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Fire and Ice: U.S. Jumpers Tour Russian Bases, Warm to Russian Hospitality

by Bruce Ford (MSO-75) |

In 1984, Bruce Ford (MSO-75) and Wayne Williams (MSO-77) embarked on a winter trip to what was then the Soviet Union. They tried to contact the Russian smokejumpers while in Moscow, but they had little luck. As tourists off the street, they were allowed little access due to the Cold War atmosphere of the time. In 1990, a Soviet delegation from Avialesookhrana, (Aerial Fire Protection Service, or AFPS hereafter) came through Missoula, and Bruce, who was jumping there at the time, tagged along as a translator. In 1991, he traveled on his own to Russia and got to know people in the fire organization. After transferring to Fairbanks in 1992, he started working regularly with BLM and Forest Service exchange programs, and he's traveled to Russia several more times since then on both official and personal visits. In January 2005, Bruce and Bob Schober (MSO-95) returned to Russia and spent a month visiting jump bases. This is Bruce's account.

Queuing up to the door of an airplane is all in a day's work for a smokejumper. But it's January and minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside. The jumpers in front of you are 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls, many on their first jump. The 17-year-olds already have several jumps under their belts and sit nonchalantly waiting their turns. That's because this is Russia, and being tough is all part of growing up. With a throaty roar, our bi-wing recip AN-2 (nicknamed "Annushka") had seemed to levitate in an instant to 3,500 feet. A vast white sea of fields and forest stretched to the flat Siberian horizons, hummocky bogs sleeping frozen under a snowy mantle.

Bob Schober and I are here as guests of Vadim Seryoshkin, head smokejumper at the Tyumen base, just east of the Ural mountains in Siberia. We are midway through a month-long whirlwind tour of jump bases from the Finnish border to the Sea of Japan, visiting old friends and making many new ones. Vadim had come to Boise in 2002 with a group of Russian jumpers to observe BLM rookie training. We had also met and worked together several times in Russia, and I had for too long neglected his standing invitation to visit the Tyumen region.

Vadim—tall, courtly, and silver-haired—is a former Special Forces jumper who recently compiled a smokejumper-training manual for AFPS. He has been a smokejumper since 1972 and worked in Mongolia for three years in the early 80s, helping establish a smokejumping program there. At gatherings of Russia's head jumpers, he is one of the "mammoths," as old salts are termed, and a calm, gently humorous, ameliorating presence in the often heated discussions among these notoriously strong personalities.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, severely limited budgets have forced AFPS to creative extremes in financing jumper training and operations. Refresher jumping and rookie training are often done in conjunction with local skydiving and sport-flying clubs. Cost-sharing is beneficial for all parties. In Soviet times, these aviation clubs were ubiquitous, and kids barely hit their teens before they were up parachuting and learning to fly small acrobatic planes like the Yak-52. It was to just such a reconstituted club that Vadim took us on this bright, frigid January day.

He had offered us a chance to jump the new smokejumper canopy, the Forester-3. It is a piggyback ram-air canopy, drogue-deployed, with the main canopy on top. The reserve canopy is identical to the main. Bob and I underwent the mandatory medical exam; a licensed nurse had to approve us for jumping by taking our pulses and blood pressures. We had loaded Bob up in a Yak-52 to go up and do some loops and rolls, when someone came running out and said that anyone who wanted to jump should get chuted up. That's how I wound up on a load where everyone seemed to be older than 50 or younger than 20. I guess everyone in between is too busy working for a living. Jumping in the cold is not so bad; as with most jumps, you are so occupied you forget the freeze until you make it to the ground. I just enjoyed the quiet at a couple thousand feet above a fairytale land sculpted from ice.

A Visit To Pushkino

We had arrived in Moscow in mid-January and gone directly to Pushkino, where the central base of AFPS is located. Roughly Russia's equivalent of NIFC for aerial fire attack, it's the coordinating center for the 24 regional bases located across the country. The system currently employs about 1,500 smokejumpers and 2,500 rappellers (all jumpers are also cross-trained to rappel). In recent years, they have begun to acquire their own aircraft and as of 2003 had 102 fixed-wing craft and helicopters. Because of a recent government reorganization, AFPS works under the Ministry of Natural Resources and coordinates closely with managers and ground firefighting forces of the various federal forests spread across Russia's vast taiga. Of Russia's nearly 3 billion acres of forested land, only 1.8 billion are protected from fire; a large portion of that is accessible only by air.

