 

What do you like most about being on the short-haul team?
Chris: Team camaraderie. The seriousness of it. And the fact that we can use it to deploy resources quickly to critically injured patients and make a difference in their lives, even save their lives.

What do you like the least about it?
Chris: I seem to be the most senior spotter so I get to freeze more than anybody else. It’s cold. But at the same time I get to spend a lot of time working with Nicole (pilot) and we have a great relationship and understand each other in my role as spotter and her role as pilot. 

What different training is required to be a spotter?
The spotter has to be a short-hauler for a few years first so you know what they’re doing, not doing, and what they’re supposed to be doing. You have to have a better understanding of how the helicopter works and what some of the gauges are that you need to monitor because we are monitoring the whole scene, so to speak. We’re the eyes for the pilot on the left side of the ship, we’re monitoring the tail rotor clearance, the rotor clearance, torque gauges and pressure gauges and output gauges, we’re also monitoring the short-haulers themselves and the scene and you have to listen to the helicopter. The helicopter does talk to you, as we say. Tim is already a pilot but Cody and I last year were fortunate enough go up to Hillsboro and do 2 hours of turbine time, so we’ve flown helicopters. We’ve hovered and done auto rotations and you have a much better feel of what it can and can’t do with a couple hours of stick time. And it was a lot of fun too. 

Any rituals or routines before you fly?
 I have the St. Bernard metal I wear - it’s the patron saint of the backcountry. We’re all big on safety so we always double-check each other. And I’m notorious for having a weak bladder at times… I want to follow the rules and always be as hydrated as I can but you start vibrating the bladder for an hour and you’re like ‘this ain’t gonna work’. More than once I’ve had Nicole take a rest stop. So my ritual is to go to the bathroom while the ship is spooling up (laughs). 

What has been the most intense short-haul rescue you have been a part of?
Three years ago for Stephen Adamson. That was Jake, myself and Nicole. Wind, weather, critical patient, access, distance - it all added up to something I think about on Sundays. He died on a Sunday. Yeah - that was it. And we were flying a 206 instead of the 407 - they had switched out ships and it just didn’t have us much power. The ship was talking to us and it was just really intense for all of us.

What would you say is the most important skill or trait for a short-hauler or spotter to have?
Chris: You know I think there’s two. One is the ability to work in a dynamic team environment and the other is to be constantly cognizant of overall safety. 

How would you describe your personality style and what you contribute to the team?
Chris: I guess maturity (laughs). I don’t know if maturity is really a personality style though. I think I can ramp it up to serious as serious can get or dial it back so it doesn’t have to be overly stressful and deescalate the situation. 

Do you think there is a limit to how long you will want to be on the short-haul team?
Chris: There’s not a limit to how long I want to be on the team, but there’s a limit to when you need to dial it back and self-select. That probably comes with age and experience but I’m not there yet. Even though I turned 60 I don’t feel 60 - time is relative.

What is your favorite part about flying?
The start up process - I just love it. Once you start spooling up it’s go time and everything switches to green light. 

How can we convey to the community how important this helicopter is?
Chris: We save lives. That’s it. We literally, figuratively, realistically save lives. And we’ve done it this winter. A lot of people think it’s an expensive toy but it’s a vital tool and it’s inexpensive when you compare it to the value of life. 

Have you ever gotten sick on the helicopter?
Chris: No. Never. We’ve had some rough serpentine rides, but flying with Nicole - she knows when to say no. And Brooke (pilot) has a really nice perception of weather. When you’re spotting you’re constantly looking down anywhere from 5 feet above ground to 1,500 feet. I don’t like edges at all - when it comes to heights I wouldn’t say I’m petrified but I’m puckered on knife edges. But put me on skis on a 50 degree slope I’m calm. In the helicopter height doesn’t bother me, but sometimes my bladder is just maxed!

How do you like training with the other local agencies like the Jenny Lake Rangers and JHMR?
Chris: It’s great. The rangers have a lot of tricks - they’re the best of the best and I always learn something from them every time we go out. And it’s a great relationship - they let us do our thing and we let them do theirs and there are no turf wars. It’s just strictly team. And ski patrol is a lot of fun because we’re usually teaching them a lot of the time.

Anything else you would like people to know?
Chris: We love doing what we’re doing and we appreciate the community’s support. Their support has saved lives. We’re there in people’s worst moments but we’re glad to be there and to serve.