Snohomish County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue chief pilot Bill Quistorf sits in the stripped-out body of Kiowa helicopter April 19 in Snohomish. Search & Rescue is turning an old helicopter body into an outdoor-safety display for fairs and festivals. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Volunteers turning vintage helicopter into kid-friendly float

SNOHOMISH — Children go straight for the buttons and levers.

“It’s amazing to see their eyes and the expression when they’re at the controls,” said Bill Quistorf, the chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. “They’re in another world. They’re flying a helicopter.”

The sheriff’s office frequently sends its helicopters to fairs, parades and festivals. Children line up to climb through the cabin while parents snap pictures.

An exciting new attraction is coming.

Since the fall, Quistorf and others have been transforming a decommissioned vintage helicopter into a parade-style float, with help from Snohomish County Volunteer Search & Rescue. The float is meant to grab people’s attention while they learn about outdoor safety. It also might spark an interest in aviation careers, Quistorf said.

The sheriff’s helicopter team takes part in as many as 80 rescues a year. Team members often talk at local events about the essential supplies for hiking, avoiding tragedy in rivers, and what to do if you get lost in the backcountry. They hope to have the float ready by Aug. 19, when an open house is planned to mark 50 years for Search & Rescue here.

The float is based on a Bell OH-58 that went into service in the U.S. Army in 1972, according to its markings. Decades ago, it was deemed surplus. At some point, it was stripped for parts. The fuselage, or body, has been at Search & Rescue headquarters near Snohomish since about 1990.

In that time, “it’s never been air-worthy,” Quistorf said.

He has been thinking for years about what do with the hulk. When he shared the float idea with Search & Rescue volunteers, the response was enthusiastic.

Two retired engineers, Jon Wilson and Mike Mineart, stepped up. They added rotor blades and an electric motor to spin them. They sheared off the tail to make the helicopter more portable, adding fins, lights and a spinning disc. This week, Quistorf was working on the internal lighting.

Mineart, 59, of Mill Creek, used to do mountain climbing and rescues, though not as much anymore. Search & Rescue was a place to meet others interested in the outdoors, he said. Over the years, he’s enjoyed using his engineering skills to improve the team’s buildings and equipment.

Education is an important part of the group’s mission, because “you can pass on some knowledge and keep people out of trouble,” he said.

So far, Wilson, Mineart and others have given hundreds of hours of their time on the float. Local vendors and businesses have provided seats, the rotor blades and paint, among other supplies. Donated instruments, including an old navigation radio, filled up the empty holes in the pilot’s console.

Eventually, the Bell will have a cute face, likely with eyes and a nose. It needs a catchy name, and ideas are welcome in the coming weeks, especially from kids.

It’s not too late to lend a hand. Quistorf is hoping someone might want to create the vinyl graphics or the passenger bench seat cushions.

For more information, contact or go to “Snohomish County SAR Educational Float” on Facebook.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;; Twitter: @rikkiking.

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