AFPS has participated in technical exchanges with many countries, including the U.S. In 1976, Bill Moody (NCSB-57) and other fire managers went to the Soviet Union and in turn hosted Soviet fire managers in the U.S. the following year. This initial exchange bore fruit in the form of several technical innovations on both sides. In 1990, Dick Stauber, the Forest Service rep at BIFC, initiated a new round of exchanges, which soon became centered in the Forest Service's Region 4. Throughout the 90s, jumpers from McCall went to Russia, and Russian jumpers and other fire people came to McCall and the Salmon-Challis National Forest, and served with the Logan and Boise hotshot crews. In 1997 and 1998 there were all-Russian hotshot crews (with some U.S. overhead) working out of Moyer helibase on the Salmon-Challis. Fire managers from both sides participated in the exchanges. BLM Alaska exchanged official delegations in 1992-3, and the first Russian jumpers came to work in Alaska in 1994. Later in the 90s, the exchange became BLM-wide, and several groups came to work out of Boise.

Eduard Davidenko and Andrey Eritsov, central figures with the international exchange and technology-development programs, met us in Pushkino. They have both been to the U.S. and other countries numerous times. Eduard was part of the delegation that hosted Bill Moody in 1976. He also worked in Cuba and Mongolia for extended periods, helping establish fire-protection programs. Andrey has jumped fires in Alaska and the Great Basin and worked on hotshot crews in the U.S. He recently returned from Iran and when we saw him was getting ready for a two-month detail in Europe.

Pushkino is a suburb about 30 miles northeast of Moscow's center, positioned at the abrupt edge between city and country. A short walk from the central base takes one to tall pine forest and agricultural fields. There is a forestry institute in town, surrounded by vast parks of pine, larch, and birch. AFPS's three-story, medium-size building houses a lean-and-mean organization where everyone knows everyone else. They keep close contact with all the far-flung bases under their purview—no easy task; when they come to work in the morning, folks nine time zones away at the base in Chukotka, against the Bering Strait, are getting ready to leave for the day.

With only month-long visas, Bob and I knew we couldn't dilly-dally if we were to get all the way to Vladivostok and back. After a brief tour around Moscow, we decided to head by train to St. Petersburg and to the Northwest base in Petrozavodsk. A night train got us to St. Petersburg, where we were met by Valeriy Belov, a researcher at a local forestry institute whom I had met in Missoula in 1990. He put us up in an apartment at the institute and introduced us to E. S. Artsybashev, a well-known fire researcher. I'd used Artsybashev's book on fire behavior and control as the initial source for a list of Russian fire terms I'd been compiling for several years. He is currently trying to push an extensive program of prescribed fire in Russia.

On To Petrozavodsk

We spent two days in St. Petersburg, known as the "Venice of the North." It is a city of palaces, ornate cathedrals, and bridges spanning the numerous branches of the Neva River delta as it flows into the Baltic Sea. One would need months to see a fraction of it. Another night train got us to Petrozavodsk, where we were met by Dimitry (Dima) Kulakov and Valeriy Korotkov. Dima came to Boise to observe rookie training in 2002 and wrote a report that was praised as the best anyone had brought back from the U.S. Valeriy worked with the Redmond Hotshots in 1994 and Elko Helitack in 1999. He was once the head jumper here, but he now devotes nearly all his time to his passion: photography, both still and video. Nearly all AFPS publications and yearly calendars are graced with his photos, and he has filmed many jump videos with a helmet-cam.

The Petrozavodsk base is one of the regional aviation centers for AFPS fleet aircraft, which include AN-2, AN-24, AN26, and MI-8 helicopters. Their fire protection extends all the way to the Murmansk region, far above the Arctic Circle at the border of Norway. The southern region along the Finnish border is known as Karelia, a land dotted with innumerable lakes that constitutes their principle jump country. Petrozavodsk itself lies on the shore of Lake Onego, the second-largest freshwater lake in Europe. Only Lake Ladoga, near St. Petersburg, is larger. In summer all manner of biting insects swarm, but when we were there the lake was a vast, frozen plain, the forest accessible only by skis or snow machine.

