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8-Mile Ridge Crash

by Bill Eastman (North Cascades '54) |

Shortly after 6 p.m. on June 23, 1958, a twin-engine Beechcraft crashed into Eight Mile Ridge about 15 miles north of Winthrop, Wash., killing four. While dropping cargo at a low altitude, the plane went into the ridge at a steep angle, upside-down. Investigators for the Civil Aeronautics Administration could not find a satisfactory cause for the crash. In 1958, no one had ever hear of windshear.

Lightning had ignited a fire on the ridge, and the Beech dropped two smokejumpers at about 2 p.m. I was one of them. The wind along the ridge was very strange that day. Streamers indicated no more than a breeze, but when I went out, a strong wind took my chute at a 90 degree angle from the ridge and away from the fire. For the first and only time, I pulled down lines on one side until my canopy collapsed, then fell free for about 1,000 feet. When I released the lines, the canopy filled again and I landed only about three-quarters of a mile from the fire. It was a dangerous thing to do, but had I not done it, I would have landed across the valley. The second jumper landed near the spot with no problems.

The fire was unaffected by the wind at that time and looked easy. However, the breeze became stronger a few minutes later and shifted upslope. I radioed for two more jumpers who arrived around 3:30 p.m. But by that time it had become clear we needed all the help we could get, and I asked for just that.

The wind continued strong and variable. Nineteen rookies left Intercity Airport by truck for Eight Mile Ridge. By radio, I requested chain saws and a trail grader. At about 6 p.m., the Beech returned to drop the equipment. It made one pass, dropped some food and was circling to come in again. I was on the radio with the Sweetgrass Lookout who was watching the fire from the next ridge to the east. He said the plane had crashed about a mile south of the fire, and that we now had two fires. At about that time, the rookies arrived.

The pilot was Bob Cavanaugh who had been with the Forest Service for only a few weeks. He had dropped me twice previously, but I didn\'t know him. Bob Carlman, who was sitting in the copilot\'s seat, was a timber salesman for the Okanagan Forest. I knew him distantly as a happy, friendly man in his early twenties.

I did know and respect the other two men who died in the crash. Gus Hendrickson was a smokejumper foreman, extraordinarily responsible, capable, calm and sane. It was obvious that he was to be the operations chief after Francis Lufkin retired. Gus was 29, lived in Winthrop and left a widow but no children. Jerry Helmer was a smokejumper. He was 24, single and lived in Sweet Home, Ore. Jerry had been a paratrooper in Korea, saw the world from that point of view, but was always light and playful. He would unexpectedly say such things as \"Don\'t bunch up! One grenade could kill you all!\" During the previous season, he had broken his leg, but the next day he was working on a sewing machine in the loft and didn\'t miss a day of work.