Chief ALERT pilot draws from wealth of experience

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ALERT pilot Matthew Weller and the Bell 407 GXP at the helipad near the entry of the Emergency Room at Kalispell Regional Medical Center on Tuesday, Dec. 4. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

As a pilot flying helicopters all over the world, Matt Weller has a few stories to share.

But in a career than spans four decades, Weller has become the story.

He is the chief ’copter pilot for Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s ALERT air ambulance and has been since June 2015. Before he ascended to that lofty perch, Weller came to the Flathead in 2008 and was a line pilot with ALERT.

His work here in Montana is the culmination of decades of training and experience in locales that range from Alabama to the Oregon coast, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and both the North and South poles.

“This is a culmination of a career,” Weller said. “You don’t come here to learn. You are the pilot; there is no co-pilot. This environment is very demanding.”

The environment Weller speaks of features the Rocky Mountains, extreme cold and snow and extreme landing zones.

One landing zone on Strawberry Lake, located at the edge of the Jewel Basin, had one of Weller’s ‘copters’ landing skids firmly planted in the lake and one on shore. He and his crew, which features a paramedic and a nurse who do the heavy lifting when the helicopter lands, were there to rescue a hiker who had become disoriented and hypothermic.

He has landed on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. He has hauled injured trail-crew workers in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He’s even hauled an injured climber who fell off the Little Matterhorn in the park.

“The winds are just crazy up there, it takes the machine to its limits,” Weller said.

In Weller’s first year in the Flathead, he transported a 7-year-old boy who had been accidentally shot and a 107-year-old woman who was having heart problems — on the same day.

When he was flying for the U.S. Coast Guard and stationed in North Bend, Oregon, he had to rescue a kid who had climbed up a cliff and was nearly 100 feet off the ground.

“He got up to the point where he couldn’t go any farther and he couldn’t get back down,” Weller said. “That was some maneuvering to get the ‘swimmer’ (a rescue specialist) in place so he could get the hoist where it needed to be to pull that kid off the cliff.”

When Weller was flying for the U.S. Army in the Gulf War in Kuwait in the early 1990s, in one instance, he and three other pilots flew all night as they worked to retrieve a company of soldiers that had food poisoning.

Weller has even had to land to get his crew into tricky spots when he couldn’t truly land.

“We’ve landed where I had to put the skid or the pad (for use in deep snow) onto a rock or a ledge and the crew jumped out,” Weller explained. “We’ve hovered and when the crew jumped out, they were waist-deep in snow.”

He’s even hovered while directing someone to cut down a tree or two so he could land in a remote area.

So, when Weller says it’s hard to remember which landings stand out, he’s not kidding.

While the landings can be tricky, flying at night is the most difficult part of the job, according to Weller.

“When you leave the area of Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Whitefish, it gets very dark very quickly,” Well said.

Part of his work is to keep the team’s equipment up-to-date, which means having the latest night-vision equipment.

“When it’s snowing, we will also just follow the roads, but even that has risks if a train is coming from the opposite direction because we have to deal with its headlights,” Weller said.

When he was a young boy growing up in Half Moon Bay, California, a newspaper story featuring a neighbor who was a Coast Guard pilot inspired him.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Weller said.

He was attending community college when he talked to an Army recruiter at a career day event. He learned he could fly for the Army, so he did.

Weller flew Blackhawks in the Army and did a tour in Korea before returning to the states, where he was based in Ft. Benning, Georgia. It was there that he found his inspiration for future work in the medevac field.

“The one hospital had a special incubator that we’d fly all over the state to very rural areas, picking up premature babies,” Weller said. “My first civilian patient, that solidified what I wanted to do.”

Weller still flies those preemie missions all over Northwest Montana.

He and his team have also flown into the sites of bear attacks. They were the first people on the scene where an elk hunter was attacked by a grizzly last month in the Trumbull Canyon Road area.

“ALERT has flown 35 bear-attack victims in its 43 years,” Weller said. “There are times when we are the first ones there and we don’t have any idea if the bear is still around.”

Weller said transporting children are the most difficult trips.

“We have to do our jobs and we aren’t even told what kind of calls we are responding to initially, but it doesn’t take long before we do know what is going on,” Weller said.

After briefly considering leaving the Army, Weller was transferred to Hawaii. But before the big move, he and his then-girlfriend, Aimee, got married in 1995.

“She’s just amazing, being with me on these world adventures,” Weller said.

The happily married couple moved to Oahu. There was no civilian medevac there, so the Army did it all and everyone just loved us,” Weller said.

Three years later, Weller did leave the Army for the Coast Guard. While he trained in Virginia and Alabama, Aimee packed up all their belongings and moved to North Bend, Oregon. There, the couple had their only child, a son, Josh, who recently began his freshman year at Montana State.

While in Oregon, Weller got into the Coast Guard’s Aviation Engineering Program, where he chose to work on the maintenance side. That led to more training in Alabama and to missions in both Poles, supporting scientists’ studies and traveling on ice-breaking ships that went to places people had never been before.

Weller describes his family’s time on the Oregon coast with fondness.

“We loved it there,” Weller said. “We helped start a church there. It was a small community and a much more intimate experience.”

After 20 years, Weller retired from the service. He started looking around for work and found an online advertisement for ALERT.

It just so happened that his Guard co-pilot was from Kalispell.

“We traveled here one winter day; my co-pilot’s parents became our Kalispell parents and we fell in love with the area,” Weller said.

“Little did I know the history of ALERT,” Weller continued. “It’s humbling to be a representative of this team. They’ve been here 43 years, they are pioneering. It’s a responsibility I take seriously.”

While he acknowledges his public stature as the chief helicopter pilot of ALERT, he knows none of it would be possible without the 30-person team he works with, the cafeteria workers, the mechanics, the volunteer advisory board, the plane pilots, nurses and paramedics.

With decades of flying different helicopters in drastically different situations, Weller has developed two loves in his work — helping people in trouble and being the master of the machine he’s flying.

“I love the machine because of what it can do and I love being part of the small-town atmosphere and helping people.”

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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