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Smokejumper Survives When Both Chutes Fail

by Bob Garrard McCall (MYC 1949) |

One Saturday morning in the summer of 1950, at the Smokejumpers' camp at McCall,Idaho, Reid Jackson, my usual jumping partner, wanted to go to the Smokejumper camp in Idaho City, Idaho and contact a buddy there.

I had brought up my Taylorcraft airplane that summer to get some air time and have a little fun, so we agreed to fly down for the day. We had a great day with the guys at the camp and took off a little later than we had planned.

As we flew north, the sky darkened and was close to being very dark as we neared the town of Cascade, which is just about fifteen miles south of McCall. I told Reid I didn't relish the idea of landing in pitch black. Around the time we were approaching Cascade the moon went behind a cloud, leaving us in almost total darkness, and we had to make a landing at that little field, just clearing the telephone and power lines at the south end of the runway. We hardly felt the wheels touch the ground.

I said, "Hell, that was the best landing I ever made!"

Reid shot back with a grin, "The reason is,you couldn't see what you were doing".

We left the plane in Cascade and hitched a ride the short distance to the camp in McCall.

Sunday morning arrived and the jumper buddies were lounging around in the barracks after a Saturday night in McCall(oh, the memories of any night in McCall).

I said, "Hey! Will anyone give us a ride down to Cascade to get my plane?"

I think Scotty (Lavonne Scott) said, "Let's go down and free fall".

Wayne Webb mentioned that there were some spotter chutes in the loft that could be used , so Scotty,Reid and I got one. Kenny Roth was a jumper then and was a trained pilot so he volunteered to fly us for our free falls. (Kenny later became a member in the Flyer's Hall of Fame as a pilot with Johnson's Flying Service out of Missoula, Montana).

The entire camp, and a whole cadre of cars loaded with rowdy guys, left for the fifteen mile ride to Cascade. The head foreman,Lloyd Johnson, was not there Sunday, so we were off and running for an interesting day.

When we arrived, we drew straws to see what our jump turns would be . Scotty drew number one, Reid drew number two and I drew number three. Of course, there was a little competition as who could fall the longest.

Kenny took each of us up to around thirty two hundred feet. Scotty was first, did his fall and opened his chute. Unfortunately the wind was blowing quite hard, so although he was guiding it nicely, Scotty's chute oscillated him, swinging him like a pendulum so when he hit the ground, instead of landing him on his feet, his body slammed hard to the landing in front of the cheering crowd of smokejumpers, splitting his new pair of jeans. (I heard later that he went to the local Merc store where he had bought them and received a new pair after complaining that they were faulty).

Reid was next to fall and by then the wind was giving him fits as well, but he successfully guided his chute in. Fortunately, he was wearing a leather jacket, and it took the brunt of the heavy scraping during his landing.

The wind had increased even more and I was next to fall. Kenny got the Taylorcraft up to the altitude, gave me the signal and yelled, "Get the hell out of here". I reached out, grabbed the wing strut, then let go. Hup thousand,two thousand etc,.

I was determined to out fall the other two. I finally pulled my rip chord--what the--no opening shock. I quickly looked up. Some lines were over blown-out and ripped panels of the chute.I was falling fast.

"Bob, pull your emergency chute", I heard myself mumble.When I did, it tried to open,then proceeded to wrap around the main chute.

"This is it", I thought while trying to get the emergency chute to unravel and deploy properly, when wham, mush, gurgle! God, Savior of my life! I had plunged feet-first into the Cascade River and I thought, "Had my legs crumbled and why no pain?"

My landing was fortunately not in the center of the river, but in the muddy shallows of the edge. I was waist high in the water and my boots were in about two feet of mucked down mud. The guys raced across the airfield and appeared over a little hill; Wayne Webb was yelling, "Are you all right?" I was busy pulling the chutes in so they wouldn't be dragged down stream me attached to them. I don't recall who in addition to Webb sloshed in the water and mud to help me out and retrieve the chutes, but man was I happy to see them.

When we all got back to the camp, there had been a call for a fire jump, but no one was there or any where to be found. That could have been the end of our tenure as Smokejumpers with the Forest Service, but there were too many of us involved. They couldn't kick us all out.

The guys in the parachute loft later came to the conclusion that my chute's tensile strength was poor because it was an old spotter's chute that got by inspections.

To this day there has been no Smokejumper in the McCall camp who has lost both of his chutes and lived to tell about it.

What happened to;

Reid later became top foreman leading the McCall Smokejumpers and then was made Supervisor of the Teton National Forest in Wyoming for thirty years.

Scotty became the national CEO of the Albertson market chain during their huge expansion years.

Bob operated his insurance agency for thirty years, then established and operated Ocean House Bed and Breakfast on the Oregon coast for twenty years.

***All three are still around and had a wonderful timely visit at the 2007 National Smokejumper Reunion in Boise, Idaho.