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From Switzerland to the Tetons: How Nicole Ludwig Forged a Search and Rescue Career

Nicole Ludwig's pilot career has taken her from Switzerland to the Tetons. Chris Leigh photo.

Nicole Ludwig has my dream job. Well, she has the job I wanted when I was 10. My uncle flew helicopters in the Vietnam War. When I was a kid he gave me an aviation hat and from then on out I wanted to be just like him. Obviously, things didn’t go as planned because here I am sitting at my computer writing this story instead of taking off for a morning spin in a Bell 407. But when I heard about Nicole Ludwig—a firefighting helicopter pilot by summer and the primary pilot for Teton County Search and Rescue by winter—I had to talk to her.

“I tell people that in the summer I hope for wildfires and in winter I hope someone gets lost,” Ludwig says. “People are like, ‘You aren’t supposed to say that!’ And it sounds terrible, I know, and I should feel terrible. But you do this because you love to do it. Search and Rescue loves to rescue people I know it sounds silly but that’s why they joined the team.”

Ludwig, 46, has been Teton County Search and Rescue’s primary pilot for six years now. As far as landing that gig goes, she says she got lucky. But after talking to her for over an hour about her ridiculously exciting life, I decided that I don’t think luck has much to do with it at all. Check out our conversation below.

TGR: Where did you grow up?

NL: I grew up in two parts of Switzerland because my dad worked internationally. We had a base in Zurich and then on the weekends we would go home to a town called Sagogn in the southeast part of Switzerland. It’s in the mountains and it’s a small town similar to Jackson. It’s the same thing. You live in a small valley and everyone knows each other and everyone is skiing.

Teton County is a small community, but you probably don't want to bump into Ludwig at work. Chris Leigh photo.

It was an awesome childhood, my parents took us mountaineering when we were little kids. It was all outdoors all the time.

TGR: What was the hardest part of becoming a utility pilot?

NL: Last year was my 20th anniversary of flying. At first, people wouldn’t hire me or didn’t think I should fly a helicopter because they said I was weak. They just came up with excuses for why they didn’t want to have a woman pilot. I got sent home from jobs in my early stages, but I the company I work for now gave me a chance.. These days, I can choose what jobs I want because I have experience and I know how to react to people being like “Oh my gosh that is a woman pilot!”

(According to statistics from the FAA, women pilots only represent about six percent of the total pilot population. )

People say that?

NL: Yes! I’ve been standing there in my flight suit getting ready to go to a wildfire and people are wondering out loud where the pilot is. Now I can brush those things off my shoulders, but you learn self-confidence confidence is quite a big factor. You just have to prove yourself and then people will accept you. The route I chose is not common for girls.

Ludwig's job comes with the best view of the Tetons that money can buy. Chris Leigh photo.

Why utility helicopters over commercial airlines?

NL: Commercial airlines are too cookie cutter. I need to be challenged otherwise I get bored really quickly. In rescue every time it’s different and it keeps it interesting.

Why did you decide to become a pilot?

NL: There was logging on the opposite side of our small town in Switzerland so there was a lot of helicopter activity. I always had this fascination with flying. Not just helicopters but birds, too, and how easily they just flow though the sky

But when I was a teenager I had a dream of becoming an opera singer. That didn’t work out so I became an architect but the flying thing stayed a fascination. Then when I was in my studies I was like, “Well I should just try it once” and it was very clear right off the get go that I really wanted to fly. It was 1997 when I started.

My first flight was on my 27th birthday. I had sweaty hands and was totally exhausted after a half-hour fight but I loved it so I continued. I had to take the train for two hours to get to training and I could only afford a few hours each month but I didn’t care.

Then after training I was like what do I do now? Back in Switzerland they told me you don’t have enough muscles to fly a big helicopter. Friends told me to try my luck in the US and so that’s what I did.

How did you land the SAR gig?

NL: Draw of luck! I was in the right place at the right time.

I was chosen to be Ken Johnson’s replacement when he left. It was because I was a short-haul pilot and Teton County Search and Rescue knew I could pass that test. You also have to love the outdoors to get along with the team and be a part of the team, so not every pilot would work out.

