Smokejumpers Leap Into the Inferno Below

Smokejumpers Leap Into the Inferno Below

Nearing treetops, U.S. Forest Service smokejumper maneuvers for the best possible landing for personal safety

—USDA photos.

Jump training includes leaping from towers. Here men practice getting out of chute harnesses.

There’s always a split-second when time seems to stand still, and the man suspended in mid-air with only a parachute and a prayer to cling to, asks himself, “Will I come out of this alive?” Ask any smokejumper in the U.S. Forest Service if such an odd sensation doesn’t grab at his guts somewhere between earth and sky every time he leaps into the unknown, and he’ll tell you it’s so. Little wonder.

On earth, man’s most vicious enemy is wild fire. Every yew millions of acres of land that were once lush and inviting are leveled to charred ruin and smoking rubble. If a special breed of daredevil didn’t pull on a fireproof suit, strap on a parachute and hit the silk, the grim mortality rate on natural forests, recreation areas and private property would be astronomically higher.

If you think fighting fires is just a matter of grabbing a shovel and a bucket of water and striking out for the fire line, you’ve been reading ancient history. Revolutionary techniques of aerial detection and attack make smokejumpers the elite of the fire crews.

While you’re reading this, more than 500 hotshot smokejumpers are trained to a keen edge, alert and ready to go into action and wage a relentless war on our fiercest enemy. Any one of them can hook up in an instant and, within minutes from now, drop into any size of hell nature has cooked up.

The smokejumper wins his combat stripes in short order. The rigorous training course in fire fighting and parachute training he goes through tunes him up to face most anything. Candidates train at various centers throughout the western United States under the direction of U.S. Forestry instructors. Courses are as tough as man can make them, and only the rugged survive.

First of all, a man learns ground fire fighting techniques, and that’s dirty, hot and dangerous. He has to work in fire to learn how to fight it.

Next, he must study first aid. Someday the high jumper may drop somewhere to rescue an injured hiker or fire victim.

The class in parachute packing is dull, but the student knows his life depends on learning to do it right.

Jump training

From there he goes into jump training. He tumbles, dives, falls and is pushed off platforms and towers, ranging from three to 200 feet. Believe me, those high tower jumps separate the men from the boys. There’s nothing quite like it to weed out the ones who would freeze at the door of a transport plane flying over a flaming forest.

To polish off the training, there are seven practice jumps onto wild and wicked terrain. Now the smokejumper has enough experience under his belt to tackle something really difficult.

Most smokejumpers are athletic college men who studied forestry and wildlife before they strapped on the chute harness. They have to have a pretty high IQ and be in top physical shape to measure up.

Back in the early 1900’s, fire fighters used only hand tools—shovels, picks and axes. They traveled to the fire line by walking or on horseback. The smokejumper program changed all that. Since the first days of smokejumping in 1940, more than 60,000 jumps have been made.

Change from old days

In his modem fireproof underwear and white nylon jump suit, today’s air ranger looks very little like the first fire jumper of a quarter of a century ago. In those days, paratroop pioneers dressed in heavy, cumbersome gear and resembled overdressed football players wearing hip-high, leather boots. The present-day smokejumper and yesterday’s parachutist have one common characteristic—the most important of all: GUTS.

Inferno Below

Parachuting itself goes far back into recorded history. Chinese acrobats used chute-like devices in the 1300s. The first man to jump from an airplane was Captain Albert Berry in 1912 at St. Louis. We all know what a science airborne troops have brought to chuting since the second World War.

Yet no daredevil who ever hit the silk has ever faced a greater danger than today’s smokejumper. Hook up with him in his plane while he’s on the job. Below him a strong wind is causing flames to spread rapidly, making it impossible for ground fighters to get to the vulnerable heart of the conflagration. Flames are rushing across the land at terrific speeds, gaining momentum with every passing second. Unless it’s checked by the smokejumper. . . .

The average chutist who steps out of a plane wonders, will his chute open? Will he break an arm? A leg? His neck? Will there be a hangup?

On top of these life or death questions, add another for the smokejumper:

“Will I be cooked like a goose?” A tap on the shoulder from the jumpmaster: “Go!”

And somewhere in the smoke-filled sky, the smokejumper asks himself: “Will I come out of this alive?”

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