A few years ago, John Rachor painted his helicopter orange and yellow, so it would be easier to spot if he ever crashed and became the target of a search and rescue operation in the rugged forests of southwestern Oregon.
Over the past six years, he has been the one doing the spotting.
On Saturday, Rachor found three members of a Gold Beach family after they got lost while picking mushrooms. The family spent six nights without food, slept in a hollow log, and considered killing their dog for food. Rain showers left them damp and cold as they fought through wet brush. Without a lighter, they couldn't start a fire to ward off cold nights when temperatures dipped into the 30s.
It was a similar story in 2006, when Rachor spotted a San Francisco mother and her two daughters who had been lost more than a week in the same rugged region of the Klamath Mountains, where steep ridges covered with loose rocks, brush and tall Douglas fir trees make the going tough, and a maze of abandoned logging roads can get people without a map and compass hopelessly lost.
In between he has found several others — he doesn't keep track of how many — who didn't get as much attention.
"He's crazy good," said Sara Rubrecht, search and rescue coordinator for Josephine County. "I have a picture of the area he found the subjects (on Saturday). When you talk about a needle in a haystack, that's an understatement."
She said Rachor has something that can't be taught in a classroom, a "natural ability to see things from the sky."
"He's flying a helicopter at the same time," Rubrecht said. "He obviously is a good multi-tasker."
Rachor attributes his success to good eyesight, an ability to spot things out of the ordinary, a willingness to think outside the box, and the efforts of the scores of other people involved in a search.
"I like to think of it as a knack" more than luck, he said. "It wasn't me. There are a lot of people that put a lot of effort into it."
Rachor, 63, is a fourth-generation Oregonian. The son of a log truck driver, he went to a technical college to study diesel mechanics. He served as a mechanic in the Navy Seabees in Vietnam, and was married with two kids and working for a truck distributorship when he got a chance to buy a Burger King franchise. He eventually built 13 of them, but has since sold them and been elected a Jackson County commissioner.
He first learned to fly an airplane about 35 years ago, and switched to a helicopter so he could fly to his remote vacation home, where a grassy field is long enough for a small plane to take off, but not without flying under a towering steel bridge. The home is in Agness, a remote and tiny settlement about 30 miles up the Rogue River from the southern Oregon Coast that lives off sport fishing and whitewater rafting. It is just a few miles from where he found the mushroom pickers.
His four-seater Robinson R-44 used to be painted white, with flames on the sides.
"I painted it bright orange and yellow so it would be visible in case I ever crashed, they could find me in the snow," he said.
Rachor joined Jackson County search and rescue as a ground-pounder and snowmobile driver several years before he started volunteering with his helicopter. He had to quit when he was elected because having authority over the budget was a conflict of interest.
"But if there is a 4-year-old boy in there, all bets are off," he said. "I'm going in there anyway."
In 2006, he was with his family at Diamond Lake, hunting for Christmas trees, when he read about the Kim family disappearing while driving from Portland to a lodge outside Gold Beach. Familiar with the lay of the land from frequent flights to his vacation home in Agness, he figured they might have made the bad decision to drive a one-lane logging road in winter through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. A popular shortcut for whitewater rafters in summer, it is not plowed of snow in winter, and people frequently get stranded.
He checked in with the Josephine County search headquarters for likely areas, and went looking on his own. He spotted Kati Kim waving her umbrella. Unable to land, he directed another helicopter that picked her up with her two daughters. James Kim got lost trying to hike out for help, and died of hypothermia in a creek.
Since then, Rachor has volunteered his helicopter for about a dozen searches, for the living and the dead, and delivered medicine to people snowed in at remote cabins.
He regularly trains with Curry County search and rescue. Though the state reimburses for fuel and federal timber funds help offset search and rescue operations, cash-strapped counties like Curry depend on volunteers who can help out for free, Sheriff John Bishop said.
"Any time we can get a helicopter in the air it gives us an advantage," Bishop said.
Rachor was planning to join the search for the Conne family last Friday, but had a cold, and waited a day.
He and Sheriff's Lt. John Ward had been flying about two hours when Rachor decided to go outside the search area. He knew from experience that when people get lost, they don't always go where you expect.
Rachor spotted a movement, something out of the ordinary on such a calm day. A man in tan bib overalls was waving his arms.
Two ground teams were within several hundred yards, and probably would have found them the same day, said Bishop and Rubrecht. But they were happy Rachor beat them to it.
"We kind of laugh about it now, after he found these folks," said Rubrecht. "I felt like, 'All right, next time somebody needs to call him earlier.'"
Associated Press writer Jeff Barnard can be reached on Twitter (at)Jeff BarnardAP