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Last Year For DC-3

by Rob Chaney--Missoulian |

Just shy of her 70th birthday, Jump-15 can still spool up faster than the smokejumpers she carries.

The young men and women going to fight wildfires have 10 minutes to get dressed out, briefed and loaded.

The old DC-3 needed just eight minutes to rev her engines and quit the Earth on the first shakedown flight of 2015.

But to the dismay of many of her pilots and passengers, this will be Jump-15’s last firefighting season.

“It has been flying since my grandpa was in the Army Air Corps,” smokejumper Colby Jackson said as the big plane’s engines howled through a pre-season test run. “He always gets a kick seeing pictures of us with the DC-3. He was stationed with them in Africa, when they were C-47s.”

Jump-15 (its radio call sign) is the last DC-3 still hauling smokejumpers and backcountry cargo for the U.S. Forest Service. Pilots love her ability to land and launch from tiny forest airstrips, her muscle and endurance. Jumpers love her big exit door and reputation for reliability. With room for 16 parachute-strapped firefighters and all their gear, Jump-15 has twice the capacity of any other jump plane on the runway.

But it’s still an old plane.

Forest Service pilot Jeff Ebiner described flying Jump-15 as “like a pickup without power steering.” While a 1990 upgrade replaced most of the wiring, navigation and engine parts, the steering works by cable and pulley. British aviators sometimes joke the DC-3 is really “a collection of parts flying in loose formation.”

Those parts, or the lack of spares, are a big reason why the DC-3 is finally joining its World War II brethren in retirement. Museum of Mountain Flying director Stan Cohen said flocks of DC-3s continue to fly, but each one is essentially a malfunction away from becoming the supply cache for another.

“If the Forest Service was going to donate it, we would want to part it out and get the nose cone off it for our DC-3,” Cohen said. A crown jewel of the museum is the plane that delivered smokejumpers to the famous and tragic Mann Gulch fire of 1949 near Helena.

Somewhere in its history the Mann Gulch DC-3 was modified with a nose radar unit, and lost its classic eagle-beak profile.

“I really feel pretty lucky,” said Forest Service pilot Joe Sannella, who’s been flying Jump-15 since 1999. “This is the first plane they put me in. I had a lot of tail-wheel experience, so that helped.”