The base headquarters itself is a three-story building on the outskirts of town. As with most bases, the principle departments are administration, finance, aviation, dispatch, and logistics. Several people hired exclusively as drivers are associated with the motor pool. The base manager and main administrators generally come from the ranks of pilot-observers, a sort of flying FMO. Alexei Schedrin, the assistant base manager, gave us a tour. Alexei speaks excellent English and worked in the U.S. in 1998 on an all-Russian hotshot crew, spending nearly a month on Florida wildfires. Members of the jumper/rappeller cadre have their own offices and areas for equipment storage and maintenance. Among these is a little workroom for maintenance and repair of automatic activation devices, or parachute AADs. At many bases, the "priborshchick" who does this is often an old jumper in the twilight of his career, and his workroom seems to attract those seeking to get away from the hubbub. Cozy and cluttered, walls festooned with racy calendars and 30 years of photos, it's where you go to have a leisurely lunch and BS with friends.

Important Decisions Should Be Made Twice

A word about vodka, the Russian lubricant of friendship. It is de rigueur at meeting and parting and is accompanied by a plethora of traditions that make its consumption a rather humane and civilized affair. You drink toasts with friends, not alone, and must eat something after each shot, preferably sitting around a table loaded with ample food. As it generally goes, the first toast is to friendship, success, etc.; the second follows so quickly that "a bullet can't pass" between the first and second. If women are present, the third is to women, and the men may drink standing. If it's a guy gathering, the third is to fallen comrades, drunk in silence with no clinking. The fourth is to the hope that no one will have to drink the third toast to any of us. And so on. The last is "na poshoshok," or a "walking stick" for the road. As Bob and I were continually arriving and leaving over the course of a month...well. Some ancient sages held that all-important decisions should be made twice—first soberly and again while drunk. Only thus could weighty matters be considered in all aspects. Many Russians would certainly concur: weigh it once with the head and once with the heart.

Meeting The Rookies

Returning to Moscow, we headed directly to Vladimir, 100 miles or so to the east, to observe jump training for rookie pilot-observers. These kids either had graduated or would soon graduate from forestry institutes. New recruits are given a six-to-eight-month course at Pushkino in fire behavior and suppression, flight navigation, and other procedures of aerial fire detection and suppression. They are also trained as spotters for smokejumpers and rappellers, as this is another of their routine duties. Each rookie pilot-observer must also complete five helicopter rappels and two parachute jumps. Though operational jumps and rappels will not necessarily be part of their further duties, this gives them some empathy for the firefighters they will be working with.

When we arrived at the airport in Vladimir, the 20 rookies were packing their chutes for the first jump the following day. They had spent the previous week learning to pack the round PTL, a pilot's emergency chute now also used for training rookie smokejumpers. It is packed in a sleeve and is equipped, like all smokejumper chutes, with an automatic activation device set to open the main after four to five seconds, falling under a drogue chute. Of course, you are supposed to deploy the main yourself before the AAD pops. A fresh-faced crowd of early-twenty-somethings, the rookies were supervised by several experienced smokejumper squadleaders and a couple of their own number who had previously worked as smokejumpers. One of these, Volodya, had jumped for five years in the Vladivostok region and was moving into the pilot-observer ranks for enhanced career opportunities. A gruff and quietly efficient guy, Volodya was disgruntled that he was not getting any jumps out of this, as he was considered already experienced enough. Relegation to packing instructor was already giving him second thoughts about his career path. It put me in mind of Richard Widmark in Red Skies of Montana.

Anatoly Perminov, who had come on a jumper exchange to Boise and Alaska in 1999, oversaw the whole chute- and rappel-training operation. A former pilot-observer himself, as well as a sport-jumper, he now is the lead smokejumper for AFPS. His ready laugh and easy-going manner belie a predilection for strict discipline and meticulous attention to detail. As the rookies finished packing their chutes, he would call them in for oral exams on parachuting fundamentals.