You have to be passionate because it’s a lot of waiting around, but if something happens you have to stay calm, step into action and be assertive and be confident. And it’s a lot of bad weather flying; bad things never happen on bluebird days. I had flown in areas of adverse weather and high altitude and wind and that helped me get the job, too. That first winter, winter 2010/11, was a big snow year I did some big rescues.

Where do you get confidence from?

NL: I don’t know where I get it from but now I have about 8,000 hours of flight time. And I love my job. I love to fly and I do a lot things based on intuition—that’s probably not the right word—but I let the helicopter talk to me and I try to teach my team to listen too. I listen to the tail rotor and what it’s saying. You know if the helicopter is making growling sounds it doesn’t like what you’re doing. Sometimes I force the helicopter into doing something and sometimes the helicopter doesn’t want to do it and you have to listen.

When I started with the team I wasn’t as confident. Flying rescues and being successful helped. I would just say that repetition and being in lots of different situations and being challenged has made me a better pilot, but I still question myself.

So how do rescues go down, after people call 911 when are you notified?

NL: If there is a rescue they call 911 then the sheriff’s office calls a certain amount of people and I’m usually involved in that. So, I know from the get go what’s going on, and that is where you need to leave your emotional side out. Sometimes I put so much pressure on myself because I know people need help now and that someone might die if I don’t come, which makes it pretty difficult to be like ‘Okay, I’m not coming.’ That is the reality and it’s hard to deal with. But every year there is a crazy rescue—some amazing one where you can’t believe someone is alive.

Like what?

NL: One time on Maverick Mountain in the Tetons, this guy had a heart attack on top and he went into cardiac arrest as we flew over. But the team was able to resuscitate him once he got on the helicopter and he survived.

Despite the fact that only six percent of all pilots are women, Ludwig has carved out a career in one of the more challenging search and rescue locations in the U.S. Nicole Ludwig photo.

Then there were these two guys who went off the tram at Jackson Hole into the sidecountry. It was bad weather and they were out of towners and they ended up in the wrong place. One guy had skins and skinned back to the tram and along the way lost his friend who was booting behind him.

His friend up getting pretty lost and the wind was so bad that we had to leave him there for two nights. Knowing he was out there was so emotional because you know that guy has nothing with him. When it was finally clear enough to fly we found him, and I was so freaking excited that we did. I was like “You don’t know what just came off my shoulders.”

What info is helpful for you should we ever need to call you?

NL: I try to get as much info as possible. Surprises are not good in the field—like arriving and realizing you can’t land. People think helicopters can land in steep areas and it’s just not possible. I have flown up to scenes and can’t find people because their coordinates are wrong. Now, I always expect coordinates to be wrong.

When someone calls they should try and tell us how many people there are, where they are, and coordinates do help. If they don’t have coordinates give a description of a nearby landmark— like if someone tells me they are on top of Maverick I could fly there blindfolded. If they are in Teton County they can send a text to 911 if service isn’t good enough to call. Also, when we arrive, don’t stand too close to the helicopter; I have aborted landing because people are standing too close to it. Tell us what the weather is like. And make a “Y” with your arms when we get there.

And remember: Rescues are free. The county helicopter is actually free and if you are in big doo-doo, call. We are happy to come.

Do you have any other lady pilot friends?

NL: I have female pilot friends and I think they are total badasses compared to me. You always are like “Oh she is so cool” and then you talk with them and they have the same struggles I do. I think female friendships in aviation are rare because there are not many of us. So I cherish them.

Favorite place to fly?

NL: Flying in the Tetons is amazing. Sometimes it is just magical. The light is perfect. The way the mountains look with the snow; I wish I could just hold onto those moments forever. They are fleeting and pictures don’t give justice to it but it’s so amazing.

What do you tell people when they ask you what you do for a living?

NL: In winter I say I’m with Search and Rescue and in summer I say I fight fires. I never really say I’m a pilot. I think people get very excited when they find out I’m a pilot, but for me it’ just a job I love. I’m just a helicopter pilot. And at SAR, I’m just a small part of making it all happen. I’m just one small part. I can’t save someone’s life, I’m not a doctor. I just can bring people to the location they need to be.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

So cool! Glad we finally got your story (or part of it), Nicole! Only took four years to get around to it ;). Well done, Leslie!

Hope I never need it but I would be SO psyched to get picked up by you!

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