After 40 years of commercial flying, Ron Gipe is giving it up — but not without a lot of memories.
Gipe transported everything from wildlife survey workers to geologists to drilling equipment to firefighters across Montana and Idaho and other Western states.
Gipe, 65, a Lakeside resident, also did quite a bit of crop spraying.
“I really enjoyed working with the ranchers,” he said. “The ranchers were just great to work with.”
Gipe would spray noxious weeds, which “was pretty satisfying to see the improvement and the good you did for the land.” Each spraying was good for several years.
“It was nice to see native grasses growing where weeds grew before,” Gipe said.
Another enjoyable aspect of his job was the capture and darting of wildlife. The captures involved mule deer, elk, moose and sheep. These trips included a lot of “net gunning” where Gipe would move herds into a net so that radio collars could be installed.
Much of Gipe’s career was spent in Idaho. A lot of the wildlife captures were done in and around the Frank Church Wilderness in Salmon.
Over the years he worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana and Idaho Fish and Game departments, various Montana Indian tribes — mainly the Confederated Salish and Kootenai — and tribes in Utah and Wyoming.
Gipe was awarded a Wildlife Conservation Award by the Montana chapter of the Wildlife Society last year for his part in various wildlife management projects.
Gipe also transported wildlife workers for tranquilizing or killing problem wolves and coyotes.
“That was a lot of fun work,” he said.
The wolves he first sought had naturally relocated from Canada to Choteau, Augusta, the Nine Mile area, Clearwater Junction and the Flathead Indian Reservation before the government’s relocation efforts began in 1995.
Gipe related experiences with federal workers from Animal Damage Control, now called Wildlife Services. The coyote shootings from Gipe’s helicopter took place in stretches of three to four months.
“They would go out ... and just shoot coyotes for something to do,” Gipe said. “Whether it’s effective or not has never been proven. You can go into an
area and shoot 100 coyotes and a few months later there’s 100 coyotes.”
Gipe and his Bell 47 Soloy helicopter logged some 27,000 hours before he sold it in 2009.
He had purchased it in 1977 to start his own business. The reciprocating gas engine was converted to a jet fuel turbine engine a couple years later so Gipe could transport drilling equipment for Asarco into the Cabinet Wilderness near Noxon for an exploratory copper and silver mine, now known as Revett’s Rock Creek Mine. That mine still hasn’t been opened due to environmental lawsuits.
“They say it’s one of the largest silver deposits that hasn’t been developed,” Gipe said.
He was able to “sling” parts of the drill up and down with his helicopter to put it together and take it apart, respectively. The turbine engine was needed so he could lift 1,000 pounds.
Gipe’s wife, Kathy, accompanied her husband on a number of trips in the early years of their business. She drove a maintenance and fuel truck, which had to be in the general area of the helicopter.
“The very first month I was married, I would drive on a one-lane logging road to go 90 miles to Grangeville, Idaho to get 55 barrels of aviation fuel and come back,” she said.
The one-way trip took her three and a half hours. Her biggest fear was meeting a logging truck, which didn’t happen too often.
After the first four or five years, Ron Gipe hired seasonal workers to drive his truck, and Kathy stayed home with their children, Tiffany and Alisha.
“A pilot’s wife has to be very independent, adventuresome and willing to bend,” Kathy said, noting they couldn’t make plans for family outings very much due to Ron’s on-call work schedule. “Ron’s one of the few [helicopter pilots] who’s still married. We’ve been married 38 years. It’s tough on a marriage, but we’ve had a lot of good times. The most important thing is to have faith in God.
“I was able to make it home on weekends for [his children’s] sporting events,” Ron said. “The Fish and Game people I worked with in Idaho were really good about it.”
His daughters and their English setters enjoyed greeting Ron when he landed at his home on a hill above Flathead Lake.
“Those crazy dogs could hear Ron flying from miles [away] before I could,” Kathy said. The girls and the dogs all enjoyed flying in Ron’s helicopter.
Gipe was trained to fly in Army flight school, and he flew during the the Vietnam War. His first job once he got out of military service was with Johnson Flying Service in Missoula in 1971.
He worked part-time in Montrose, Colo., during the winter of 1972 before getting on full-time with Johnson Flying Service.
He started his own business, Flathead Helicopters Inc. in Polson in 1977.
“You can see much more out of a helicopter. You fly sideways and fly backwards,” Ron said.
In 1985, Gipe and his friend Warren Drew purchased an old Air Force Base in Lakeside in order to give Youth With a Mission (YWAM) a local home.
Ron called that purchase “a miracle.” It came through a government auction at a price way below market value for the 40-acre property.
The Gipes lived at YWAM for four years before purchasing a home overlooking Flathead Lake.
Ron had another experience that Kathy calls an “angel experience.”
While flying near Philipsburg one day, Ron’s helicopter cut through some power lines. “I went to the top of a tree and saw the power line, and I couldn’t get under it,” Ron said. It left the city without power for four hours. He was sent a bill for that one by the city.
Ron said he was shook up quite a bit by the experience, which wasn’t the only power line he had severed while spraying herbicides.
“I was praying for him at that time, and so was his truck driver,” Kathy said. “He had an angel watching over him.”