The following morning, we piled into a sawed-off bus stacked high with parachute bags, rookies, and jump-spot equipment and set off for a large field several miles from town. The wind was chill and brisk, lingering at the edge of the five-meters-per-second maximum speed allowable for a first rookie jump. Soon after we arrived and began setting up a windsock and radio equipment, an AN-2 with the first load of rookies droned into sight and circled, throwing two sets of streamers that drifted into a little village beyond the edge of the field. After a few more circles, the plane descended and landed on skis in the broad, snow-covered field. It roared up to us in a blizzard of whirling snow and stopped. The spotter and first load piled out to consult on the wind speed. We had been getting gusts on the ground of up to eight or nine meters per second, so Anatoly elected to wait a bit to see if the wind quieted. As we stood, stamping our thick fur boots on the snow, a horse-drawn sleigh pulled up along the road, presenting an anachronistic contrast to the waiting airplane and bus. From the smell, I guessed it was hauling manure.

A Storied City

In an hour or so, the plane and first load took off to throw some more streamers. These also wound up on the villagers' roofs, and Anatoly decided to scrap the jump for the day. This unexpected free time gave us an opportunity to see something of Vladimir, a city founded just over 1,000 years ago and one of the "golden ring" of ancient cities around Moscow famous for their domed churches and monasteries. Designed as a fortress, it was built on a high bluff above the confluence of two rivers. Batu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, came here with a Mongol army in 1237 to reconnoiter. He returned in February 1238 when the frozen swamps and rivers allowed better maneuvering and besieged, stormed, and burned much of the town. Some of the city gates and churches predate even the Mongol depredations. The Assumption Cathedral, finished in 1160, perches at the highest point of the escarpment, and its golden domes are visible for miles about. When Vladimir was Russia's principal city in the 13th and 14th centuries, her tsars were crowned in its nave. Anatoly and Pavel Arsyonov, the local head jumper, showed us a square in front of the cathedral where they once did an exhibition jump. The wind was stiff and the spot tight, but no one hung up on the domes and spires.


The next day, we returned to the jump spot and set up our equipment. Besides a tall windsock and an "X" target panel, there was a loudspeaker system and several sets of portable radios. Each jumper would wear a leather helmet with earphones hooked to a radio. Pavel, the head instructor on the spot, could talk them in by radio or, failing that, chew them out by loudspeaker. Jumping in snow-covered fields, Russian jumpers often eschew jumpsuits for heavy coats, gloves, and fur boots.

Anatoly deemed the winds acceptable. The AN-2 skied off in a billowing white cloud, climbed to 1,000 meters, and threw streamers. The village was spared falling paper today, and soon the first chute bloomed out. This was Vasya, the biggest guy in the group and the "wind dummy." (The Russian slang for first guy out is "na myaso," or "meat.") He landed a couple hundred yards away to great cheers from his colleagues. With good reason, trainers the world over choose huge fields for initial jumps. Despite Pavel's best efforts at steering them, some got beyond his control through muffled radios or pulled wires, and some were probably too far away even to hear the loudspeaker. But they all remembered to land into the wind and came trudging back through the snow in one piece, grinning triumphantly. The lone female rookie, Elvira, showed up her peers by coming closest of all to the target panel. There were insufficient chutes for all three loads, so repacking commenced immediately on green canvas panels stretched out on the snow. Packing your chute in temperatures hovering barely above zero is not a task for the faint of heart, but then again, this is Russia, and adversity is a thing to revel in.

The bus ride back would have been familiar to anyone who has made or witnessed a first jump: laughing, backslapping, and recounting that one jump story over and over.

From Vladimir, we rode the train to Tyumen and after three or four days with Vadim headed on to Krasnoyarsk, in the heart of Siberia and also part of Russia's most active fire region. There we met Yuri Yushkov, one of Russia's true veteran smokejumpers; he was a paratrooper in World War Two, and he jumped several times behind German lines. He started smokejumping in Novosibirsk in the early 50s, when they would still climb out on the wing of a two-seater PO-2 to jump. We also encountered the most frigid temperatures yet: minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, it was nothing like bygone days, say the old-timers; Siberia has been getting warmer lately. The Krasnoyarsk base had just acquired 60 brand-new Forester-3 chutes, and the jumpers were busily packing them for making the mandatory three wringing-out jumps on each canopy.

Time was catching up with us, and in order to make it to Vladivostok, we opted to forsake the trans-Siberian and flew directly there.

On The Edge Of The World In Vladivostok

Giorgy (Gosha) Kuzminikh, our host in Vladivostok, is something of a legend among his fellow head jumpers across Russia. He is a man who pushes the limits of the Russian language, spinning and twisting it into startlingly new and incredibly funny forms. Gosha is a wordsmith, and he draws on a deep fund of literature, history, and myth. As a non-native speaker, I can understand only a fraction of his metaphorical output. He also has several thousand jumps and is one of the most experienced parachutists in the system. We jumped a string of fires together in the Great Basin in 1998, and I had the opportunity to see the bright light of Gosha's wit illuminating some of the absurdities of our own culture and fire scene.

Vladivostok is the San Francisco of Russia: all hills and bays. It is headquarters for the Russian navy's Pacific fleet. Japan lies just across the sea, over which comes a flood of used cars, all with right-side steering wheels. They find their way from Japan into Siberia, even into European Russia, and Gosha is a point-man for many jumpers looking to buy good cars at reasonable prices.

Gosha also has a host of buddies in sport and military jumping. One of these is Andrei, who works as a para-rescue technician at the airport and had access to an MI-2 helicopter we could use to jump. Gosha just happened to have two Forester-3 chutes available and set us to packing them for use the following day. We stretched them out on tumbling mats in the base's gym, and Gosha walked us through the packing procedures. Like virtually all non-sport rigs in Russia, it is deployed by a static-lined drogue and equipped with an AAD.

Gosha and his wife, Natasha, rousted us out of our beds at 6:30 in the morning and poured tea down us. On her way to work, Natasha dropped us off at the base, where we met Andrei, loaded our gear, and set out in his van to where we could meet the helicopter in a field. Andrei told us of his work as we drove. He has around 3,500 jumps, and like virtually all men in Russia, served in the military. As a para-rescue technician, he deals mostly with incidents on the water—boats capsized in storms and the like. Autumn through spring, many people get into trouble on the ice, falling through or getting stuck on floes.

Vladivostok sits on a peninsula between two bays, virtually surrounded by water. Rounding the head of the eastern bay, we passed through the town of Arseniev, named for the military explorer who 100 years ago or so mapped the Ussuri River region to the north. He had as a guide a phenomenally woods-savvy native hunter named Dersu. Arseniev's account of his travels and adventures with Dersu became a classic, and Dersu came to be considered the archetype of man living in tune with nature. Kurosawa, the great Japanese director, made a magnificent film from the story called Dersu Uzala. In book-on-tape form, Arseniev's tale was immensely popular one winter in the sewing room in Missoula, helping keep me and several others sane while manufacturing endless PG bags.

Gravity Did Her Usual Job

Winding through woods that were just beginning to catch the first breath of spring, we finally came to where the helicopter awaited us in a snowy field. A crowd of kids, mysteriously out of school in the middle of the day, had gathered around. We chuted up and got our checks, and Gosha gave us a quick exit lesson at the helicopter. Russian smokejumpers exit skydiver-style, diving out headfirst and arching to stabilize. The cabin we piled into was surprisingly roomy for a little ship, stripped of all accoutrements but a static line cable.

As with the AN-2, this machine seemed to attain altitude instantly. Andrei threw a set of streamers. He was filming it all with a helmet cam, and we all mugged for the camera, making a brave show of not freezing our butts off. One pass at a stately 60 to 70 knots, and out we all went. Andrei zipped in and about, filming us. I had jumped a Forester-3 chute about three years earlier at a winter overhead refresher in Siberia, but this was a totally different beast. Since then, they had added an extra cascade to each steering line and straightened the canopy's trailing edge. Accustomed to our rather doggy smokejumper canopies, I could actually scare myself with this one. It had a lot of zip, and a pronounced flare for landing. Gravity did her usual job, and we arrived at terra firma with thoroughly frozen fingers but otherwise intact and happy. It was the first helicopter jump for both Bob and me.

All this required celebration, so we found a store and acquired a very large bottle of vodka, which we toted along to a little roadside eatery. As it was Bob's first jump in Russia, our hosts plunked a jump pin in his shot glass. His task was to catch it in his teeth while downing the shot, avoiding swallowing the thing. To hurrahs all around, he succeeded wonderfully.

This effectively capped our trip, and it was time to start on the reverse journey. A month sprouts wings when one is in good company, and that of Russian jumpers is without peer. This space allows for only a taste of this vast land and of the generous, hospitable people who live there. It has been a delight for many of us who have taken part in these exchanges to discover a parallel universe, a smokejumper family on the other side of the globe, different and yet so very like us.